Every Saturday morning since September 2003, members of Witnesses For Peace — an anti-Israel protest group — have stood outside the Beth Israel Congregation on Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor. Members of the group hold signs reading “Resist Jewish Power,” “Jewish Power Corrupts,” “Boycott Israel,” “Stop U.S. Aid to Israel” and “End the Palestinian holocaust.” Their demonstrations last from about 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., taking place during Shabbat services.
After 16 years and more than 800 protests, a Beth Israel Congregation member, Marvin Gerber, motioned to sue the group on Dec. 19, 2019, claiming Witnesses For Peace have demonstrated anti-Semitic rhetoric. The lawsuit also claims the city of Ann Arbor has not taken the appropriate action to put an end to the demonstrations.
According to the litigation, the protests defy Ann Arbor regulations on public gatherings and stretch the legal limits on a person’s right to free speech. Gerber requested the city either eliminate the protest altogether or install certain restrictions. The plaintiff is also seeking financial retribution due to the protester’s constant “harassment.”
“The First Amendment right of free speech does not entitle a speaker to use that right repeatedly to bludgeon, for weeks and years at a time, in the same location,” the lawsuit reads. “The First Amendment … is subject to appropriate limitations on its continued and repeated usage.”
Defendants named in the lawsuit include Henry Herskovitz, Gloria Harb, Tom Saffold, Rudy List and Chris Mark. The lawsuit also lists the groups Deir Yassin Remembered and Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends — both led by Herskovitz, a former member of the congregation — as defendants.
The Southern Poverty Law Center placed Deir Yassin Remembered on a list of hate groups in 2017 due to their support of Holocaust deniers Michael Hoffman, Eric Hunt, Germar Rudolf and the late Bradley Smith. Board members have also questioned historically accurate facts about the Holocaust.
In an August interview with The Daily, Herskovitz criticized the SPLC and said he believes hate is a name-calling mechanism.
“They’re an amazing business because all they do is sell fear,” Herskovitz said. “As it turns out we were placed on the hate group due to one person, and that was with my membership to Deir Yassin Remembered, which isn’t the vigil group. But when you’re sliming people you don’t care about the details or the facts.”
Deir Yassin Remembered previously campaigned for the release of Ernst Zundel, a German neo-Nazi who was imprisoned for inciting race hatred. In 2006, Herskovitz and Daniel McGowan, the former executive director of Deir Yassin Remembered, visited Zundel in Mannheim Prison in Germany. Herskovitz told The Daily that he wished to meet with Zundel in order to “confront the issue.”
“Every time I hear that someone is an anti-Semite, I want to go meet that person,” Herskovitz said. “If you put ‘Holocaust deniers’ in quotes, I’ve met more Holocaust deniers than you can name because I want to go to people. I want to see what they’re really about … I am concerned about Jews, and I am very concerned about how their history is going to be finally written.”
Herskovitz’s group is not the only one critical of Israel. Blaine Coleman participates regularly in pro-Palestine demonstrations at city council meetings. He said those protests are generally against the military aid of Israel.
“You’ve got a racist, violent government in Israel that has just shot down dozens of unarmed human rights protesters in Gaza,” Coleman said. “Israel is about killing Palestinians and taking their land. I don’t think it’s about religion.”
In addition to Herskovitz and the other protesters, the lawsuit lists Mayor Christopher Taylor, City Attorney Stephen Postema, Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristen Larcom and Community Services Administrator Derek Delacourt as defendants, claiming the city has not required the group to obtain a permit to continue their demonstrations.
The litigation also alleges that by allowing the protests to continue without restrictions, the city infringes upon the congregation member’s First Amendment rights, as they are unable to practice their freedom of religion without being “harassed” by demonstrators.
Taylor told The Daily he has not yet read the complaint or received communications regarding the lawsuit from city lawyers. He said the city has done everything possible to ensure constitutional rights are protected.
“The city honors the constitutional rights of everyone, no matter what your political views,” Taylor said. “In my opinion, the protests in front of the synagogue are entirely inappropriate and disgraceful. The city respects the constitutional rights of the people to express themselves and we act accordingly.”
The protests are not only harmful and irrational, Taylor said, but are inconsistent with Ann Arbor’s community values.
Robert Blumenthal, Beth Israel Congregation board president, gave The Daily a statement on behalf of the synagogue.
“While Beth Israel Congregation is in no way associated with this lawsuit, the activity outside of our house of worship every week continues to be offensive and reprehensible, and includes anti-Semitic hate speech,” the statement reads.
Rabbi Nadav Caine, from the Beth Israel Synagogue, told The Daily he and members of the congregation are often distressed about the protest. Caine said it is disconcerting that a city such as Ann Arbor would allow these demonstrations to continue for so long.
However, Caine said Beth Israel Congregation has a very positive relationship with Taylor, the Ann Arbor City Council and the city attorney. However, he still questions if more can be done to limit the volume of the protests, which he called hate speech.
“I value the First Amendment. I value my relationships with the City, but I sometimes wonder if this were happening to an African American church or to the mosque, whether it wouldn’t be more of a topic of conversation,” Caine said. “When it comes to the City Council and local ordinances, that’s really what it comes down to.”
Caine also said the synagogue has chosen to not participate in the lawsuit but could not comment as to why.
Congregation members at Beth Israel often try to ignore the protesters and signs, Blumenthal said, though the members often find them very upsetting. He said many members of the congregation feel the city could do more, but they understand there are some limitations.
Blumenthal said said the city has responded to the protesters when contacted by Beth Israel Congregation in the past. Previously, the protesters had blocked the driveway into the synagogue, Blumenthal explained, which restricted congregation members from entering the parking lot.
Blumenthal said the police came after the city was notified and drew lines to prevent the protesters from surrounding the parking lot.
“We (Beth Israel Congregation) are fairly resilient as a group, we’ve had to be over history,” Blumenthal said. “Some of us have young children there, and (the protest) has been going on 16 years … it’s been every week with sometimes very hateful signs.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Blaine Coleman as a member of Witnesses for Peace. He is not. A quote said by Coleman was also wrongfully attributed to Henry Herskovitz. This article has been updated to correct the errors.