When Henry Herskovitz was prohibited from giving a talk to his synagogue about his trip to the Palestinian Territories, he began a weekly vigil that has lasted 16 years. Meanwhile, the synagogue hosts Israeli soldiers and takes children on propaganda trips to Israel… Now Herskovitz is being sued, and the SPLC accuses him of ‘Holocaust denial’…
A Michigan synagogue member has filed a federal lawsuit against “Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends,” a small human rights group that has been holding a pro-Palestinian vigil outside a synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, every week for 16 years.
This is the longest street demonstration in Ann Arbor history, home of the University of Michigan, once known for its political activism.
The vigils are led by Henry Herskovitz, who began the vigils after traveling to the Palestinian Occupied Territories in 2002. Upon his return he tried to give a presentation about his trip to the synagogue he attended, Beth Israel Congregation, but was prohibited from doing this.
Herskovitz reports that Beth Israel features an Israeli flag in its sanctuary, the congregation recites a prayer for the state of Israel every week, and many congregants wave Israeli flags as they drive into the parking lot. According to Herskovitz, the rabbi takes synagogue children on junkets to Israel, poses them with armed soldiers, and indoctrinates them with an “us versus them” mentality.
While Beth Israel has featured talks by Israeli soldiers, it would not allow Herskovitz to give a talk describing his trip, in which he witnessed Israeli oppression of Palestinians first hand.
Israel has a long record of human rights violations documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, diverse Israeli organizations, Christian Aid, and many others. A recent report found that Israeli forces had shot out eyes of 50 men, women, and children taking part in unarmed Gaza demonstrations over the past year and a half. The US, largely as a result of the pro-Israel lobby, gives Israel over $10 million per day.
Eventually, barred from speaking inside the temple, Herskovitz decided to hold a vigil outside. He has been joined in his vigil every Saturday morning since by a fluctuating group of diverse human rights defenders, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Group members, ranging from about five to twelve individuals, place signs and posters on the grass section adjacent to the sidewalk in front of and across the street from the synagogue. The participants are peaceful and do not obstruct people from entering the synagogue. It appears that many, perhaps most of the participants are over 70.
Beth Israel has tried to convince the Ann Arbor city government and police to prohibit the vigil, but city officials refused to stop it on the grounds that vigils are protected by the First Amendment. City officials did, however, issue statements condemning the vigils. It does not appear that they issued any statements condemning Israel’s use of US money to commit massacres in Gaza.
The 85-page lawsuit was filed by Beth Israel member Marvin Gerber, who is seeking an injunction to stop the protesters or to restrict their actions. He is also seeking punitive and compensatory damages for the “emotional distress” he says the vigils have caused him. He is demanding a jury trial.
The lawsuit names 12 defendants: Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, five vigil participants, the City of Ann Arbor, four city officials including the mayor, and the organization Deir Yassin Remembered – Herskovitz had been on the DYR board of advisors and had posted his vigil reports on its blog. Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village massacred by Zionist forces in 1948 during Israel’s founding war.
A Michigan news website, M Live, reports: “Gerber is a longtime synagogue member and the messages offend and anger him, cause extreme emotional distress, significantly diminish his enjoyment in attending sabbath services and adversely affect his willingness to attend.”
Herskovitz replies that he would “compare Gerber’s ‘alleged suffering’ with ‘the actual suffering’ of Palestinians gunned down by the Israeli military for protesting.”
Israeli forces have killed almost 10,000 Palestinian men, women, and children since 2000, while Palestinian resistance groups have killed approximately 1,200 Israelis (more info here). Palestinians in Gaza began a weekly protest in March of 2018, and Israeli soldiers have shot numerous participants, including journalists, medics, and children.
The Associated Press reports that the suit “likely faces major hurdles. Federal courts have typically extended First Amendment protections widely, including to the most provocative and offensive speech. It’s among the legal issues where there is significant consensus among judges with otherwise contrasting interpretations of the Constitution.”
The signs have grown more provocative as the years have gone by, some opposing “Jewish power,” calling for “No More Wars for Israel,” and others focusing on the Israel lobby’s influence in Congress.
Herskovitz disputes SPLC claim
The lawsuit has been covered widely in both US and Israeli media. A number of the reports include the statement: “The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017 identified Deir Yassin Remembered as a Holocaust-denying hate group.”
The SPLC, much like the ADL, is frequently touted as an expert source in US news reports, despite the fact that it is a private organization and has frequently been criticized for alleged misconduct, bias and inaccuracy.
Herskovitz says that he does not “deny the Holocaust.” In fact, he feels that Nazi violence should be thoroughly investigated. He believes that just as our understanding of other periods in history has been expanded as new information comes to light or new analyses are presented, new information about the Holocaust should similarly be explored, including evidence suggesting that some aspects may have been misreported.
Herskovitz emphasizes that he simply “opposes mendacity” and supports “open debate” on the Holocaust as on all subjects (video below). He is outraged that historians, scientists and others are being imprisoned in Europe because their research appears to contradict some components of the received Holocaust narrative – particularly since some items have already proved fallacious.
Most of all, Herskovitz feels that the extreme emphasis on the Holocaust, which US forces helped end almost three-quarters of a century ago, is a key factor in preventing Americans today from opposing Israel’s 70+ years of violence against Palestinians.
He believes that the constant references to the Holocaust and the frequent Hollywood movies about it constitute “the ultimate gate keeper that prevents Palestine’s oppressor from being exposed and brought to justice.”
Herskovitz writes: “When Hollywood – an effective emotional manipulation tool – produces over 300 films on both Holocaust fact and fiction, a toxic supremacism is formed. Perhaps Golda Meir said it best: ‘After the Holocaust, Jews are allowed to do anything.’ Using military snipers to kill over 130 Palestinian Gandhi-styled protesters, and taking advantage of a compliant American press to suppress these murders from US citizens is a good example of Jews being allowed to do simply anything they want.”
Herskovitz writes: “If it were any other people trampling the lives and rights of Palestinians, Americans would have no problem going after the perpetrators of these crimes and bringing justice to Palestine.”
Prior to filing the lawsuit, Gerber sent a certified letter to Herskovitz about the sign he found “particularly offensive and insulting.” The sign said: “End the Palestinian Holocaust.”
Gerber demanded that the group stop using the sign and publish “a complete and unequivocal retraction of the statement.”
Yet, legal analysts have found that Israeli actions against the Palestinians fit the legal definition of genocide, and diverse writers have used the phrase “Palestinian holocaust” and made similar comparisons to the Holocaust.
Historian Salman Abu-Sitta in his book, Palestine Right Of Return, Sacred, Legal, and Possible, stated: “The Palestinian Holocaust is unsurpassed in history. For a country to be occupied, emptied of its people, its physical and cultural landmarks obliterated, its destruction hailed as a miraculous act of God, all done according to a premeditated plan, meticulously executed, internationally supported, and still maintained today…”
Palestinian Christian priest and author Father Elias Chacour has commented: “If the Jewish Holocaust lasted for four years —then thank God it ended after four years [the death camps operated from1941-1945]. My Palestinian Holocaust has lasted more than 50 years and I see no end to it.”
In 2007 Princeton Professor Emeritus and UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk wrote an article entitled “Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust” in which he stated: “The dire and worsening situation in Gaza threatens to produce a new holocaust.”
In 2008 an Israeli minister threatened that the Israeli military would punish resistance forces in Gaza with a “bigger holocaust.” (Later that year Israel launched a war against Gaza that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes. Palestinian resistance fighters killed 9 Israelis.)
In 2011 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported: “Sygmunt Bauman, the Jewish sociologist and one of the greatest philosophers of our time, castigated Israel harshly this week, saying it did not want peace and was afraid of it. Bauman said Israel was ‘taking advantage of the Holocaust to legitimize unconscionable acts,’ and compared the separation fence to the walls surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto.”
In 2009 Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez cut diplomatic relations with Israel over its massacre in Gaza, and referred to the “Palestinian holocaust.” In 2014 during another Israeli invasion of Gaza, Fidel Castro condemned “the Palestinian Holocaust in Gaza.”
Yet, despite the widespread use of the phrase and other references connecting Israeli actions to Nazi behavior – including by Jewish and Israeli writers – Gerber claims the vigil’s sign is “defamatory and libelous.”
Herskovitz is not alone in his concern that the emphasis on the Jewish Holocaust often eclipses other victims of horrific genocides – for example, the African holocaust, the native American holocaust, Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II, etc.
And a 1990 New York Times article about the proposed Holocaust Museum in Washington DC reported on a controversy concerning the Nazi Holocaust itself: “Whose suffering should be included? That of the six million Jews alone? Or of the 4 million to 20 million non-Jewish victims – whose numbers depend on which historian or politician is counting?”
Herskovitz says that accusations claiming that he and his group, many of whom have been Jewish, are anti-semitic are ridiculous: “We’re not there because they’re Jews. We’re there because they’re Jewish Zionists.”
In 2002 a former Israeli parliament member told Amy Goodman on the radio news program Democracy Now that calling Palestinian supporters “antisemitic” is a “trick” used by Israel and its partisans to silence criticism of Israel:
“Why we vigil”
Below are two videos and a vigil report by Herskovitz explaining his views:
Herskovitz’ June 23, 2018 vigil report:
Back to Basics
The lady in this January video repeats an oft asked question: why do we hold our vigils in front of a synagogue? Let’s take a moment to answer this question, because on the face of it, it’s a pretty good question.
We answered this question briefly in our 2003 statement: Why We Vigil, but as the years rolled on, our answer became more sophisticated, nuanced and factual. Our statement then read: “We hold vigils outside this synagogue because Beth Israel is a political institution as well as house of worship, using its faith to promote a nationalist political agenda…”
A few years after that (2007) Rabbi Rob Dobrusin spilled the beans and admitted that every member of Beth Israel Congregation supported Israel’s claimed “right” to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, he affirmed our conviction that Beth Israel Congregation is indeed a Zionist organization.
In addition, we pointed out that Beth Israel flies a foreign flag in its sanctuary, that the congregation recites a prayer for the state of Israel every week, that many congregants wave Israeli flags as they drive into the parking lot, and that some even sport Jewish (as opposed to NON-Jewish) Israeli license plates on their vehicles.
Then we read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and our argument became even stronger. Malcolm argued that the best way for sincere white people to help his “Organization of Afro-American Unity”, was to confront the racism that existed within the white community. We then recognized the similarity … the racism that drives the Jewish state is created and nurtured within the Jewish community, and that Beth Israel was certainly no exception.
For starters, Jews are told they are different from the rest. This creates an “us-versus-them” paradigm. They wear skullcaps; Jewish children are taught a foreign language which is used officially in only one country. They are taught unnecessary dietary laws; their families use two sets of dinnerware, some even use two dishwashers, one for each set. They worship on Saturday, though the majority of the religious US population prefer Sundays. They celebrate holidays which underscore us-versus-them. The Book of Esther is a good example. A common Jewish reference to many holidays are “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
Alleged victimization is the crucial bond that convinces Jews (and many non-Jews) that the uniqueness of this particular group of people creates for them a special status. When Hollywood – an effective emotional manipulation tool – produces over 300 films on both Holocaust fact and fiction, a toxic supremacism is formed. Perhaps Golda Meir said it best: “After the Holocaust, Jews are allowed to do anything.” Using military snipers to kill over 130 Palestinian Gandhi-styled protesters, and taking advantage of a compliant American press to suppress these murders from US citizens is a good example of Jews being allowed to do simply anything they want.
So back to the woman’s question, and to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, “A synagogue isn’t just an appropriate place to protest the state of Israel; it’s the ONLY place.”
Marvin Gerber Video
Marvin Gerber (in blue) accompanied by his attorney, Marc Susselman, films a vigil: