One month following its press release announcing a “God Hates Your Idols Preaching Tour” stop at Yeshiva University, a group of five Westboro Baptist Church members made their anticipated showing at 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue on Monday morning. For about forty minutes, the all-female cohort at the street corner held signs printed with statements such as “GOD HATES SIN ENABLERS,” “DIVORCE REMARRIAGE & SAMESEX ‘MARRIAGE’ ARE ALL SIN,” and “JEWS WILL MOURN FOR CHRIST, WHOM THEY PIERCED,” accompanied by citations of New Testament verses. Two YU Security officers and several NYPD officers were on site.
The protesters were met by a group of around thirty counter-protesters, some of them YU students. Organized by Asher Lovy and Mordechai Levovitz of the nonprofit Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) and co-sponsored by Orthodox LGBTQ support organization Eshel, the counter-protest gathered at Lake Como Pizza near YU. JQY provided flags, coffee and signs to the group that read, “CHOSEN people choose love over hate,” “HATE is NOT a YESHIVA VALUE,” and “LGBTQ students are WELCOME in Yeshiva U.” On the counter-protest’s Facebook event page, 230 people had responded that they were interested in attending and 68 that they would be going. Lovy attributed the lower turnout to the morning’s rainy weather.
On Wilf a few blocks away from the protest and downtown on Beren, fifteen student volunteers tabled in campus lobbies to fundraise for a “Fight Hate By Building Hope” campaign in support of the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, raising a total of $900 in live and online donations. A few students headed over to observe the protest, though most remained on campus in deliberate or convenient accordance with the YU administration’s instructions not to engage with the protesters.
The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for its picketing of military funerals and espousal of virulently anti-gay and anti-Semitic messages. Though tax exempt like other churches in the United States, it is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In one characteristic quote from its website, godhatesfags.com, the WBCstates that “we don’t believe in physical violence of any kind, and the Scripture doesn’t support racism… The only true Nazis in this world are fags.”
Over the last 25 years, WBC members have continually conducted protests across the country at universities, churches and other institutions in pursuit of public outcry and media attention. Its provocative protests are regularly met with counter-protests. In 2013, its actions prompted over 360,000 people to sign a petition to the White House in favor of legally designating the WBC as a hate group.
Following the demonstration, a WBC protester told The Observer, “We have conducted protests against proud sin at dozens of Universities—scores of them—the response at Yeshiva University was the response appointed by the Lord our God, and we are thankful for each of those souls and would that they should truly heed the words and repent and escape the fires of hell!” When asked whether she felt that the group had fulfilled its aims at YU, she commented, “YES! YES! YES!… If I were to quantify it in terms of 1 to 10 and 10 being off the charts good, I say 15+. We are so grateful to be living when all evidence points to the soon return of our Lord Jesus Christ in great power and glory to set up His kingdom.”
Of the counter-protesters, she said, “We were happy to see them. We wished for more. We pray in that group is one of God’s elect Jews who will come out from along the filth of the Jewish false religion, mourn for killing Christ, and be saved… We wish them all well and thank them for coming.”
In late February, the WBC announced its protest at YU in a press release which declared: “Yeshiva University encapsulates the perverse state of both modern Judaism and the american university system. These modern Jews… punish anyone who dares speak the truth about what a bunch of reprobate sinners they all are. WBC will shine a light on the fact 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.’” Contrary to expectations, the protest’s emphasis focused more heavily on believed Jewish culpability for killing Jesus than on homosexuality.
Shortly following the press release, YU administrators Rabbi Dr. Joshua Joseph and Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander emailed the YU community that “as both a Yeshiva and a University committed to the nobility of all people, YU firmly rejects the group’s vile message of intolerance and hatred.” They asserted that though the group would be permitted by law to protest in public areas, it would be barred from standing on YU property.
“What the university administration said is common for university administrations to say. And the students rarely follow their direction. So what they said is largely irrelevant,” a WBC representative said following the initial recognition. Not long afterwards, the WBC moved its previously declared stop from 185th Street—directly in front of the Gottesman and Pollack Libraries—to the further, yet more publicly visible, intersection at 181st Street, owing to what the representative called “change on the ground due to logistics.”
In the days just prior to the protest, YU administrators emphasized via email that the success of the WBC “depends on the media spectacle created through counter protests, as well as lawsuits against those who interfere with WBC members.” They stated that, in recognition of security concerns, and to deny WBC members of further desired limelight, students were encouraged to instead “shun them with silence and peace” and contribute to the student-led JFCBS fundraiser.
“In the face of a group that calls for exclusivity and supremacy of one group over others it seemed appropriate to show our inclusiveness,” explained the fundraiser’s initiator and YU student Zvi Teitelbaum. The decision to specifically fundraise for JBFCS “was a result of the discussion students had with members of the administration the week before the protest. While most of the students at the meeting wanted the fundraiser to be for JQY or a similar organization, which I would have personally been thrilled to support, we needed to consider the reality of the political and social climate on campus.”
Representing an alternate student perspective, Lovy articulated that the counter-protest was important because “while I understand the contention that the WBC is a fringe group that no one takes seriously… we wanted to make sure that when any LGBTQ students walked out of YU on Monday they would see an overwhelming showing of love to counter the hateful message of the WBC.” He hoped that communal progress in recognition and acceptance of Jewish LGBTQ individuals could be borne of the counter-protest. “The more the conversation about LGBTQ acceptance is forced at YU and the Modern Orthodox community in general the better. We have to do better, and I’m glad our protest helped further that conversation.”
Lovy referenced a widely read editorial by The Commentator’s editor-in-chief Doron Levine, which argued that to avoid legitimizing the WBC and dividing the YU community, students should not engage in a counter-protest. Levine wrote that the planned counter-protest would sideline students who respect homosexual individuals, but on religious grounds are uncomfortable with promoting a pro-gay message.
YCSA president Tzvi Levitin, who facilitated a student forum in advance of the protest to discuss ways to appropriately respond, noted, “For some students, engaging with WBC directly felt like the right thing to do, and they did so peacefully and defiantly. Others took the opportunity to turn a hateful message into one of solidarity and community by raising money for the Jewish Board, and that fundraiser was heartwarming to see around campus today. The administration stepped back and let the students make what they wanted of today’s protest, and overall I think the student body really rose to the occasion.”
The WBC has no upcoming protests of other Jewish institutions currently listed on its picket schedule, nor another protest at YU. “I’m sure we’ll be back some time again, Lord willing,” said the WBC representative. Until then, the protest leaves its mark in raised community conversation and funds.