Westboro’s swing at anti-Semitism

We’ve debated before whether Westboro Baptist Church is worthy of newsprint. Probably not. But the group likely won’t go away if we simply ignore it, which seems to be what The Washington Post had in mind when leaving any mention of Westboro out of this story about their protest at the school the Obama girls attend.

Westboro is notorious for protesting outside soldier funerals and for its slogan “God Hates Fags.” Lately, Fred Phelps’ church has turned its attention to “filthy, Christ-reject Jews.” (Excuse their poor grammar and check out the e-mails I’ve been getting.)

Religion News Service picks up on this strategic change for the “anti-gay church.” From reporter Matthew E. Berger:

Taking a break from yelling at passersby and singing homophobic lyrics to the tune of the Jewish celebratory song “Hava Nagila,” Margie Phelps explained the change in tactic. “We’ve protested this nation’s love of f**s for 20 years,” she said. “And Jews have been carrying the water for the homosexual agenda.”

“This is more about generating ink and outrage than it is about attacking Jews per say,” said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “But their language is absolutely Hitler-esque. They talk of filthy Jews and Jews murdering Christ.”

Since April, Westboro members have protested more than 200 Jewish institutions and sent thousands of anti-Semitic faxes to American Jewish officials. “I guess they felt it was a successful tactic,” said Deborah Lauter, the national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League.

The knee-jerk reaction from many Jewish groups has been to counter protest, and some Hillels and Jewish organizations have formed elaborate programs to drown out Westboro’s cries. But because the church’s protests are often small and short, Jewish leaders have suggested organizations ignore them instead.

“They’re doing this to try and provoke, so we don’t believe it is in the community’s best interest to engage with them,” Lauter said. “We believe it’s just giving them too much attention.”

But sometimes it is hard to fight the urge.

There is a lot packed into this story — a lot of great details which really paint the picture. But Berger doesn’t really answer the question of why it may be hard to fight the urge. Maybe he thought it was too painfully obvious, but not all readers would agree.

Just look at what Westboro did with Hava Nagila in the above video.

There is a much deeper historic context here. It’s hundreds if not thousands of years old. (Actually, it’s most certainly the latter.) It’s quite different to attack Jews for supporting gay rights than for, saying, killing Jews and using the blood of gentile children in their matzo, but how might protests directed at Jews as Jews look like the anti-Semitic attacks that every Jews grows up learning about — and many still experience, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on college campuses.

To be sure, Berger picked up on a trend here that I have seen mentioned nowhere else — a trend that hammers home the fact that Fred Phelps and his Westboro follows aren’t going away. The forest is there, and so are the trees. But the general landscape seems to be missing.

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  • Brian Walden

    “Taking a break from yelling at passersby and singing homophobic lyrics to the tune of the Jewish celebratory song “Hava Nagila,” Margie Phelps explained the change in tactic.”

    Question on style here? Assuming that Phelps’ song was about hatred toward rather than fear of homosexuals, why is it described as homophobic? One can make the argument that the root of all hatred is fear, but even if that’s true, isn’t the convention to use the prefix “anti-” or the suffix “ist” in cases like this (anti-Semetic, racist, etc).

  • Stoo

    You have a point, although “Homophobic” generally isn’t taken to mean a phobia like someone might have of heights or big hairy spiders.

  • Jerry

    doesn’t really answer the question of why it may be hard to fight the urge.

    Maybe there needs to be a 12-step program for journalists that covers this urge as well as the bias in the media and here at getreligion as well.

  • http://blog.kennypearce.net Kenny

    What is the phrase ‘per say’ supposed to mean? Heh, apparently you no longer have to read Latin to be a copy editor. (The correct phrase is per se (often italicized to show its foreign origin), which literally means ‘through itself’.)

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    This is an issue of style, Brian, and Berger’s application is a bit odd. I’ve never seen “homophobic” appear in an article without a citation like “X says that y’s behavior is motivated by homophobia.” not saying Berger’s opinion on Westboro is wrong, but it is an opinion.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I noticed that too, Kenny. Whoops.

    Jerry: ?

  • Brian Walden

    Stoo, I know how the word homophobic is generally used: as an insult rather than a legitimate claim that someone has a phobia of homosexuals. That doesn’t mean it should be used by Berger. There’s a way to say that Phelp’s song was hateful and bigoted without using pejoratives.

    On the flip side, there’s a word that Westboro members generally use to refer to homosexuals. Berger, rightly, did not use it to refer homosexuals when he was speaking in his own words. In fact, even when he used this word in a direct quote he asterisked out the middle of the word.

  • Stoo

    Eh I don’t know it’s always an insult. Sometimes it’s a rather forceful word, or inappropriately used, but still meant as a simple claim of hateintolerance.

    I’d agree “anti gay” would have been a better choice.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    No doubt about it, there are plenty of things that sneak by us having-too-much-to-read-in-too-little-time copy editors these days. But when I see something like “per say” in a story, I have to wonder if a copy editor saw this story at all.

  • Maureen

    Westboro “Baptist” Church believes that Fred Phelps is a direct descendant of one of David’s generals, and that he and his family (who are the only members of their “church”) will eventually be given the power by God to kill everybody else in the world except them. Because they are the only righteous people, and God hates everyone else, they can do whatever they want without sinning.

    So Jews are just as good a target as homosexuals or the military, to the Phelps clan. They could decide to persecute rutabaga farmers, and be equally in tune with the tenets of their beliefs.

  • Dave2

    Regarding ‘homophobia’, the meaning of a term isn’t determined by its etymology. Otherwise ‘homophobia’ would mean fear of sameness.

    Like ‘xenophobia’, the term refers not only (or mainly) to fear, but to aversion and hostility and discriminatory bigotry. ‘Homophobia’ is to anti-gay bigotry as ‘xenophobia’ is to anti-foreigner bigotry. Or at least that’s what prevailing usage and the dictionaries say.