Times of Israel Presents Learning to love your former enemy

How a former Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson overcame her hatred of Jews

On a Tel Aviv rooftop, Megan Phelps-Roper and Jewlicious founder David Abitbol share the story of an unexpected friendship

Megan Phelps-Roper and David Abitbol in Tel Aviv, April 4, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

It’s a curious friendship between David Abitbol, founder of the popular Jewlicious blog, and Megan Phelps-Roper, former member of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church. For the first time, an inquisitive audience gathered on a central Tel Aviv rooftop Tuesday night got to hear the genesis tale.

The event, “Overcoming Hatred,” was the latest in the Times of Israel Presents series and co-sponsored by Jewlicious. Its aim was to show how civility and dialogue can bring even the most unlikely of allies together. (For those who missed it, the two will tell their story again on Wednesday night at the Beit Alliance in Jerusalem.)

Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church — one of America’s most-hated institutions, famous for picketing soldiers’ funerals and other sensitive locations and events. While perceived as homophobic and anti-Semitic to outsiders, the church view themselves as providing a service to otherwise damned souls.

“The church doesn’t see what they’re doing as hateful,” Phelps-Roper told the kippa-studded crowd.

‘The church doesn’t see what they’re doing as hateful’

As she put it, the verse in Leviticus 19:17 instructs the Israelites, “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” The church takes this to mean that it’s their duty to rebuke their neighbors rather than see them steeped in sin — a notion not unlike the Talmudic adage that each Jew is responsible for the actions of his fellow.

Still, the “God Hates Fags” and “Your Rabbi is a Whore” (one of Abitbol’s favorites) signs rub some the wrong way.

Phelps-Roper first sought out Abitbol after discovering a JTA article that listed him as the second most influential Jew on Twitter (a fact that Abitbol self-deprecatingly understates). Her message: “repent.”

“I knew this wasn’t just a conversation between me and her,” Abitbol said, “but that her followers were seeing it, and the people who were following me were seeing it.”

‘I knew this wasn’t just a conversation between me and her’

So he decided to take a lighthearted approach.

“Yom Kippur was coming up,” he said, getting a knowing chuckle from the audience. “So I thanked her for her holiday message.”

Phelps-Roper didn’t pick up on the humor — she has since become much more familiar with Jewish language and custom — so she doubled down on her invective. And while at first it was rough going between them, the two quickly developed a warm connection.

Megan Phelps-Roper in a previous life, picketing the Oscars. (photo credit: CC BY-SA k763, Flickr)

“There was never any question in my mind that we stood on opposite sides,” she said, but because they developed a more respectful tone, they were “still able to have that rapport.”

Funnily enough, they started running into each other at events.

“I’m going down to an event in New Orleans,” Abitbol told the laughing crowd, “and Megan is like, ‘Oh, cool, we’re going to be picketing there.’”

As a nice gesture, Abitbol brought the Phelps family some halva from the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Phelps-Roper brought kosher chocolate.

As the friendship developed, so did their theological discussion. Each challenged the other, the conversation becoming more nuanced as they quoted Biblical sources in a never-ending battle of the wits.

“I had an answer for everything,” Phelps-Roper said. “And if I didn’t, I could just go to a senior member of the church and they would have an answer ready for me.”

And then one day, silence.

As Phelps-Roper shared about her pivotal moment, a hushed audience sat on the edge of their seats in the waning dusk light, only the distant sounds of rush-hour traffic rising up from the street below.

David Abitbol, who helped persuade Megan Phelps-Roper to leave the Westboro Baptist Church, in Tel Aviv, April 4, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“David asked me a question I couldn’t answer,” she said.

It was about supporting the death penalty for homosexuality, and it hit close to home. Phelps-Roper’s older brother was born out of wedlock, and if her mother had been appropriately punished for that sin, she would never have had a chance to repent – and Megan Phelps-Roper might not have been born.

For two years, Phelps-Roper maintained that silence, as she struggled internally with that, and then more questions.

Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, speaks in Tel Aviv, April 4, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Eventually, she couldn’t deny it any longer, and decided that she had to pack up and leave the church — and effectively, almost her whole family.

She reached out to Abitbol, not wanting him to find out via social media. Ever gracious, he invited her to the Jewlicious festival in Long Beach, California, which happened to fall out on the following week.

‘I really liked that rule about no electronics on Shabbos’

Abitbol convinced a reluctant Phelps-Roper to share her story with the festival crowd — something she finally compromised on doing on Shabbat, so that she wouldn’t be recorded.

“I really liked that rule about no electronics on Shabbos,” she said.

Since then, she has faced difficult challenges on multiple fronts, acclimating to life outside her insular world, carrying on without contact with much of her family, and trying to make right the wrongs she did, after spreading messages of hate to mourning parents of fallen soldiers.

It hasn’t been easy, but one thought has inspired her to face audiences full of the people she used to despise.

“David told me about tikkun olam,” Phelps-Roper told the crowd, “that you could do something to repair the world. We literally had a website, ‘The World is Doomed,’ but this idea that we could fix what we broke, this really gave me hope in a time where there wasn’t a lot of that.”

A second chance to hear ‘Overcoming Hatred’ tonight in Jerusalem:

7:00 p.m. Wednesday, April 5
Beit Alliance
Kiach 5
Jerusalem, 93542
Tickets NIS 20.50 HERE
To join our priority booking list and for details of all events, send an email with the word “Subscribe” to events@timesofisrael.com

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