Satmar Rabbi Files Lawsuit Against Town of Ramapo Over Flying Israeli Flag At Town Hall – Rockland County Business Journal

Posted By on March 21, 2024

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A Ramapo Satmar Rabbi says it is illegal to fly an Israeli flag on government property in the Town of Ramapo.

Leibish Iliovits claims in a lawsuit filed Monday in Rockland County Supreme Court that the Town of Ramapo is violating New York State law, which prohibits flying the flag of another country. Town Supervisor Michael Specht is also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit relies on Section 141, Chapter 44, Article 5 of the New York Public Buildings law, which prohibits flying a foreign flag on government property absent an applicable exception.

Iliovits asserts the flying of the flag in front of Ramapos town hall violates his first amendment rights, freedom of speech, free exercise of his religion, freedom of association and the establishment clause and for acts of viewpoint discrimination and retaliation.

The New York statute states: It shall not be lawful to display the flag or emblem of any foreign country upon any state, county, or municipal building. The statute makes an exception when a public official displays a flag when a foreigner visits a municipality as a public guest.

Ramapo officials displayed the blue-and-white flag with a Star of David on Oct. 12 to show solidarity with the Jewish State following the terrorist group Hamass invasion and killing of Israeli citizens. It did not, at that time, issue a proclamation but the town stands firm in its belief that the flag is flying legally.

In 2022, the United States Supreme Court in Shurtleff v. City of Boston said the flying of a foreign flag can be a permissible expression of government speech, though it also found that if a government allows third parties to fly flags on municipal buildings, it cannot discriminate based on content. The case concerned the City of Bostons program that allowed outside groups to have their flags flown outside Boston City Hall. In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled the city violated a Christians groups free speech rights when it denied its request to raise a Christian flag over City Hall.

The U.S. Supreme Court has regularly recognized that a government has the right to speak for itself. It may say what it wishes, and more importantly, may select the views it wants to express. As a general rule, government speech is not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Government speech can apply in a wide variety of contexts public radio or television, erection of park monuments, specialty license plates, and flag raisings are just a few examples but it only applies when the speech originates with the government. It is generally free to have and share its own viewpoint, but cannot discriminate based on content.

A court may have to address the issue of whether the Town of Ramapos First Amendments right to speak for itself and by displaying an Israeli flag trumps the state statute banning the flying of foreign flags.

Among the Satmar Hasidic community, there is widespread opposition to the state of Israel or the public use or display of any of its symbols including the flag and the Star of David.

The Satmars made two requests in February to Town Supervisor Michael Specht to remove the flag, unsuccessfully. With a third stab, the town attached a proclamation, which it says satisfies New York Law.

But the plaintiff disagrees, arguing the proclamation was issued more than two months after the flag was first posted and the purported reason for the display of the flag fails to indicate that those it seeks to honor were specifically guests of Ramapo.

The opposition is particularly painful now because of Israels current war and the tactics used by it in Gaza and upon its millions of Palestinians, the lawsuit states. Iliovits says he is a leader in the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Rockland County, and that his community relies on his guidance on cultural, religious, and social issues. The plaintiff says many in his community feel extreme displeasure to unsettled discomfort, at the sight of the flag.

He claims members of his community are unwilling to enter the town hall and that those who do so feel great trepidation due to the flag.

Nearly 100,000 or 30 percent of Rockland Countys population is Jewish, with an estimated 50,000 Hasidic Jews. Satmar is one of the largest Hasidic dynasties in the world, with some 26,000 households. It is characterized by extreme conservatism, complete rejection of modern culture, and fierce anti-Zionism.

Not all Hasidim align with the Satmars, who believe the Jewish people were not meant to return to Israel through exertion of physical force but were instead meant to wait for divine intervention and messianic destiny.

The late Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (for whom Kiryas Joel is named) taught his followers to confront Zionism.

Ultra-orthodox sects such as the Satmars see Zionist symbolism as an ever-present lure to its dangerous philosophies and, ultimately, a threat to the Jewish people and faith, the lawsuit states. It finds the nation-state of Israel no less a danger as one united with Zionism.

The suit says it is unclear whos suggestion or request or from which government official the Israeli flag found its way to be prominently displayed on the front of the Ramapo building.

The plaintiff is seeking to have the flag taken down immediately and permanently. He is represented by Jonathan Wallace of Amagansett, NY and Stanley L Cohen of Jeffersonville, NY.

Town Supervisor Michael Specht said the flag remains aloft but said he had no comment at this time when asked about the lawsuit.

On October 7, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group Hamas (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, or FTO) led surprise attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip. More than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals (including at least 35 U.S. citizens in Israel) were killed. Gazas health ministry has reported the number of Palestinians killed in the war has surpassed 30,000.

The raising of the Israeli flag has been a continuous issue in Rockland County. The Israeli flag has been repeatedly swiped from the outside of Ramapo Town Hall. In the first theft, two men Alter Goldberger, 75, of Monroe in Orange County, and Yehonatan Ovadia, 32, of Chestnut Ridge have pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and paid $25 each for the cost of the flag.

Both men were accused of stealing the flag in November as a hate crime. They purportedly were affiliated with an anti-Israel state group, Neturei Karta, meaning Guardians of the City in Aramaic. The anti-Zionist group supports dissolving the state of Israel, formed in May 1948, until the coming of the Messiah.

In the Town of Clarkstown, a 15-year-old was charged in connection with the theft of an Israeli flag from Town Hall on Thanksgiving. His case was handled by the County Attorneys Office in Family Court because of his age. There is no Israeli flag flying at Clarkstown town hall, as of this writing.

Rockland for Ceasefire, a recently formed group that is demanding an end to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, has been campaigning to have Israeli flags removed, and for towns and villages to sign resolutions supporting a Middle East ceasefire. To date, both the Village of Nyack and Clarkstown have denied the groups request for a resolution, saying it is not the business of municipal government.

While several municipalities have exercised their presumed rights to fly the Israeli flag, Rockland County Ed Day says its policy is not to fly flags of other countries on county buildings.

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Satmar Rabbi Files Lawsuit Against Town of Ramapo Over Flying Israeli Flag At Town Hall - Rockland County Business Journal

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