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Students opt to ‘celebrate’ in wake of protest

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Front Page


CELEBRATION: Sahar Massachi ’11 discusses Tuesday how best to respond to the Westboro Baptist Church’s visit.
PHOTO BY Ingrid Schulte/The Hoot

In response to plans by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) to picket South Street Friday to “remind [Brandeis’] Jews that they bear the curse of their forefather’s murder of Christ,” the newly formed Celebrate Brandeis Committee plans to hold a public address Friday on the Great Lawn and festivities throughout the day to present what it sees as a truer depiction of Brandeis values.

The group plans to hold an informational art presentation in the campus center’s gallery, face-painting and music performances and incoming president Fred Lawrence is scheduled to deliver remarks, while the self-proclaimed anti-gay and anti-Semitic church from Kansas will picket from 8:45 to 9:00 a.m. After protesting at Brandeis, the church, which did not respond to requests for comment, will continue on to protest Hillel at Harvard University in Cambridge.

The counter-movement against the WBC was initially started by Sahar Massachi ’11, and according to his group’s Facebook page, it rejects the term “counter-protest,” but held the educational celebration to “instead affirmatively build something positive here, something to make [Brandeisians] feel more like a community.”

The committee includes representatives from several Brandeis clubs and organizations, including Hillel, who the WBC specifically protested, the Student Union and even members of the administration.

The Union’s involvement was for “students, faculty, staff, and administrators … uniting around this event to ‘celebrate Brandeis,’” Union President Daniel Acheampong wrote in a community-wide e-mail Thursday.

“We commit to joining with other members of our community to exemplify and celebrate our commitment to social justice, diversity, and tolerance,” he wrote.

Outgoing university President Jehuda Reinharz released a cautionary e-mail before the Thanksgiving break, giving the university’s stance on the remarks by the church, which Reinharz called “a small extremist group.”

He also made clear that while “the WBC … was not invited to Brandeis and will not be allowed on campus,” their First Amendment right permits picketing on South Street, public property. But he condemned the speech nonetheless.

“As a community, we stand united in opposition to the vile expressions of this group,” he wrote in the e-mail, and added that Hillel, the Chaplaincy, the faculty senate and his administration working together on a response.

The university’s Senior Vice President for Communications and External Affairs Andrew Gully said that the administration was consulted by the celebrate committee and the Union.

“The administration encouraged undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff who felt strongly about the Westboro Baptist Church visit to refrain from any direct confrontation because that is what they are seeking to promote their vile message.

The offices of Public Safety, Student Life and Communications met with undergraduate student leaders to convey our belief that it is far better to concentrate on the inclusive values that Brandeis stands for rather than the WBC’s hateful agenda.”

The committee took to individual Brandeis values by includeding distinct groups to tackle the planning of the event’s many facets, including a breakout section for the first-hour, the day’s events, safety, media relations and fundraising. More than 40 people attended the plenary meeting Tuesday in Castle Commons, and the signature sheet of supporters from the Brandeis community topped 1,000 names.

The committee, getting money per expected minute of the WBC’s protest, raised over $2,000 for Keshet, a Boston-based Jewish and gay/queer advocacy group, chosen as a counterweight to the specific rhetoric expected from the church’s organizers.