WASHINGTON (JTA) -- After years of focusing on gays and lesbians with its protests, the Westboro Baptist Church has a new target -- the Jewish community.
The Topeka, Kan.-based church, which features the slogan “God Hates Fags,” protested at three Jewish sites here last Friday afternoon. The protests are part of a series of upcoming rallies that will bring members of the church to Jewish community institutions in Omaha, St. Louis, South Florida and Providence in the next few weeks, according to the church's Web site and fliers the group is distributing that list scheduled protests and proclaim “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus.”
Led by Pastor Fred Phelps, the 71-member church, according to Anti-Defamation League research, first gained notoriety about a decade ago when it began picketing the funerals of gays or those they thought were gay -- including Matthew Shepard, who was the victim of an anti-gay attack.
In recent years, church members frequently have protested outside the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at other events that are likely to bring news coverage and, in turn, publicity to the church. One such event was the funeral of three young girls killed in a traffic accident.
While picketing outside the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League last Friday, Phelps' daughter Margie told JTA that the group is now focusing on the Jewish community because church members have been “testifying” to gentiles for 19 years that “America is doomed” and they haven't gotten the message.
“Now it's too late," she said. "We're done with them.”
Margie Phelps added, “one of the loudest voices” in favor of homosexuality and abortion is “the Jews, especially the rabbis.”
“They claim to be God's chosen people,” she said. “Do you think that God is going to wink at that forever?”
Deborah Lauter, the ADL's director of civil rights, said the church has always been “anti-Semitic” but never targeted the Jewish community until recently. She said the ADL isn't entirely sure what triggered the new focus on Jews, but speculated that the help the ADL provided to a school that the church picketed last month for performing the musical “Rent” could have something to do with it.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project tracking hate groups, said he didn't think there was any real significance to the church's new focus on Jews.
“With a group willing to picket the funerals of little girls killed in a school bus crash, it's hard to be surprised by anything they do,” Potok said.
“They're the farthest fringe,” he said, noting that even hard-line anti-gay groups are embarrassed by Phelps' church.
Lauter added that the protesters are not violent and don't try to recruit others to their cause. But they are provocative and are “baiting the Jewish community to respond.”
“We're advising Jewish institutions not to give them the publicity they crave,” she said, and not engage the protesters.
In Washington, the group first picketed the funeral of former congressman Jack Kemp, and then protested outside the ADL offices, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the city's largest synagogue, Washington Hebrew Congregation. (The group positioned itself across the street from the museum -- on the edge of the National Mall -- meaning that visitors to the museum that afternoon did not even necessarily see them when entering the facility.)
Margie Phelps and three fellow church members stood on the sidewalk and held signs stating that “God Hates Israel,” “Jews Killed Jesus,” “America Is Doomed,” “Israel Is Doomed,” and “ADL Jew Bullies.” One of the four women had an Israeli flag tied around her waist that dragged on the ground; she stepped on the flag as she walked.
Alluding to prophecy in the book of Revelation, Phelps said that all the nations of the world would soon be marching on Israel, led by President Obama, whom she called the “antichrist.” She said “Israel is doomed” and that only the 144,000 “righteous Jews out there” would survive the “persecution” that all other Jews will experience.