A federal district judge dismissed a lawsuit on Aug. 19 against protests that frequently occur in front of Beth Israel Synagogue in Ann Arbor, Mich., every Saturday morning during Shabbat services.
The lawsuit, which was filed in December by a Beth Israel congregant, alleged that the protests — which first began in 2003 — feature some “flagrantly anti-Semitic” signs and protesters who harass and insult congregants. The lawsuit argued that the protests impeded congregants’ right to exercise their freedom of religion. Some of the signs at these protests stated, “Resist Jewish Power” and “Jewish Power Corrupts,” according to The Algemeiner. Other signs protest Israel’s “military occupation of Palestinian lands” and contain calls to “Boycott Israel” and “Stop U.S. Aid to Israel.”
U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts didn’t buy the plaintiffs’ argument, stating that the lawsuit failed to prove that the protesters inflicted a concrete injury upon the congregants. She noted that the protesters haven’t taken any action to prevent congregants from entering Beth Israel Synagogue.
“The First Amendment more than protects the expressions by Defendants of what Plaintiffs describe as ‘anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic,’ ” Roberts wrote in her motion dismissing the lawsuit. “Peaceful protest speech such as this — on sidewalks and streets — is entitled to the highest level of constitutional protection, even if it disturbs, is offensive and causes emotional distress.”
Henry Herskovitz, who first organized the protests in 2003, praised Roberts for dismissing the lawsuit.
“It’s clear Jewish power still exists, it’s still strong,” Herskovitz told The Detroit Jewish News, adding that “the judge ruled that the First Amendment is strong and what we do is free speech.”
Marc Susselman, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told The Detroit Jewish News that the dismissal “was a technical ruling on the matter of whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue. The plaintiffs clearly have standing based on the emotional distress caused by the presence of antisemitic signs outside their place of worship.”
Ziporah Reich, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and director of litigation for The Lawfare Project, told The Detroit News that the plaintiffs plan to file a motion for reconsideration.
“The court is effectively saying that the emotional distress experienced by Jews in reaction to the anti-Semitic slurs hurled at them every week for 16 years in front of their house of worship, is insufficient injury to grant them access to federal court,” Reich argued.
If the motion for reconsideration is denied, then the plaintiffs will appeal the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to The Detroit Jewish News.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center tweeted, “More empowerment for anti-Semites in US attacking Jews at their communal houses of prayer. Outrageous and dangerous!”
More empowerment for anti-Semites in US attacking Jews at their communal houses of prayer. Outrageous and dangerous! https://t.co/9HeeT0quYH
— SimonWiesenthalCntr (@simonwiesenthal) August 21, 2020
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Herskovitz, who says he’s a former Jew and former Beth Israel congregant, started the protests in 2003 after he claimed that synagogues in the Ann Arbor area wouldn’t let him speak about his visit to the Middle East. He formed a group called Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, which is now called Witness for Peace. The group issued a statement that year that read, “Beth Israel is a political institution as well as a house of worship, using its faith to promote a nationalist agenda. support [sic] of the State of Israel, and by extension, its actions: specifically, Israels [sic] brutal and illegal military occupation of Palestinian lands and the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
Additionally, in 2018, Herskovitz wrote in a blog that Beth Israel helped establish “the racism that drives the Jewish state,” according to the ADL. The ADL report also stated that only a handful of people show up to Herskovitz’s weekly protests.
The lawsuit against the Herskovitz-led protests alleged that the protests violated the city’s codes; city officials have said that they wish the protests would stop but the city can’t do anything about it because the protests are protected speech. Herskovitz has said he would stop his protests if Beth Israel takes down “the Israeli flag inside its sanctuary and go on record promoting full equal rights for Palestinians in the state of Israel,” The Ann Arbor News reported in 2013.
Herskovitz also has argued that signs protesting “Jewish power” aren’t anti-Semitic, stating during a December protest that the signs don’t “talk about Jews as a people, as a group, as an ethnicity.” Additionally, he told The Detroit Jewish News in April that he and Witness for Peace “love our country and we love the Palestinians. We hate what Jews are doing in the Jewish state … but we don’t hate [Jews].”
However, Beth Israel Rabbi Nadav Caine told The Detroit Jewish News that the Herskovitz-led protests are anti-Semitic because the protests are “really about the ‘fact’ that Israel and the Jews control the world and it’s all those anti-Semitic tropes about [how] we control the banking, we control the American government, control the military.”