Members of a Kansas church whose confrontational tactics have placed them at the center of a Supreme Court case testing the limits of free speech came to New York unbowed on Monday, targeting Jews and gays at a series of locations.
Five members of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, all relatives of the church pastor, Fred Phelps, began at a Chabad center on Midwood’s Ocean Parkway and made their way to Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan and an annual dinner of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) at the Tribeca Rooftop.
Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said that Jews should “obey their God … there are no beanies in the Torah,” an apparent reference to yarmulkes.
Despite inflammatory signs, such as “Your Rabbi Is A Whore” and “God Hates Fags” and “Obama is a Beast,” Phelps-Roper insisted her group loves all humanity and is trying to save people they consider sinners from damnation.
“I love my neighbor, every son and daughter of Adam,” Phelps-Roper told The Jewish Week, while holding a sign that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
“I love you enough to spend every resource that I have for 20 years, including my 11 children, to warn you that your sin is taking you to hell, that you have brought destruction on the heads of your children, which is a lot more than you love each other.”
When asked by a television reporter if the Bible preached love, Phelps-Roper said, “Does [God] love the people burning in hell? Did he love those people he dispatched to hell at Katrina? Did he love Haiti?”
Seconds later, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind crashed through a police barrier and attempted to knock down Phelps-Roper’s signs, which also included one that read, “God hates Israel.” He was restrained by police but not arrested or detained.
“How dare you have those signs?!” Hikind shouted. “Just be very careful the rest of the day in Brooklyn.”
When Phelps accused Hikind of “criminal conduct” as he was led away, he called her a “whore.”
General reaction to the group varied, with some mocking the church group with signs calling them “backward hicks” and “Westboro Bastard Church” and others taking a more lighthearted approach with signs that read, “God Hates Traffic Cops” or “God Hates Signs But Loves Ice Cream.” There was an occasional lewd suggestion from the Jewish protesters toward the church group and chants such as “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Go Home.”
Rabbi Moshe Levin of Chabad of Kensington read a statement before the protesters arrived detailing the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s belief that the answer to hatred was “to increase acts of kindness.”
There was some discussion in the crowd about whether the counter protest played into the hands of the Westboro Church, which seems to crave publicity.
“Certain political leaders decided to turn it into a circus,” said Binyamin Jolkovsky, editor of the Jewish World Review website, in a veiled reference to Hikind, who announced his plans for a counterprotest before the event. “They [the church group] do have to be answered, but I don’t think the streets of Brooklyn are the forum for it.”
Hikind, a Democrat who represents Borough Park and part of Flatbush, said he announced his counter protest only in response to media inquiries.
“When people come to the heart of the Jewish community with this kind of message — that we’re responsible for killing Jesus, that they hate Israel, that the Holocaust was something the Jews deserved — it’s important to be here,” said Hikind, the son of Holocaust survivors, at the Chabad protest before the Westboro group arrived.
“Do you react to anti-Semites? I believe you do, but you don’t have to get into a confrontation.”
Hikind, who brought his two sons to the protest, apparently changed his mind when the protesters arrived and waved their signs, prompting him to lunge at Phelps-Roper. The fracas was captured by a news crew from Channel 11 WPIX.
City Councilman Lewis Fidler, whose behavior was far more reserved, said he came to the demonstration because he saw a parallel to the 1977 efforts by a neo-Nazi group to march through heavily Jewish Skokie, Ill.
“People have asked me over the years if the Nazis had the right to march in Skokie, and I used to say yes, and if I lived in Skokie my obligation would be to come and express my opinion about them,” said Fidler, a Democrat whose district includes Marine Park and parts of Flatbush and Canarsie. “Well, they’re in Brooklyn, so it’s my obligation to be here.”
The Westboro Church has been successfully sued in Pennsylvania for infliction of emotional harm and invasion of privacy by the family of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who died in Iraq, after the group picketed at Snyder’s funeral in 2006, insisting that America’s support of gay rights provokes the wrath of God and harm to the troops. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the church arguing that its protest should be protected by the First Amendment.
Gedalia Kohler, who lives both in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Brooklyn, said he has been fighting Christian missionary activity targeting Jews for 25 years, but said Monday’s counter protest was a waste of time. “If everybody walked away, they would go home. They hate the Jews. We’re feeding that fuel. They must get paid for doing this. That’s my opinion.”
But another Flatbush resident, who gave his name only as Alex and said he is a surgeon, said, “We have to stand up for our rights. Free speech goes both ways. They have a right to protest, and we have the right to be here in big numbers.”
Of the Phelpses, Alex said, “They look stupid, honestly. It’s 2010, it’s a diverse country, a diverse city. Who are you going to hate? Everyone that’s different from you?”
Shani, who also withheld her last name but said she teaches in a girls’ yeshiva, said the demonstration was “scary. Jews as a nation, we are calm and always ask if it’s OK to do something. So for them to come and do this to us is sad.”
A.J. Weberman, who said he organizes activities of the Jewish Defense Organization, said, “It’s great that the Jewish community is coming out [to counter protest]. I believe people like this who are fixated on homosexuality are closet homosexuals themselves who can’t deal with their own sexuality. So in order to prove they’re not gay they have to go around and protest.”
Shortly before the protesters left Brooklyn in a red minivan, with area residents pounding on the car as it drove off, a group of yeshiva boys danced in a circle and sang Jewish songs, then joined arms to recite the Shema in response to the protests.
At Hebrew Union College, a printed sign greeting the Westboro group read, “Our diversity is our strength.”