Westboro Baptist members were in Washington this week to protest speeches by President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations of North America conference. Members of the Phelps family have been to other, less high-profile sites as well, targeting synagogues, Jewish community centers and Hillels on college campuses.
The change in focus has caught Jewish leaders by surprise. While the group has always had anti-Semitic tendencies, it had largely stayed away from Jewish sites until this year.
In Washington, Margie Phelps balanced several signs targeting Jews, Israel and the Obama administration. One read “Rabbis Rape Kids,” another said “God Hates Jews.” Margie Phelps’ T-shirt read “Jews Killed Jesus.” She argued with men and women passing by, warning them that God will soon send the Jews to hell.
“I don’t care what you claim, chosen wise,” she said. “Obedience is the standard.”
Westboro and its leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, first garnered national attention a decade ago, when members protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student murdered because he was gay. Since then, they have angered many by protesting at funerals for American military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, holding signs reading “Pray For More Dead Soldiers.”
The church says it has conducted more than 40,000 protests since 1991, all in an effort to warn Americans against accepting gay rights and to fight the “modern militant homosexual movement.”
Taking a break from yelling at passersby and singing homophobic lyrics to the tune of the Jewish celebratory song “Hava Nagila,” Margie Phelps explained the change in tactic. “We’ve protested this nation’s love of f**s for 20 years,” she said. “And Jews have been carrying the water for the homosexual agenda.”
“This is more about generating ink and outrage than it is about attacking Jews per say,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Intelligence Project. “But their language is absolutely Hitler-esque. They talk of filthy Jews and Jews murdering Christ.”
Since April, Westboro members have protested more than 200 Jewish institutions and sent thousands of anti-Semitic faxes to American Jewish officials. “I guess they felt it was a successful tactic,” said Deborah Lauter, the national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League.
The knee-jerk reaction from many Jewish groups has been to counter protest, and some Hillels and Jewish organizations have formed elaborate programs to drown out Westboro’s cries. But because the church’s protests are often small and short, Jewish leaders have suggested organizations ignore them instead.
“They’re doing this to try and provoke, so we don’t believe it is in the community’s best interest to engage with them,” Lauter said. “We believe it’s just giving them too much attention.”
But sometimes it is hard to fight the urge.
When church members came to the University of Oklahoma on a Friday afternoon, Hillel leaders chose to close their offices early and begin preparations for Shabbat, rather than taking on the protesters. But that didn’t stop several hundred students from standing across from the Westboro protesters with alternative messages.
“It wasn’t the Jewish students,” said Keren Ayalon, the Hillel’s executive director. “It was the broader campus community that came out to protest.”
Indeed, many Jewish groups have found a Westboro protest has opened doors for dialogue and interfaith engagement. Several weeks after they came to Hillel, Ayalon coordinated a large campus rally for peace. She had heard from many students, and leaders of faith groups, who wanted to speak out.
“It was a learning experience,” she said. “It showed how not to react and think about what they’re doing and do something more constructive.”
Potok said a side-effect of the Westboro protests is it has brought together religious leaders from the far left and far right, all of whom deplore the Phelps’ tactics.
Westboro members targeted several Jewish organizations last month on a statewide tour of New Jersey. Their visit to Washington included a protest in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We look at it as a teachable moment for the visitors and the public,” said Andrew Hollinger, a museum spokesman. “The museum is about anti-Semitism and hate, and when they come to the museum, people can see that hatred still exists in 21st century America.”
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