Don’t Protest the Westboro Baptist Church
On February 27, The Westboro Baptist Church announced its intention to stage a protest at Yeshiva University. In response, a number of students plan to stage a counter-protest to broadcast their unequivocal opposition to the Church’s positions. I do not wish malign the organizers of this retaliatory demonstration or interrogate their motives. Doubtless they mean well (who doesn’t?). But I submit that they are making a costly, even if innocent, mistake.
Based in Topeka, Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church has achieved notoriety over the years for its aggressively anti-homosexual positions. With dogged tenacity and zealous fervor that modern orthodoxy could only dream of, the Church’s delegations are constantly on the prowl, protesting organizations and events they deem guilty of assorted depravities and basking in their status as celebrity scoundrels. Categorized as a “hate group” (whatever that means) by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Church publicizes its travel schedule on its website called “godhatesfags.com,” a startling domain name that straightforwardly delineates the group’s overarching philosophy. The Church maintains that homosexuality is the primary sin of American society and that its normalization in mainstream American culture has incited countless acts of divine retribution including the 9/11 terror attacks and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the Church announced via its Twitter page that it would visit YU, a Facebook event materialized in the Yeshiva Facebook sphere inviting hundreds of people to “Join us in welcoming the Westboro Baptist Church to The Heights!!!” Scheduled for the morning of the protest, the event urges participants to “Bring your gay, lesbian, trans, and all of the above loving Jew selves over to say a hearty howdy do to our visitors from the great state of Kansas.”
This counter-protest violates the primary principle of dealing with agitators: attention confers legitimacy. The Westboro Baptist Church thrives off of the obsessive denunciation it receives from organizations and media outlets much larger and more influential than it. Normally tiny organizations with outlandish ideologies remain safely hidden from the public eye. But, like a fly biting the heel of an elephant, the Westboro Baptist Church has successfully pestered its way into the public eye, purchasing disproportionate recognition and visibility. By denouncing the Church, critics imply that its message is significant and compelling enough to deserve a response. Those who plan to counter-protest at YU will similarly bring undue attention to the Church by making its visit into a much bigger scene than it needs to be.
If nobody protests, here’s what will happen: seven-odd church members will traipse down Amsterdam one morning and gather on the sidewalk outside of Morg brandishing their typical signs. Amused students will take pictures en route to their morning programs as security keeps a watchful eye to ensure things stay civil. After two hours, the group will go on its merry way to the University of Phoenix, its next scheduled protest location, where it will protest under the slogan, “Final Four is pagan idolatry.” Will anyone at YU find this protest compelling? Of course not. Signs reading “GOD HATES JEWS” and “PLANES CRASH GOD LAUGHS,” if they move us at all, will only move us to laugh. The message is alien to our culture, and it has no purchase whatsoever on members of our religious community. So why must we respond? By drowning out the Church’s protest with an event of our own, we would shower them with undeserved attention and contribute to their public image as a group to be reckoned with.
Not only is the counter-protest itself a mistake, but the way it has been framed in the Facebook event is dangerous, threatening to oversimplify our community’s ideological and cultural diversity with a false dichotomy.
The Westboro Baptist Church is virulently anti-Jewish, blaming Jews for the killing of Jesus and accusing Jews of rejecting God’s word in favor of “worshipping themselves as a people.” More specifically, the Church believes that the American Jewish community, YU modern orthodoxy apparently included, “was the earliest and most forceful group to spread the soul damning lie of “It’s ok to be gay.””
For people familiar with the YU community, this claim rings befuddling. But setting aside its veracity and pertinence, it can and perhaps should inspire a brief moment of communal introspection. There are a number of possible positions that members of our community stake out in contrast (even if not in direct response) to the Church’s position on homosexuality. Some within YU believe that it is not our place to tell people whom to love, and therefore orthodox Judaism should embrace the standard progressive approach to homosexuality. But YU is also home to a sizable right-wing contingent composed of many who believe variants of the following: While Biblical and Rabbinic law prohibit homosexual acts, it does not follow that “God hates fags.” The culture of open homosexuality and the ethos of gay pride are inconsistent with the spirit and even the letter of Jewish law, but individual LGBT members of our community deserve compassion and respect even as we stand by the normativity of Jewish legal precedent traditionally understood. There are many who believe this.
Members of this second group, which I suspect includes many of our religious leaders, though I hesitate to speak on their behalf, find themselves in a unique position with respect to the arrival of the Westboro Baptist Church. The Church’s protest requires them to respond, if at all, with a uniquely nuanced stance that sets them apart from both the Church and the Facebook event. I am quite sure that many of them will be uncomfortable attending a protest that encourages participants to bring “your gay, lesbian, trans, and all of the above loving Jew selves” along with “your funniest, dankest signs, flags, and t shirts.” At risk of stereotyping, it seems abundantly clear that this type of demonstration is inconsistent with the culture and ideology of the YU right; because of the way the event has been framed, we can reasonably expect that many will not only decline to attend, but will also feel uncomfortable with its very occurrence on their campus. Thus on the day of the protest, many students will find themselves in the awkward position of being condemned to Hell by a group of Jew-haters but being unable to fight back without betraying their religious convictions. By commandeering our studentry’s public response to the Church in a way that excludes a sizable contingent of students, this event will further accentuate fault lines within our community instead of uniting us against a common enemy.
I understand the motivation. This sort of demonstration provides an exciting opportunity to interrupt the dreary monotony of college life. Protest has exciting appeal – rarely do sheltered New York collegiates get to experience the thrill of combating an ideological enemy, and rarely do opportunities to cement our credentials as LGBT allies show up on our doorstep.
In this case, though, we must resist the urge. Tempting as it is to escalate, to weave this event into a poetic narrative and imagine the upcoming protest as an epic showdown between good and evil, this truly is not a significant moment for YU. The ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church has no influence on any elements of modern orthodox Jewry. Their message bears no substantive relevance to discussions happening in our community (or the larger American community, for that matter) and requires no coordinated response from us. Their arrival will be a mere blip on the radar, and they deserve nothing more than a cold shoulder.