Why did protestors from Westboro Baptist Church choose to target Yeshiva University for a placard-waving protest? Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of church founder Fred Phelps, put it simply: “That’s where the Jews are.”
It was an ironic moment. The church earned notoriety as a hate group because it usually targets gays and lesbians, not Jews, but Y.U. has also been accused of being less than supportive of gay rights.
Former student Joshua Tranen wrote in The Commentator that he left the university because of rabbis who “publicly called gay people an abomination” and promoted conversion therapy. In December, conservative Jewish pundit Ben Shapiro mocked transgender people as “mentally ill” in a speech on campus, inspiring cheers and later, criticism.
Westboro, based in Topeka, Kans., was founded in 1955 and lives online at Godhatesfags.com. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called it “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” with its focus on gays and lesbians.
The Y.U. picketing may signal that Westboro plans to target more liberal faith groups. But it’s unclear how the church picked Y.U., since it is certainly doesn’t represent a permissive strain of Judaism.
The visit to Y.U. — which featured a half-dozen protesters carrying placards reading “Jews Killed Jesus” along with other hateful slogans — was one of several diverse stops on the “God hates your idols preaching tour.” It included rallies at the Grammy awards in February, the Final Four NCAA tournament scheduled for next month at the University of Phoenix, Arizona, and numerous Catholic churches.
In its announcement of the Yeshiva University protest, WBC explained that “The American Jewish community was the earliest and most forceful group to spread the soul damning lie of ‘It’s ok to be gay,’” and that Yeshiva U. “encapsulates the perverse state of both modern Judaism and the american [sic] university system.”
Picketing has helped catapult the Westboro Baptist Church to international infamy. In 1998, church members held up signs reading “No tears for queens” outside the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. Church members have also picketed funerals of American soldiers killed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because the men died as punishment for “this evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives.”
In 2009 Britain banned Shirley Phelps-Roper and her father Fred because they were known for “fostering extremis and hatred.”
Yeshiva University may have been a stop of convenience for the group. Westboro also protested for three days outside AIPAC’s Washington, DC conference over the past weekend, claiming that Israel was “established upon stolen land” and is run by a “tyrannical regime” that terrifies the “violent descendants of Ishmael.”
Yeshiva University students debated how to greet the protesters. One encouraged a counter protest of gay, lesbian trans and others “to say a hearty howdy do” to the contingent.
Doron Levine, editor-in-chief of The Commentator, wrote that the church protesters had “dogged tenacity and zealous fervor that modern orthodoxy could only dream of,” and warned that “attention confers legitimacy.”
Ultimately, about 25 counter-protesters showed up, holding signs that read “Hate is not a Yeshiva value,” and the event ended within an hour.
Simone Somekh contributed to this article.