2009 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents
Westboro Baptist Church
Posted: July 27, 2010
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a small, virulently homophobic Topeka, Kansas-based hate group, gave new prominence to its anti-Semitic message in 2009. The group protested at scores of Jewish institutions, including synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Israeli consulates, in New York City, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Omaha, and other locations.
Church members held signs stating that "The Jews killed Jesus," that "God hates Jews," and that "God hates Israel." They also sang parodies of Jewish songs, replacing the regular lyrics with such messages as "You killed the savior, for this crime you all must pay."
WBC sent volumes (in some cases dozens over the course of a week) of faxes and e-mails with anti-Semitic and anti-gay messages to various Jewish institutions and individuals. The group's airing of age-old anti-Semitic charges like deicide, rarely expressed in the United States, provoked anxiety in many Jewish communities. At the same time, the Westboro Baptist Church became a target for ridicule by protesters and pundits.
Notably, in 2009, Westboro began a sustained anti-Semitic faxing campaign, targeting hundreds of Jewish institutions with dozens of anti-Semitic faxes each. Moreover, WBC followed up by sending DVDs containing virulently anti-Semitic content to institutions and individuals.
Incorporated in 1967 as a not-for-profit organization, WBC considers itself an "Old School (or Primitive)" Baptist Church. WBC's leader is Fred Phelps, and several of his children and dozens of his grandchildren appear to constitute the majority of the group's members. WBC has no official affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations.
The primary goal of the WBC has apparently been to garner publicity for itself and its message. For this reason, the group directs its efforts at events that have attracted heavy news coverage, like the deaths of soldiers killed in wars or the victims of well-publicized accidents, or at venues, such as high schools, which are likely to generate large counter-protests and community outrage. Many of its protests were held in response to events that had generated at least local media coverage, as in an April 2009 protest of the staging of the musical "Rent" at a high school in Newport Beach, California, which had been the subject of local controversy. To create further attention, the group produced music videos with titles like "God hates the world" or "Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell" and maintained Web sites with names like GodHatesAmerica and GodHatesFags, all designed to inflame the passions of viewers.
Institutions targeted for picketing by the WBC were faced with difficult decisions on how to respond to the group's attention. Some Jewish groups reacted with loud counter protests. In a notable example, hundreds of students drowned out WBC protests at Rutgers University on October 27.
Increasingly in 2009, however, Jewish organizations avoided direct confrontation with WBC protesters that would provide the group with publicity and amplify its hateful message. At the same time, Jewish groups refused to be cowed into fear or silence. In one constructive approach, synagogues and Jewish community centers countered with fundraisers held concurrently with WBC protests. Money was raised for every minute the church members stood outside their institutions.
For example, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan raised more than $10,000 in response to WBC's June 21 picketing. The synagogue's fundraiser received wide media attention.
Other Jewish groups held alternative protests in the form of peace rallies, interdenominational prayer vigils, or other events highlighting the diversity and unity of the affected communities.
Hillel at the University of Oklahoma responded to WBC's September 19 picketing with a multicultural rally attended by 800 students, including members of Native American, African American, and Muslim student groups.