The Anti-Defamation League’s national director Abe Foxman has a mantra, “Never again,” that he calls upon constantly to remind us of the dangers of complacence in the face of the drumbeat of racism that led to the Holocaust. So why is it, when we’re faced with a group of anti-Semitic fanatics that spread their hate in front of our synagogues, that same organization (among others) tells us we should ignore it?
It’s a question that was on my mind in the week or so leading up to the recent protests in Seattle by the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist church at several synagogues and Jewish organizations. These are the folks that protest military funerals because there are supposedly gays serving in the armed forces. The ones who have a Web site called godhatesfags.com. The ones who have now turned their attention to the Jews.
So where were the Jews? When the Phelps family — reportedly the entire group of seven that came to town is related to its leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps — stood across the street from Congregation Beth Shalom, or at the 600 Stewart building (which no longer houses the Jewish organization they were protesting) or even at my own office, there were counter-demonstrators, to be sure. But their response was to the anti-gay speech and placards, not necessarily to the anti-Jewish angle. If there were indeed Jews protesting at the Jewish sites, their presence was tepid at best, and invisible at worst.
We could easily have knocked them off-kilter. As JTNews columnist and University of Washington professor Martin Jaffee wrote for us in the last issue, several Jewish students responded to protests of an Israel Independence Day celebration on campus exactly the way we should have done: “Instead of breaking and running from a threat; instead of responding in kind with idiotic counter-threats and taunts, what did they do? They ordered the little klezmer trio on hand to crank up the music. Then they gathered into circles and, hand in hand and arm in arm, proceeded to dance. Wildly, joyfully, full of the love of life and the optimism that is the privilege of youth. Am Yisrael chai! Od avinu chai!”
We needed a klezmer band. We needed hundreds of Jews from all over the community to pour out of the doors of the Federation and the neighborhood and dance happy, joyous circles around these people. We needed to let them know that our Jewish pride is far, far greater and more intact than any invective they can spew at us.
But instead of two-stepping on their copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, we got protocols for using alternative entrances and reminders to keep the blinds shut.
The Catholics at the St. James Cathedral got it right. They rounded up the masses at mass — something like 500 parishioners in all — and over the yells of Westboro’s child abuse accusations, performed their Corpus Christi ceremony on the streets of the Central District as a show of solidarity against these hatemongers. Rather than hide, which is what the Jews were asked to do, Seattle’s Catholic community faced them head-on.
Will you be seeing that procession on godhatesfags.com? Doubtful.
Even the gay community, God love ‘em, missed the boat on this one. They showed up in force with their signs, chants, and a boatload of enthusiasm. But they did exactly what the Westboro folks wanted them to do. The WBC videotapes the counterprotests, posts it on their Web site, and poof! There’s proof the homos really are as evil as we say they are. Then it’s off to the next street corner on the schedule.
It most certainly would have been preferable to ignore them in the hope that everyone else might, too. But they showed up on crowded downtown street corners during rush hour. They got the attention, and this fanatical group of seven was bigger than any request from any of our Jewish communal leaders. And that’s exactly why we needed to be out in force.
The Phelps family are a bunch of media whores, and judging from the coverage — from us, from the TV stations, from the daily and weekly papers — they accomplished exactly what they set out to do. What did the pictures in the Seattle Times site show? I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t the hundreds of students at Garfield High School who put together a counter-protest.
They couldn’t have picked a better time to be here. They came hardly two weeks after the assassination of one of the most reviled abortion providers in the country. It was just three days from the murder of Stephen Johns, killed while on duty as a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by an alleged white supremacist. You may not be feeling a chill toward Jews in our country, but I’m starting to.
In April, a document released by the Dept. of Homeland Security reported on the rise of violence by hate groups stated, “rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.”
The conservative media and blogosphere blew a gasket over this report (though, to be fair, a similar one about left-wing radicals does nothing to induce comfort), and the level of instigation by many of its voices is, frankly, frightening — particularly for the Jewish community.
We’ve got a special situation here in Seattle, particularly at the offices of the JTNews and the Holocaust Center, both of which were targets of this hatefest. Our offices reside on the premises of the Jewish Federation, which itself was the target of a much more vicious and deadly attack not even three years ago.
Nerves are still frayed and there’s a natural inclination to want to protect the employees of these organizations in light of that fact.
But we had an opportunity to act, and we failed to seize it. Fred Phelps’ acolytes may act in a peaceful manner, but that may not be the case for the guy driving past a synagogue whose views are finally validated by somebody.
Never again, indeed.