Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Ann Arbor neighborhood petitions against resident's anti-Israeli flag"

Ann Arbor neighborhood petitions against resident's anti-Israeli flag

By Samer Hijazi
Friday, 07.20.2012, 08:52pm

ANN ARBOR — A neighborhood in Ann Arbor has worked together on an initiative to take down an anti-Israeli flag being demonstrated in front of another neighbor's house. But the petition that has so far been signed by 11 households is not discouraging the man responsible for the display, as he has responded with a five page  letter defending his freedom of speech rights, asking his neighbors to re-consider their request.

The anti-Israeli flag hanging from a tree in front of Herskovitz's residence in an Ann Arbor neighborhood has displeased many of his neighbors, who have spearheaded a petition to have it removed.
Henry Herskovitz has lived on the block of Mark Hannah Place for over 29 years and has never really had problems with his neighbors, that is until now. The Jewish activist, who has been a prominent member of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF)  since its creation over eight years ago, decided to put up a flag hanging from a tree in front of his house that depicts the Israeli flag with a red "no" symbol slashed across it. Since the flag was put up in late May, he was surprised to receive a petition from his neighbors asking him to  take it down.

Now Herskovitz says that he's tried to talk to his neighbors about the situation in a peaceful manner, but he has been greeted with cold reception. This isn’t even the first flag Herskovitz has put in front of his house. He first had a purple "peace" flag with a white dove carrying a green olive branch. Then after taking a trip to Palestine in 2002, he returned to his residence and displayed the Palestinian flag. He says his neighbors were always aware of his activism but rarely wanted to discuss it with him.

"A lot of the neighbors don't want to talk to me about this. I used to have good relations with all of them, so it's kind of sad that they are shunning me,' Herskovitz stated. 'I'm standing up against a racist, suppressive state. I don't think I'm a bad guy but I'm definitely being treated like one.'

The petition states the following; 'We need to express our concern about your modification of the flag of Israel, namely the red circle and slash. Many of your neighbors are offended in that the circle and slash speaks so negatively about a religion, a people, and a country…we see this flag as offensive, one that may be appropriate for a political demonstration at say the post office, but inappropriate in the neighborhood where we raise our children."

Herskovitz says that his neighbors have even gone as far as contacting city officials to try to help them with the initiative to take the flag down. Despite his neighbors' initial reactions, Herskovitz stresses that he never intended to offend them in the first place. 

"It's not a personal intent to inflect discomfort or pain on my neighbors. Hurting people intentionally was never my purpose," Herskovitz added. "They say the symbol is against the people and against the religion, but it's really just against the state of Israel. "

Herskovitz, along with other members of JWPF, have spent the last eight years raising awareness about the occupation of Israel around Ann Arbor. They've held demonstrations all over town, including at the university, the city hall, at synagogues and other public locations.  Regardless, Herskovitz says no matter where the location is, they are always met with the same response.

"The funny thing is, the letter indicates that the flag would be more worthwhile elsewhere like at the  post office.  We can be at a post office, standing in front of city hall, or even in front of a synagogue, and people will always say 'this is not the right place,'" Herskovitz added. 

Blaine Coleman, an activist and friend of Herskovitz, says he is not surprised that Ann Arbor residents have reacted this way because they have always been quick about defending the state of Israel in the past. Coleman however has faith that opinions might be able to change in the future if people engaged in peaceful dialogue.

"For many years, Henry and I have been part of a community that has demanded boycott against the apartheid state of Israel. We've demanded this boycott at City Council meetings, at University student government meetings, and at many demonstrations and vigils," Coleman stated. "In the most hostile environment, Henry publicly demands the immediate liberation of the Palestinian people. This is a high honor. One day, Henry's neighbors will petition the City to re-name their street after him. One day the City will brag that it was Henry's home." 

After receiving the petition from his neighbors on June 5, Herskovitz finally decided to respond with a five page letter that explains his reasoning for putting up the flag, while also highlighting his time spent in both Iraq and the West Bank, where he gained knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also attached to the five page response was a one page letter written by Yasmin Snounu, a Palestinian and former student from Eastern University who lived in Ann Arbor for two years. Snounu was a constant visitor at Herskovitz's residence and interacted with the neighbors occasionally. After hearing about the petition created by Herskovitz neighbors, Snounu wrote a letter from Gaza, asking his neighbors to reconsider. The following is an excerpt from her letter;

"Anyone who is concerned about the safety of his children should be exasperated to see the children of Palestine in a big jail in Gaza experiencing horror, either by seeing the Israelis killing their family members, or by experiencing fear and hearing tanks and military airplanes bomb! With all respect to the neighbors of my friend Henry, an Israeli flag with the red circle and the slash will never affect the safety of your children, but the military airplanes and the occupation would definitely affect their safety…If you have a cause and you want your neighbor to remove that "offensive flag," why do not you have a meeting with him and listen to him, and discuss it! Why do you avoid talking about it, about the legitimacy of Israel? Why do you keep closing your eyes and your ears! If the Israeli flag represents "religion" as you mentioned, how come this religion provokes killing, occupying and stealing people's lands, lives and safety?” the letter from Snounu stated.

So far Herskovitz says he has yet to hear back from his neighbors in response to his letter. He hopes they are willing to engage in proper dialogue in order to come to some sort of agreement. 


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