Dealing with the haters, New York style

Dealing with the haters continues to be a vexed issue in the Jewish community and although responses vary, we do often seem stuck in the no-platform, high-security, call-the-police, bolt-the-doors paradigm.

There are some examples of better responses. When, a couple of years ago, Brighton Reform found that ham had been thrown at the synagogue doors, the then Rabbi David Meyer told his community that they had suffered a ‘gentle attack’. Without playing down the significance of anti-Semitism, this phrase marked a sensible avoidance of what could have been a more hysterical response. Fortunately, there has not been an attack since. Some things are more pathetic than threatening.

Yet anglo-jewry by and large remains quiet, preferring to keep its head down rather than making any bold challenges. A notable exception was of course jewdas’ attempt at reclaiming anti-semitic imagery in the artwork for its ‘Protocols of the Elders of Hackney’ event. The flyers, which were distributed at London’s annual Simcha on the Square, contained images taken from published editions of the anti-Semitic hoax ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’.  As it turned out, many at London’s  simcha on the square were not quite ready for such methods nor indeed were the metropolitan police (who still retain 100s of flyers), yet even the good old JC could see the point in the end.

So we have a lot to learn and could do worse than look towards the often inspirational jewish scene in New York. The story goes as follows. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah is a community with temporary accommodation in Manhattan. Their members are also predominantly gay which meant that they attracted the unwelcome attention of America’s ‘God Hates Fags’ brigade (specifically the Westboro Baptist Church) who organised a protest outside the shul.  Getting wind of the forthcoming protest, the congregation fought back by encouraging their supporters to donate at least $1 for every six minutes of protest. Amazingly, this meant that the 51 minute protest raised over $10 000 for the community. A 150 strong counter-demonstration was also held. With a bit of quick thinking and boldness, the congregation turned a threatening protest into a hugely successful fundraising drive, bringing them closer to achieving permanent accommodation in Manhattan.

It is difficult to conceive of a more creative and successful way of organising opposition. The fundraising drive neutralised and mocked the protest, making it practically impossible for the Baptist church to demonstrate again without running the risk of accidentally supporting the synagogue. The synagogue’s response was non-violent, non-confrontational and didn’t make recourse to the police or attempt to ban the demonstration; it was far more effective than any of these options.

It seems likely that having the courage to attempt this response would have come in part for the sheer size of the jewish community in New York, allowing the synagogue to rely on successful fundraising. It is also probable that organisers had experience in the gay rights movement which has been extremely vocal and effective for decades. Doing something like this is not easy, but is to be aspired to.  We in the UK should look towards responses like this when dealing with anti-Semitism in the UK.

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