A Big Win for Freedom to Protest 

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 56-57

Waging Peace

For 16 years, Henry Herskovitz, a member of the Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, led silent vigils on Saturday mornings in front of the Beth Israel Synagogue, in Michigan, where he once was a congregant. Protesters held signs criticizing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and U.S. financial and military support for Israel. Marvin Gerber, a long-time member of the Beth Israel, said the protests caused him emotional distress and infringed on his rights. Gerber filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Dec. 20, 2019, seeking monetary damages and attempting to limit freedom of speech inside and outside Ann Arbor religious establishments.

On Aug. 19, Federal Judge Victoria Roberts dismissed Gerber’s suit. The Michigan judge ruled the Constitution does not tolerate such restraint on protesters engaging in peaceful political speech in public areas.

Herskovitz described the motivation behind the protests: “Our peaceful vigils began in 2003 after some peace activists traveled to Palestine under the auspices of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. I felt the report I generated needed to be heard and viewed by Ann Arbor’s Jewish community. None of the three local rabbis granted me access to their membership to hear my experiences and view the photos I had prepared.

“So taking a page from the New Testament, we started holding vigils prior to Sabbath services at Beth Israel Congregation. Our target audience then was the Jewish community, in hopes they would see the actions of the Jewish state were harmful to Palestinians.

“We were and remain a pro-Palestine outfit. When we realized the zero-sum nature of the conflict (each home destroyed by Zionists produced a loss to Palestinians and a gain by Israeli Jews), we became ‘anti-Israel,’ a necessary decision: Imagine Ann Arbor’s most famous football game...the Wolverines win ONLY if the Buckeyes lose. Same thing in Palestine: one cannot remain neutral on a moving train—sides needed to be taken and we took ours.” 

“In December 2019,” Herskovitz continued, “a Canton, Michigan lawyer sought out members of Beth Israel to act as plaintiffs in a 95-page complaint against our group, Witness for Peace. The suit identified two groups of defendants: We ‘Protester Defendants’ and the ‘City Defendants,’” including the mayor and city attorney who permitted the vigils.

Judge Roberts’ decision effectively ruled “that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment held sway, and that Witness for Peace committed no crime.”

—Delinda C. Hanley

 

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1983, Lebanon, U.S. Embassy bombed, 63 killed. Months later, Marine Barracks bombed, 241 killed.

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