Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hate cult visits Brooklyn, part deux

I wrote last week about the planned protest at my synagogue by an anti-gay, anti-Semitic cult-like church called the Westboro Baptist Church (or "WBC"). Last Saturday, they mounted small anti-Jewish and homophobic protests at Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim and Kane Street Synagogue, among a number of other locations. Here are my impressions.

The lead-up to the protest included the news that school children in the Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill neighborhoods of Brooklyn had found scattered on sidewalks hundreds of slips of paper with the slogan "Kill Jews!". Police were said to be investigating a link to the planned demonstration at the Kane Street Synagogue which is located in Cobble Hill. (Read here.)

But that sort of stuff is child's play compared to the other PR techniques used by WBC. They're a small group, but they get a lot of press attention. They've latched onto the idea of protesting homosexuality at military funerals, a move which must be motivated more by attention-seaking than logic.

One means by which WBC generates attention for themselves is through fax spamming. A Zionist organization I know of receives almost on a daily basis faxes announcing WBC's picketing schedule and featuring their particular brand of insane rant. I assume that they're not the only one's getting these faxes.

I've seen some of these faxes, starting with an April 23 flier announcing demonstrations at the Israeli Consulate of Los Angeles and the Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, CA. The headline on that one got right to the point "JEWS KILLED JESUS!" and states that the Christ-killing Jews are "now ... carrying water for the fags; that's what they do best..." The announcement for this weekend's Brooklyn rallies (pdf here) was oddly headlined "THE FATEFUL FIG FIND", and included the warning to Jews that the Lord would soon "expel you from off the land & cause you to eat your children". WBC has very largely focused on such anti-Semitic and anti-gay proselytizing, frequently with only the most tenuous of connections. For example, they did detour from their usual path to celebrate both the death of Ted Kennedy and the fires in Athens, both of which they somehow believe to be God's punishment for homosexuality. They have taken the "God's punishment" idea invoked by Jerry Fallwell with respect to New York after 9/11 to its illogical extreme: any death or disaster is attributed to God's punishment for homosexuality.

They also maintain several relatively sophisticated websites (all with offensive names) featuring a variety of promotional material such as videos of sermons, music videos, promotional writings and calenders. The "Upcoming Pickets" calendar on the WBC website announced Saturday's Beth Elohim demonstration by denouncing bat mitzvah ceremonies as "unbiblical" and referring to the girl who was to be bat mitzvahed with an insult bordering on obscenity. That calendar entry is thankfully no longer available online.

This targeting of a youngster for abuse is typical of the WBC. They tend to target schoolchildren, frequently targeting schools and houses of worship for obscenity laced picketing. On Friday, September 24, they demonstrated opposite Brooklyn Tech High School in Fort Greene with just such a borderline obscene rally. They were met with a much larger counter-rally. (Read the Brooklyn Paper's coverage of that demonstration here. Their coverage of the preparations for the Beth Elohim demonstration is available here.)

On Saturday morning, my son wanted to come with me to Beth Elohim, but I told him that some bad people were going to be outside the synagogue and I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay.

Things were just getting started when I got there at about 9:45 am. I joined the group standing in front of the synagogue which included members of the synagogue, neighborhood residents, guests there for the bat mitzvah, and counter-demonstrators of various types. The crowd was mostly well-behaved and good-humored. (Kudos to the person who brought a dog wearing a sign reading "Dog Loves Fags".)

The WBC demonstration was extremely small. There had only four adult demonstrators and one child.


Each adult demonstrator held multiple signs, each sign bearing a calculatedly shocking and upsetting slogan or picture. This array of placards gave the impression of a slightly larger demonstration. After my initial surprise at how few of them there were, it occurred to me that these people are a subspecies of the group which includes those who opposed abortion by blocking clinics. They don't need large numbers to have an impact. They compensate for their small numbers with gross imagery, vicious rhetoric and a strategy of provoking confrontation. This was brought into focus by a particularly offensive sign to wave around at families going to various Shabbos services and a bat mitzvah: a picture of an infant inside a giant hamburger bun with lettuce and tomato with the of a slogan: "BITCH BURGER". The below-embedded video shows a WBC member "explaining" the sign.

After some of the chanting heard in the above video, they got to the main event. Like some sort of demented glee club, the WBC people began singing a series of several well rehearsed songs with lyrics concerning the evils of Jews, gays and Barrack Obama who was depicted with devil horns and the slogan "ANTICHRIST", an image also seen at teabag rallies.

Chicago IL - 121608


At about 10 am, Rabbi Andy Bachman came out of his office bearing a shofar. He stood on the steps in front of the shul and addressed the crowd. After expressing his surprise at how so few WBC demonstrators caused so much tumult, he eloquently thanked the diverse crowd for coming together to oppose hate in the name of a God of love who loves gays and lesbians. He led the group in singing Oseh Shalom. Then the crowd fell back on an old standard to create a more festive mood, singing Hava Negila and dancing the hora. Rabbi Bachman took a moment to lead the crowd in a comic collective nose-thumbing directed at WBC in the name of "the God of Groucho Marx" (okay, it's a Reform congregation). Then he blew the shofar several times, the crowd chanting "tekiah", drowning out the obscene WBC chanting and singing and bringing an air of peace appropriate to the season.


Ben Muessig's Brooklyn Paper article on the Beth Elohim and Kane Street demonstrations (readable here on the New York Post website) was accurate and well-written. Steven Waldman's coverage at Beliefnet was also excellent (read here). On the other hand, Brooklyn's Channel 12 cable TV news covered another WBC demonstration at the Midwood Jewish Center in a very different way, showcasing video of an angry, apparently frum man in a group of men in black hats and tallitot, and contrasting that with an interview with a for-once not shouting Shirley Phelps saying her demonstration was "anti-sin". (View here.)

Video of the local CBS affiliate's coverage of a WBC demonstration in nearby Great Neck, L.I. is embedded below.

Before this week, I didn't really know what could motivate a hate group such as WBC, but their behavior at the demonstration -- a startling combination of obscenity-laced rhetoric concerning and targeting children and including a child participant -- presented an important clue. As a child, Fred Phelps, the leader of this group, must have been taught to associate piety and goodness with abusive, hateful language and exhibitionism, largely focused on a fear of homosexuality. Phelps has been able to promote this obscene, authoritarian world view in a family cult which worships a verbally abusive, narcissistic God. They literally worship hate. Time will tell whether they succeed in passing this ritualized hate onto the next generation of Phelps. From what I saw, the poor child they brought to Beth Elohim on Saturday would much rather have been somewhere, anywhere, else. He seemed ashamed of his elders. I hope that he can preserve that sense of shame.


The back of the hill said...

So of course I clicked the pdf.

One phrase stood out: 'anathema maranatha'.

From Wikipedia:
Maranatha (either מרנא תא; maranâ' thâ' or מרן אתא; maran 'athâ' ) is an Aramaic phrase occurring once only in the New Testament and also in the Didache which is part of the Apostolic Fathers' collection. It is transliterated into Greek letters rather than translated, and is found at the end of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:22) as part of a curse.

The NRSV translates it as: "Our Lord, come!" but notes that it could also be translated as: "Our Lord has come"; the NIV translates: "Come, O Lord"; the NAB notes:

"As understood here ("O Lord, come!"), it is a prayer for the early return of xxxxxx. If the Aramaic words are divided differently (Maran atha, "Our Lord has come"), it becomes a credal declaration. The former interpretation is supported by what appears to be a Greek equivalent of this acclamation in Rev 22:20 "Amen. Come, Lord xxxxxx!""
The phrase may have been used as a greeting between Early Christians,[1] and it is possibly in this way that it was used by the Apostle Paul.

That was fascinating.


Glad to hear that a good time was had by all. And that everybody behaved with aplomb and dignity.

Well, except the Topekans, of course. But probably no one expected aplomb and dignity from them in any case.

Anonymous said...

The answer is clear: They aren't a church. That's just to give them some credibility. They're a small bunch of nut cases with too much time on their hands. Pure and simple.


Adam Holland said...


Thanks for your comment. I hear what you're saying, but it is a sort of church. My understanding is that they have about 100 hundred members and that about half are Phelps family members. If you have any doubts about how seriously they take this, you should check out their websites to see just how well organized and committed to this they are.

In researching the far-right, I've run across a number of this type of unaffiliated or loosely affiliated church of similar size, although none other which attract this amount of publicity. Several which spring to mind also focus on anti-Semitism and homophobia.

The WBC have the strange combination of being both unusual insular and unusual public. Weird. This is part of why I take them to be a serious threat, in spite of their obviously ludicrous public face. They are true believers in hate and crave publicity with a literally religious fervor. That combination should be viewed as posing a real threat, no matter how absurd their image.

One last thought: history has shown that "a small bunch of nut cases" can do a great deal of damage.

Anonymous said...

Granted, Adam, a small group of crazies can do a lot of damage, but 100 people are just 100 people. That's why their activities are less worrying to me than, say, a move toward divestment by the Presbyterian Church. Phelps's church has less reach and infinitely less prestige.

Also, I think such marginal groups can have an effect only when the overall political climate is conducive to it. Such groups can't create that kind of climate, but the savvier among them can exploit it (think Hitler's Nazis during Weimar).


Adam Holland said...


Everything you say is true, so let me explain to you why I am still concerned about this group.

First, in every angry crowd there is an individual unhinged enough to cross the line between hate speech and violence. I remember an instance here in Brooklyn when a dispute over a white girl dating a black guy escalated to the point where a mob confronted the guy as he exited a subway station. One unhinged member of the mob shot the guy, thinking he was doing what the mob wanted. And in a way he did, although they may not have known of his plans. That sort of thing is what this group reminds me of. That's why I laugh at them less than some do, although I understand that sentiment as well.

This all was brought into focus for me by the obscenities the group out on their website calendar addressing the girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Beth Elohim on the day of the demonstration. Any group which dehumanizes others to that extent -- subjecting innocent 13 year old girls to that sort of abuse -- is certainly creating an atmosphere where one of their members could lash out against Jews or gays thinking God was on his side.

Secondly, this group poisons the atmosphere in the country at large. They create a template for other crazies to follow. To those so inclined, they inspire imitators. They degrade the discourse. Worst of all, they force their disgraceful, disgusting imagery and language into our collective consciousness, including that of our children.

You are right; they aren't going to win many converts, if any at all. They won't win elections. They are on some sort of sick, pointless ego trip. But they definitely harm us and they should stop it.

Anonymous said...

I guess the real harm would be to children exposed to this. I mean Jewish children who see these people humiliating them and having their parents explain why. I don't have children of my own, but I've noticed now and then that parents tend to want to shield their kids from this prejudice, even if they know that the kids will inevitably have to confront it later in life.



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