When bigots come to our town

When bigots come to our town

New Jerseyans are expected to receive an outpouring of ugly, in-your-face anti-Semitism as conceived and discharged by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that for more than a decade has sorely tested America’s tolerance of hate speech. Their protests – scheduled for next week at several local institutions, including synagogues, a Jewish federation, and three public schools – are bound to provoke anger and hurt.

The modus operandi of the group in appearances all across the country is similar: members of the group announce their presence to the media and to the community with a barrage of faxed “press releases,” to be followed up by ubiquitous appearances. They sing hateful anti-Semitic ditties to the tune of Israel’s national anthem and hold signs accusing Jews of killing Jesus and aiding abortion, among other messages.

What is the Westboro Baptist Church, and who are its targets? While it calls itself a “church,” it bears little resemblance to an actual church. It is a virulently anti-gay, anti-Semitic hate group from Topeka, Kans., relatively small in numbers and most from the same family. Its main goal seems to be simply getting public attention.

Since April, the group has focused much of its effort against Jews. It has targeted synagogues and Jewish community centers with its particular brand of hatred, appearing from Seattle to Manhattan to the nation’s capital.

But Jews are not the only target of Westboro. The group regularly stages protests around the country, often several times a week, against institutions and individuals members think support homosexuality or otherwise subvert what they believe is God’s law.

Their targets also include schools the group deems to be accepting of homosexuality; Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian denominations that Westboro feels are heretical; and funerals for people murdered or killed in accidents like plane crashes.

Since 2005, members of the Westboro Baptist Church have protested at funerals for American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because they believe the United States should be punished for being a tolerant, open society. The funeral pickets resulted in an attempt by the federal government and more than 40 states to pass legislation limiting the group’s activity at those solemn occasions.

The group first gained notoriety in 1998 when its members appeared at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was brutally murdered in a hate crime, and held up hateful signs that berated him and homosexuality.

Despite the group’s outrageous and incendiary rhetoric, which includes lobbing crude anti-gay epithets and holding signs labeling Jews as “Christ killers,” the First Amendment is on its side.

When an extremist group like the Westboro Baptist Church announces that it will picket Jewish institutions and synagogues, some community leaders’ first impulse is to organize a press conference or counter-demonstrations. But when a small fanatical group decides that it will focus on the Jewish community as a strategy for gaining media attention, we only help its cause by giving it the attention it so desperately seeks.

Members of Westboro Baptist Church not only thrive on sparking anger and controversy, they look for ways to exploit their own protests by videotaping counter-demonstrators and threatening legal action if they feel that their First Amendment rights have been violated in any way.

Yes, it is important to show haters that their bigotry and hateful rhetoric is unacceptable. We too can exercise our freedom of speech, and this can and should happen on many levels. One can challenge the bigots by exposing them for who they are and what they truly represent. And one can start at the community level, by educating the public about the dangers of hate speech or by helping students to understand that words can hurt and that prejudice has consequences. Community groups can form ethnic and religious coalitions that put up a united front against hatred.

But often – as in the case with Westboro Baptist Church and a handful of other hate groups that generate controversy through public exposure – it is counterproductive to confront these groups directly. Thumbing your nose at the bigots, as some did three weeks ago in Brooklyn, may have a cathartic effect for some. But in the end it energizes and emboldens the bigots and hands them a publicity coup.

Direct confrontation also can lead from words to action, as we have seen in other cities in recent years where anti-racism protestors ended up not just trading words with the protestors, but getting into physical conflict with the hate groups, leading to bodily injury and intervention by law enforcement.

This is an outcome that no one in New Jersey should want. There are better ways to speak out and to act responsibly in countering prejudice and hatred. What is needed most is responsible leadership and strong voices that can say no to prejudice while ensuring that we do not give the bigots the upper hand.