Michigan’s vigilant outcasts

Henry Herskovitz with friend Muhammed Ali in Ali’s sandwich shop in Balata Refugee Camp. (Image courtesy of Henry Herskovitz)

Henry Herskovitz grew up in Pittsburgh as Israel planted its flag of independence in Palestine. Raised to revere Zionism as he did the Israelites of old, Henry heard little of the catastrophe buried beneath the budding Jewish state. Though he “drank the kool-aid for years,” Henry has been making up for lost time. It was the mid-’80s, on the steps of Temple Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, when a fellow congregant told him that Israel had the fourth mightiest air force in the world. He went home, looked into it, and began a journey that would bring him back to the synagogue under different circumstances.

In 2002, Henry came face to face with life under occupation in Palestine. A vast colonial infrastructure had encroached upon Palestinians for decades, through conquest and treaty alike. Though desperation and poverty were pervasive, Henry was struck by the love he received: “It was at the Balata refugee camp, in the midst of about four of five Palestinian men. I revealed my Judaism to them and was welcomed instantly as a friend in Palestine. This was a story that the Jewish community back at home needed to hear.” So he went back to the synagogue but all three Ann Arbor temples refused him a forum. As the door of Beth Israel shut behind him, Henry found himself once again on those steps where he came to re-evaluate the Israeli military.

Neither Henry’s family nor his synagogue had raised Israel’s sordid past with him. “That’s a personal drive for me. If you tell me ‘A’ and it turns out ‘B,’ I’m pretty mad. And if I find out later that you knew it was ‘B,’ now I’m in the opposite camp, and I’m really upset,” he says. Soon after his unsuccessful visit with the Ann Arbor rabbis, he went back to Beth Israel again, but this time he stayed outside. Nearly each Saturday morning for the past three years, Henry has pulled on his starched shirt and knotted his tie. As congregants assemble to pray, he has stood in silent vigil outside Beth Israel. The Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF) formed when others joined him in a common cause: to rescue Judaism from Zionism.

Not surprisingly, theirs is a message many prefer to avoid. Jeffery Bernstein, a board member at Beth Israel, insists that the synagogue will not interact with the group: “The objectionable nature of their method interferes with any attempt to rationally discuss their message.” Meanwhile, the Jewish Witnesses have generated press and compelled Rabbi Dobrusin of Beth Israel to engage them. Henry explains, “The Rabbi published a letter in January in the Ann Arbor News, after he had sworn to ignore us.” Even negative reactions present an opportunity for the JWFP to raise the issue in Ann Arbor. Henry adds, “Many people publish letters critical of the vigils. They don’t address the issues, but it allows us to rebut and bring up the issues, and 60,000 people read it.” Though initially focused on engaging the synagogue, the Witnesses now connect their movement to the entire community.

Bernstein views the actions of the Jewish Witnesses as “morally wrong.” This served as his stock response to the author’s various attempts to discuss more substantial issues surrounding the conflict. He argues that, as a place of prayer and worship, the synagogue is the wrong place for dissent: “Injecting political protest into this setting and harassing the people who come here is wrong.” Meanwhile, Beth Israel mobilizes support for Israeli policy. Though religious communities form around cultural solidarities, these affiliations are not precluded from embodying the political, especially when the collection basket goes around. Because the Israeli flag flies outside, and tithes are offered to the IDF inside, Henry insists that the synagogue is fair game for protest. “When you have taken a faith, Judaism, and instead of praying to God, now you’re praying to Israel, something is wrong,” he says. Even so, most people at Beth Israel remain outraged. Common etiquette just doesn’t allow this sort of behavior in front of religious sites.

But the dozen or so people holding weekly vigil challenge the purveyors of conventional wisdom, whether Emily Post or Theodore Herzl. Agitation is the necessary catalyst for changing destructive paradigms, particularly those most firmly entrenched in popular discourse. At a recent forum at the public library, Sol Metz, a member of the JWPF spoke about the importance of protest, even outside religious institutions: “When I was very young there was a priest in Royal Oak, a well-known anti-Semite. I think it’s shameful that there was not a vigil outside his church.”

Bernstein however, thinks the vigil is unwarranted, as Beth Israel has held forums for a range of speakers who question Israeli policy: “Our synagogue has hosted a group called Rabbis for Human Rights. We bring lots of people who would be considered on the left wing of the political spectrum.” While Mr. Bernstein focuses his argument against the vigil’s tactics, it is clear that the rift goes deeper. “We have a right not to host people who deny the legitimacy of the state of Israel,” he says. But for Henry, Zionism is the issue around which the conflict turns.

Peaceful protesters hold weekly vigils in front of Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Congregation. (Henry Herskovitz)

Though the group has non-Jewish members, a large proportion of the Witnesses seek to un-align their religion with an exclusionary colonial state. Mr. Metz’s voice shook while describing his 2002 visit to Palestine, where he witnessed a home demolition at the hands of the IDF: “These acts were carried out by Jews in the name of Jews everywhere. I saw these acts as a betrayal of the Judaism I had learned about. I came to believe that criticism of Israel was my duty as a Jew.” An increasingly vocal contingent of anti-Zionist American Jews rejects the assumption that Israel is part-and-parcel of their religious identity. But this is nothing new. From its inception, Zionist theory faced intense opposition from within the Diaspora, though today many Jewish-American organizations lobby incessantly to collapse these two distinct belief systems into one. The Jewish Witnesses actively distinguish Judaism from a state project with blood on its hands, lest Israeli crimes degrade the integrity of their spiritual traditions.

The vigil might not be pretty, but neither are the policies against which it stands. Encoding the primacy of one religion as a foundational national ideal is fundamentally the square peg to democracy’s round hole. Non-Jews, and Jews of Arab descent, live in Israel as second-class citizens, or under military occupation in Palestinian “Bantustans.” Despite these grave truths, the Witnesses struggle to make a dent in a discursive current that proclaims the legitimacy of a Jewish state while denying its colonial dimensions. In his Wretched of the Earth, theorist Frantz Fanon railed against a French regime that utilized its power to legitimate discourses of disappearance. In addition to brute force, army officials captured Algerian rebels and compelled them to repeat mantras under the threat of torture: “Algeria is not a nation; it has never been a nation; it will never be a nation. There is no such thing as the ‘Algerian’ people.”

Fanon’s 1963 rallying cry called for resistance to this kind of psychological warfare, in which Zionists have consistently indulged. The early Zionist theorist, Israel Zangwill, claimed that Palestine was a suitable homeland because it was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This rejection of manifest realities, namely, the presence of a Palestinian national identity, allowed Zionists to imagine an empty, fallow landscape for their cultivation. No weapon was more effective than denial for clearing the conscience of Israeli settlers who proceeded to clear the landscape of its “transients.” In a 1969 Washington Post interview, former Prime Minister Golda Meir famously recalled the frontier upon which Zionists settled: “There were no such thing as Palestinians. They did not exist.”

Denial remains a valuable rhetorical tool for Zionist apologists, and not merely in the realm of punditry inhabited by David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes. Along the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum, public officials ignore or distort the realities of Zionist occupation and apartheid. Instead of reprimanding Israel for four decades of occupation, the US Senate and House recently passed a bi-partisan resolution, “commend[ing] Israel for its administration of the undivided city of Jerusalem for the past forty years, during which Israel has respected the rights of all religious groups.” This dominant narrative makes false claims to the rights of non-Jews in Israel/Palestine and emboldens Israel in its removal and marginalization of indigenous communities.

And so the Witnesses hold vigil as Americans too, protesting not only mindless Congressional pandering but also America’s multi-billion dollar connection to the occupation. Local activist Aimee Smith joined the vigil to end American complicity with these misdeeds: “We have to focus on the things that our tax dollars go towards. We each need to work to undo the crimes and the terror that we are participating in.” Expansion and exclusion are not foreign to America’s own nation-building narrative. Persecuted Puritan exiles landed in America constructing their city on a hill of Christian favoritism. In the intervening years, pioneering Christians extended this ideology westward in pursuit of a god-given manifest destiny. White America rooted its nation in soil tilled rich with indigenous blood. While we can’t undo this past, it is possible to keep this history from rhyming in Israel/Palestine.

Though the vigils are unpopular at Beth Israel, Henry maintains that the synagogue has a role to play: “If they want us to stop, they can influence my choice to leave. But you don’t end a strike and then negotiate.” For one, the synagogue could state their public support for Palestinian human rights. This is highly unlikely, as most congregants won’t even speak to the Witnesses. Though he is open to suggestions as to the correct tactics, Herskovitz is a steadfast believer in grassroots mobilization: “The world had to apply pressure to White South Africa, had to criticize the Dutch Reform Church to end apartheid. And so we have to do it too.”

Signs of a shifting tide are apparent even in America, where bi-partisan support for Israel reigns in Washington. Ivy-league professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and former US president Jimmy Carter reached wide audiences with their critiques of Israeli occupation, if not Zionism itself. But Herskovitz mobilizes from what he knows. He never taught at Harvard, and never held public office, but the retired engineer knows about problem solving. Zionist exclusivity is a root of the conflict, and if this fact continues to be ignored, the situation in Israel/Palestine will only worsen with time: “If there’s a noise from the front end of my car, I have to find the problem. Turning the radio louder is not going to solve the problem; its going to eventually ruin my car.”

Paul Abowd is a recent graduate from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was a contributing editor for a leftist student monthly called the Michigan Independent and active with Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a group of students devoted to Palestinian human rights and an end to occupation and apartheid in Palestine/Israel. He is currently working as a glass artist in Northern Michigan and can be contacted at paul.abowd A T gmail D O T com.