Area ministers are speaking out against the activities of Jewish Witnesses for Peace, the group that has been demonstrating outside Sabbath services at Beth Israel Congregation the past 18 months.
"If people protest once or twice, fine, but continually doing it borders on harassment," said the Rev. Harvey Stob, pastor of congregational life at Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church.
Stob was among 33 local ministers and the board of trustees at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor who signed a statement issued this month that opposes such demonstrations at houses of worship. The signers include Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy along with ministers representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and other religious communities.
The letter did not include signatures from anyone from an Islamic group.
Nazih Hassan, spokesman for the Islamic Center on Ann Arbor's north side, said his group was asked to sign the statement but declined.
"We agree in principle that continuous protesting in front of a house of worship is inappropriate, but the matter is an internal issue, within the Jewish community," Hassan said.
Jewish Witnesses and its leader, Henry Herskovitz, said they are protesting at Beth Israel because they've been denied requests to speak at gatherings there to urge the congregation to oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Herskovitz, a retired mechanical engineer, said he has visited the Balata refugee camp south of the city of Nablus in the West Bank and has seen Israeli abuse of Palestinians. For that reason, he wants to urge the Beth Israel Congregation to stop supporting Israel's occupation.
But his group's protests have sparked controversy and opposition.
The Ann Arbor City Council criticized the Sabbath protests in a resolution approved Oct. 18 on an 8-0 vote with three members absent. The resolution stated that freedom to worship in peace is a right of all people.
The statement from area ministers was issued Dec. 4. It states that "Picketing a place of worship ... violates any reasonable norms of civil and mutually respectful behavior."
Several ministers proposed the statement to Beth Israel several months ago, about the same time the congregation was considering ways to seek community support against the protests, said Rabbi Robert Dobrusin, leader of the Conservative synagogue on Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor.
"We're hoping the letter is another clear statement within the community about how misguided and insensitive" the demonstrations are, Dobrusin said.
Stob echoed other ministers in questioning how protests at a local congregation regarding an international issue can create serious change. "What are they expecting the local congregation to do?" Stob asked.
Herskovitz, speaking this week of several local Jewish leaders, said: "They've never seen the barrel end of occupation."
Ed D'Angelo, president of Beth Israel, doesn't believe Herskovitz and his group have standing.
"Just because he spends a couple of weeks (in the West Bank) doesn't make him an expert," D'Angelo said.
"Any Tom, Dick or Henry can stand on the street with signs," he said. "It doesn't translate into effectiveness."
Catherine O'Donnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 994-6831.