For two years, Henry Herskovitz has persistently lobbied the Ann Arbor City Council to pass a resolution urging the federal government to stop military aid to Israel. On Monday, the council acted, but not in the way Herskovitz had hoped. Instead, the council unanimously passed a resolution condemning people such as Herskovitz for holding political protests outside "houses of worship." Herskovitz, who is Jewish, has led a dozen or so protesters who for the last 13 months have shown up every Saturday to picket on the sidewalks outside Beth Israel Congregation, 2000 Washtenaw Ave. He has done it to protest what he calls Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the treatment of the Palestinians. The protesters' actions have sparked a debate about just what is crossing the line in political activism. The council passed the resolution with little comment on an 8-0 vote, with three members absent. The resolution stated freedom to worship in peace is a right of all people. Herskovitz, who attended Monday's meeting wearing a "Free Palestine" cap, said afterward that the protests will continue "until my legs fall off." Council Member Bob Johnson, D-1st Ward, said he supported the resolution but had some reservations. "I had a very hard time with this," said Johnson, the only council member present Monday not to be listed as a sponsor of the resolution. "There is a free speech issue here." Helen Fox, a member of the city's Human Rights Commission, which passed a resolution in December 2003 asking the council to urge an end to U.S. military support of Israel, said she was upset once she read Monday's resolution. "That's crazy," Fox said after the meeting. "In a democracy, you can't have protests?" But the council stood firm. Many had been turned off by the continuing tactics of one pro-Palestinian activist. Blaine Coleman, who started the crusade to get the council to pass the resolution three years ago, told the council recently its was a Palestinian baby-killing council because it would not pass a resolution stopping military aid to Israel. Council members remained silent at Coleman's claims, but said Monday the protesters have gone too far. "A one-time protest at a church is understandable," Mayor John Hieftje said after the meeting. "Thirteen months turns into harassment." Council Member Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward, said the resolution was passed to protect all religious institutions. "It is targeted to anyone who chooses to interrupt services," Higgins said. "This country was founded on the right to religious freedom." Johnson said the resolution was directed at Herskovitz and the protesters. The resolution didn't specifically mention Herskovitz, but stated that at least one house of worship, the protesters confront worshipers and ask passing cars to honk their horns to disrupt the service. Herskovitz said those claims are untrue. He said the protesters don't antagonize those trying to worship. He said they only greet worshipers. Herskovitz said he and his fellow protesters are often insulted during their vigil. He said motorists honk their horns in support without urging of the protesters. "I'm very disappointed in a council that votes on a resolution that they have not observed," he said. "How can then condemn something they haven't observed?" Third Ward Democratic Council Members Leigh Greden and Jean Carlberg said they both have seen the protesters in action. Carlberg said members of Beth Israel's congregation had told her they felt intimidated by the protesters. "I spent a lot of time on picket lines," said Carlberg. "Never in front of a church." Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, said this morning she has no comment because the council merely expressed an opinion and was not stopping anyone from protesting. Elliot Sorkin, executive director of the Beth Israel Congregation, said his congregation would withhold comment until its leadership had a chance to review the resolution. Council Member Joan Lowenstein, D-2nd Ward, was out of town Monday and absent from the meeting. During the last year, Lowenstein, former president of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County, has turned her back on Herskovitz when he addressed council and has walked out of the room while he spoke. One time while Herskovitz was talking, Lowenstein's cell phone interrupted by ringing to the tune of "Havah Nagilah," a song played at traditional Jewish celebrations.
Staff reporter Chong W. Pyen contributed to this story. Tom Gantert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 994-6701.