Fred Phelps is a classic troll.
When the religious lunatics who comprise Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church turn out to spew their homophobic, anti-American venom at soldiers' funerals, they're seeking attention. Almost any sort of attention will do, whether it's from the media, from counter-protesters, a police cordon, or being beaten up. But the congregation of Beth Simchat Torah, a New York synagogue, may have hit upon the one form of attention that Phelps doesn't want:
Leaders of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a West Village synagogue that caters to gays and lesbians, didn't want to ignore a planned visit by members of the rabidly anti-gay and anti-Semitic Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.
Instead, they asked supporters to pledge a dollar or more for every minute that six protesters stood near their synagogue hurling epithets and holding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Jews Stole the Land."
The final haul after 50 minutes: $10,000.
As Beth Simchat Torah is not the sort of synagogue that an anti-semite like Phelps would imagine (meaning its adherents are not rich – the congregation can't afford to own a building), this fundraising drive will do the congregation a world of good. To my knowledge, it's the first widely publicized instance in which the Westboro bigots have been used to promote good deeds on a local level. In all likelihood they'll never return to Beth Simchat Torah.
And no one's freedom had to suffer for it.
This sort of creative counter-activist judo has promise as a means of repelling other odious characters, not just Westboro. If Phelps protests at a military funeral, people of goodwill should use it to gather pledges for Disabled American Veterans. If it's a homophobic outburst, how about Lambda Legal Defense? If what dregs remain of the Ku Klux Klan remain are marching (it still happens where I live), why not organize pledges for a local historically black college or the scholarship section of the UNCF?
In many cases laughter isn't just good medicine. It's the best revenge.
(Thanks to reader and frequent commenter ST for the tip.)