Why We Must Protest The Westboro Baptist Church
Imagine the Wilf Campus at 9:45 on a Monday morning. People file out of Rubin with backpacks on and tefillin in hand after the 9 o’clock minyan. At the intersection of 185th and Amsterdam, students—perhaps some queer ones among them—pass each other as they navigate the ongoing construction and constant stream of traffic—some on the way to their 10 o’clock classes, while others tardily make their way to morning seder. Local Washington Heights residents—Jews and non-Jews alike—travel through our campus as well during their morning routine. A thousand students are already immersed in Torah study in the classrooms of Furst and our several batei midrash.
But today, something is different. Standing in the middle of this daily scene on our little strip of Amsterdam Avenue are half a dozen protesters, each with as many signs as he or she can display at once. The signs contain a variety of hateful and abominable slogans: “GOD HATES JEWS,” “THE JEWS KILLED CHRIST,” “YOUR RABBI IS A WHORE,” “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and, of course, “GOD HATES FAGS.”
And nobody reacts. Nobody speaks out. Nobody even looks for more than a couple seconds. Besides for the presence of this small group, everything goes along exactly the same way as any other day. Forty-five minutes later, this deplorable group packs up and moves on to its next victim.
This is what many people wish to see this Monday morning, when the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) will be protesting here. In an email to the student body after the protest was first announced, Vice President Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph and Vice President for University and Community Life Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander encouraged us not to engage the group. During a meeting with students, Dr. Paul Oestreicher, Executive Director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, and Dr. Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students, warned students that counter-protest is what WBC desires, that it gives them further exposure and that they make their money from frivolous lawsuits afterwards. Doron Levine, Editor in-Chief of The Commentator, wrote in his latest editorial that no one should protest, warning it would give the WBC unnecessary attention and divide the YU community; he even paints a similar picture to above as an ideal.
But what is contained in this picture? What message does it send? Is it one of resolute defiance, or of apathy and cowardice? We’re not the first university the WBC has protested, but when the WBC visits any other university, it is always met with counter-protest. During the current school year alone, WBC has been met with counter-protests at University of Houston, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Vanderbilt University, University of Chicago, American University, and Washington University, among others. Most of these protests were non-confrontational, but rather served to reaffirm the students’ commitment to the LGBTQ community; some even actively turned their backs to the WBC.
Why can’t we do the same thing? What message does it send if YU students, when met with the same situation, just go on with their regular day? What are the LGBTQ students at YU to think? What of the passersby who hear our audible silence in the face of the WBC’s vile message? Should those students and the rest of the world think we’re indifferent? Or, chas v’shalom, that we agree?
I understand that people don’t want to give WBC satisfaction or any unnecessary attention—I certainly don’t—but the idea that any counter-demonstration plays into their hands, perpetuates their message, or affords them some sort of victory, is ridiculous, and the resulting strategy to not protest will be inconsequential. The WBC has held protests every day for over 25 years. If you read their statements and replies to media, it is clear that they are completely divorced from reality. When they protested Shalhevet High School a month ago, they were barely aware of the institution beyond the fact that it is Jewish, and they told the media that they didn’t care about the size of their audience or whether they accomplish anything. Regarding their protest at YU, they told The Commentator that the only response they seek from YU is the administration confessing that our ancestors killed Jesus and that we repent and accept him as our Messiah. These clearly aren’t sane, rational, or grounded people. They view protesting with their abhorrent signs and songs as their sacred religious duty and will continue to do so tomorrow and the next day, without any regard for reaction or lack thereof. They aren’t going to be fazed or defeated by some YU students snubbing them.
Furthermore, the effort to silence all counter-protest is futile, and the idea that the media won’t cover the WBC’s protest is fantasy. Protesting won’t bring them undue attention; they already get that attention and will continue to. Does anyone seriously think it’s at all realistic that no one is going to protest or engage with people so offensive? Does anyone think that Jewish media organizations aren’t going to jump at the chance to cover something so exciting and controversial, happening in our little world? The only question is what we want that media coverage to look like. Do we want it to report that students callously carried on with their day? Or would we rather it report that YU as a community, in an organized effort, rejected the WBC’s spite?
This isn’t about the Westboro Baptist Church. This is about us. Who are we? The purpose of protest isn’t always to make concrete change; sometimes it’s just to affirm what kind of people we are. When people are on our doorstep spewing slurs at queer people and saying that God hates them and they’re doomed to an eternity of hellfire, are we silent? Or do we stand with the LGBTQ people in our community?
Levine claimed in his article that the WBC’s message is alien to us and that it has no relevance to, or purchase on, members of our community. But can we really say this is true? There were two articles in The Commentator this year by gay people about their experience at YU. One reported living in constant fear and that his rabbis “publicly called gay people an abomination, blamed them for natural disasters, and advocated for conversion therapy,” and the other one—though more positive about YU as a whole—also mentioned a professor who “talk[ed] with complete disgust about people like me.” This year, I myself have heard a Rosh Yeshiva publicly advocate for conversion “therapy” and another student recommend it to someone personally. This is the university where Ben Shapiro’s belittling of trans people was met with laughter and applause from the student body. And my personal conversations with queer people at YU indicate that they are extremely frustrated with their lack of visibility and institutional support. Granted, none of this is quite equivalent to asserting things like “Fags die; God laughs,” but the latter is not quite alien or irrelevant either. I certainly doubt it’s alien to the queer people on campus who have personally faced religiously inspired homophobia before.
In the same article, Levine also voiced concern that a protest—especially one that encourages LGBTQ attendance and signs, T-shirts and flags—would make a “right-wing contingent” of YU “uncomfortable.” Similar concerns of divisiveness were brought up at the student meeting with Dr. Nissel and Dr. Ostreicher, where after agreeing that it would be a good idea to counter the protest with a fundraiser (i.e. something concrete and positive), the idea of doing it for anything explicitly gay was met with extreme hesitation. Again, can we really argue that the message of the WBC is completely foreign and ridiculous to us, when it’s acknowledged that a sizable part of our community will be made uncomfortable by just the visible existence of LGBTQ people who aren’t ashamed? When the crippling fear of divisiveness impedes us from concretely supporting LGBTQ people?
It is clear that YU has not always excelled in this area, but there have been some high notes. After the aforementioned Ben Shapiro debacle, over 50 YU faculty signed letters to The Commentator and The Observer, condemning his statements and remarking “We also hope [our students] would stand up against discrimination and disrespect.” The President of our university penned a similar letter, proclaiming “This university is committed to civility and the sanctity of all people.” Earlier in the year, the yeshiva brought in Rabbi Chaim Rapoport who talked to us about the struggles gay Jews face and implored us to unconditionally accept them in our community, repeatedly invoking the verse “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). But alas, these were only post-hoc statements and abstract speeches. When push comes to shove, will we live up to these words? Will we fulfill our duty to the LGBTQ people in our community? Are we committed to the civility and sanctity of all people? Will we stand up to discrimination and disrespect? Or will we stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?