The Westboro Challenge

When fringe groups seek to challenge our faith, how should we respond? Should we engage — or walk away?

The fundamentalist group Westboro Baptist appeared right on time across the street from the modern Orthodox school where my older daughter graduated. And I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but I did not throw eggs. Demonstrators — approximately ten, including children – occupied the sidewalk holding signs. It is shocking that this group would bring children. If you want to learn more about how fundamentalists brainwash children, check out the powerful documentary, “Jesus Camp,” by filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, available on Netflix.

After my first article appeared about the group, they found me on Twitter, and let me know their goal, which is to convert every non-Christian to Christianity. Apparently, Jews receive special attention. I was tempted to engage. I almost tweeted back: “Do you really think you can convert every Jew on the planet?” “We are not going away!”

But I do not engaged in Twitter Wars. If I can’t say it to someone’s face, then I won’t punch it into a keypad. And anyway, I knew, no rational argument would convince them. Their bond to their faith is emotional, as is ours. We can’t help it if we are simply more rational, not to mention chosen. This group from the South arrives to picket the Oscars every year, but who notices with all the stars on the red carpet dressed in their finery?

Fringe groups hope to impose a way of life on us that is different and myopic. I can’t imagine how any Jew would follow along. I do not condone their tactics or beliefs. I think targeting schools is unethical, and I know many Christians who do a much better job of wooing Jews to their side.

So, is this group worth fighting against? If a group poses a serious threat, we must stand up against them and fight. But if they are surviving off internet-hype, then it may not be wise to egg them on (pun intended). As fate would have it, I ran into our Temple’s Rabbi in the parking lot of our local supermarket, and he urged restraint. I am pretty sure that throwing eggs is at least a misdemeanor, and I don’t want to get arrested. So, sick as it sounds, I had to admit that this group is actually upholding our democracy by testing it.

With Purim coming up, I cannot help remarking on how different the threats were in ancient Persia, when the Jewish community was in grave danger, and few people knew of the evil plot against the Jews. Until Queen Esther brilliantly exposed it, and saved the day.

Anti-Semites today have the ability to be loud, especially when they use the internet. They appear more powerful than they actually are, as if reflected in some sort of funhouse-mirror-of-hate. They spread vitriol with vicious words. And our President’s twitter messages do not set a great example, I might add.

Luckily, our laws still protect our freedom. Protestors can hold up signs espousing any belief they like. And I can wonder how their arms do not tire. We may lose Jews to intermarriage, but no one is walking down the street to school, or to clock in to their teaching job, and stopping with a sudden revelation in front of sign urging repentance, saying: “Oh, I’d love to repent. Where do I sign up?” (As far as I know.) If anything these groups strengthen our resolve. We are a stubborn people. I know I am. When my daughter’s school says “Stay away,” I go. If someone tells me to do something, I immediately ask, “Why?” If they tell me not to do something, I ask: “Why not?” I want rational explanations for things. I believe in reason, in the power of the mind, over the power of the sword.

These groups hope to test our faith, but they are a blip on our radar. Nothing more. Judaism has been around a long time. Jewish day schools educate our children; synagogues provide prayer and really delicious cholent; Jewish camps, youth groups, and universities engage in spirited debates. We encourage free thought. We almost had a Jewish president, or at least a major candidate, and Bernie Sanders did not even mention his Jewishness, so woven into the fabric of American life is this faith.

So, next time I see extremists with signs, I will ask: do they pose a threat, or are they simply seeking attention? Just as Queen Esther kept a level head, I will not feed the fires of anti-Semitism, but stay vigilant and ready to act, only when necessary.

This story "The Westboro Challenge" was written by Deborah F. Blum.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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