Ignorance is not your friend
They may seem like a handful of idiots, if particularly obnoxious ones. It is tempting to just ignore them. Unfortunately, history has proven time and again that even the most outlandish ideologies of hate can rapidly evolve into something that extends far beyond mere words. Likewise, mere words are an insufficient means of responding to those who would incite the world to hate. We cannot afford to wait until demagogues — even those as ridiculous as the Westboro Baptist Church — become too powerful.
No one understood this better than Marek Edelman. The last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Edelman died at the age of 90 only weeks ago. By the time resisters began their uprising — the idea of such a struggle having been resisted by most of the Ghetto population — it was too late to win, but they fought anyway. As Edelman put it, "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths." Fighting impossible odds, the uprising lasted only a few weeks, but succeeded in striking a startling blow to the Nazi war machine, no doubt saving many innocent lives.
Edelman survived the war, but unlike many of his fellow resisters, he refused to abandon the country of his birth to emigrate to Israel or the United States. To leave, he felt, would be a capitulation to the same racist attitudes, which had inspired the Nazi Holocaust. For Edelman, living out the rest of his years in his native Poland, to exist was to resist.
And resist he did. Edelman remained active in politics, speaking out against the injustices of the Stalinist regime, which took power after the war. For his refusal to be silent, Edelman was even jailed for a time. When the Stalinist government asked him to speak at 1983 commemoration of the Uprising, Edelman refused. To speak at the event, he said, "would be an act of cynicism and contempt" in a country "where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion."
Edelman believed that it was his duty to speak out against injustice wherever it existed, with no exceptions. In later life, Edelman noted with dismay that the Israeli government, falsely claiming to act in the name of the entire Jewish people, was engaging in oppressive behavior of its own. Founded on land seized after 800,000 former Palestinian residents had been violently expelled — to this day denied the right to return — Israel has no fewer than 30 laws which bestow rights upon Jewish citizens that are denied to Palestinians. Edelman resented the manner in which the oppression experienced by Jews was now offered as a justification for the oppression of another people and remained a vocal defender of Palestinian rights to the end. For his insistence on moral consistency, Edelman, despite his heroism, has been largely ignored or denounced by many Israeli historians.
Westboro Baptist Church may be a tiny fringe group. But their beliefs — that those who do not conform to their warped vision of a homogeneous, totalitarian world must be pushed to the margins of society — are dangerous. Like Marek Edelman, we must take a stand against oppression. Like Marek Edelman, we must not be afraid to speak out — and to act — even as others urge us to be silent. And like Marek Edelman, we must refuse to oppose some manifestations of bigotry only to endorse or ignore others.
Abraham Greenhouse is a 2005 alumnus of University College, where he majored in history.