How do you answer hate? When the tiny and odious Westboro Baptist Church first announced its plans to picket Jewish institutions across the state, the impulse of many was to “fight back.” This is the group, after all, that shows up at military funerals carrying signs reading “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9-11.” Lately the family-run sect has “broadened” its message to declare that “God hates Jews” and (you saw this one coming) “Jews killed Christ.” Church spokespeople offer juicy quotes to the local media (including us), relating a twisted theology that makes Torquemada look like a liberal.
So no doubt, the urge to counter-demonstrate is strong. We know what happens when we dismiss hate-mongers as trivial or beneath contempt. But as the Anti-Defamation League and others have pointed out, the church thrives not only on attention, but also on the potential for suing those who would deny them their right to free speech.
It was thus wise and prudent of Jewish organizations in the state to urge community members not to demonstrate, but instead organize alternative gatherings that emphasized the message of tolerance. These included a quiet but crowded gathering at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange and a larger rally at Rutgers organized by the campus Hillel. The message of these efforts was a sort of spiritual jujitsu — you’ll strike out in anger and hatred, we’ll hit back even harder with a message of love and coexistence.
Or try this for a metaphor: Westboro Baptist is the proverbial grain of sand in the oyster. Noxious and galling, the church is also the irritant around which grows a spirit of common purpose.
So thanks, Westboro. You came to town with a message of hate, and left us a stronger and more unified community.