Rabbi Nadav Caine of Beth Israel Congregation.
Rabbi Nadav Caine of Beth Israel Congregation. (Alex Sherman)

Since 2003, the Conservative Jewish synagogue has been the target of weekly pro-Palestinian protests.

A recent court ruling on the eve of Yom Kippur has left staff and members at Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Congregation upset and confused.

Since 2003, the Conservative Jewish synagogue has been the target of weekly pro-Palestinian protests. Ann Arbor residents gather nearly every Saturday morning from 9:30-11:30 a.m. with upwards of 20 signs condemning Israel.

Slogans like “Jewish Power Corrupts,” “Stop Funding Israel” and “End the Palestinian Holocaust” are regular appearances outside of the congregation. For members who gather at the synagogue for religious observance and worship, the protests hit on a deeply personal level.

With several Holocaust survivors rounding out the synagogue’s congregation, the protests cause emotional distress while disrupting Saturday services. For Beth Israel’s older members who survived World War II, they’re reminiscent of a time they thought they left behind.

Yet, despite the concerns, a federal court appeals ruled just before the holiest day of the year in Judaism that the pro-Palestinian protests are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. After tolerating the protests for many years, and with no help from the city of Ann Arbor, Beth Israel members finally took the protestors to federal court, but they were denied help.

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“We are disappointed by the recent ruling, but we are not surprised given previous rulings,” said Rabbi Nadav Caine of Beth Israel Congregation. While the protests initially aimed to speak up about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, they’ve gradually turned into antisemitic slurs that Rabbi Caine calls “Nazi-esque” in nature.

Protesters “quickly find themselves blaming Jews for the Holocaust, agreeing with Nazism, claiming Jews have secretly taken over our country and the world, and make claims that Israel is performing daily genocidal massacre,” Caine says of the uptick in hate speech.

In this month’s ruling, the court declined putting a halt to the demonstrations or permitting any restrictions in Ann Arbor. While a 1,000-foot buffer and limits on signs was proposed, the court ruled that this proposed solution would likely violate the First Amendment.

The complaint against the protestors alleged 13 violations of federal law and 10 violations of state law in total.

Judge Jeffrey Sutton claimed that because the protests were non-violent in nature, they fell under the First Amendment’s umbrella of protection for matters of public concern. He also stated that because no congregation members came forward about being able to hear the protests inside the synagogue or were blocked from entering the synagogue, the protests were also protected.

The American Civil Liberties Union echoed the ruling, filing a brief in support of the activists. Even “offensive, upsetting and distasteful” protests were entitled to protection, they voiced. The issue was the suppression of freedom of speech, which the ACLU applied to their stance.

In accordance with federal law, Beth Israel congregants would have until Sept. 29 to file a request with the Sixth Circuit to have the appeal considered again by a full court of 16 active circuit judges.

Yet, with some Jews celebrating the holiday of Simchat Torah on that date, the protests and subsequent court matters have proven to be an emotional and distressing challenge for Ann Arbor’s Jewish community, particularly members and staff of Beth Israel Congregation.

“What everyone should take note of here is not that the First Amendment protects hate speech — we knew that already — but that our country and its campuses are no longer places of political criticism of Israel,” Rabbi Caine says. “They are harboring antisemitism in its guise.” 

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