He was a neo-Nazi leader. Now he’s standing in a synagogue seeking one thing from his Jewish audience
‘The ideology is secondary, It’s the need to belong that makes them susceptible to white nationalism,’ says Tony McAleer, author of ‘The Cure for Hate.’
SALT LAKE CITY — In the days leading up to the Jewish high holidays in 2017, Tony McAleer found himself on a stage with the rabbi of Temple Sholom in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
A YouTube video of the event shows a somewhat nervous, yet resigned, McAleer listening to Rabbi Dan Moskovitz explain the observance of Slichot or the offering of prayers for divine forgiveness that begin a process of reflection and repentance during the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Setting up the evening in the context of repentance and forgiveness is more than just a refresher for the 100 or so congregants. They were about to hear an apology from a man who accelerated his descent into the violent world of anti-semitism and white supremacy just outside the synagogue where they were now assembled.
McAleer would rise to become a leader and spokesman of the neo-Nazi movement in Canada in the 1990s before making the long, difficult journey to a “former.” He is a co-founder of Life After Hate, which supports people escaping the intoxicating social and ideological clutches of white supremacy. The organization also consults with government and law enforcement seeking to understand what makes a white supremacist tick so they can better address the rise of anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and racist sentiment fueling violence in the United States and around the world.
The Anti-Defamation League has called white supremacy the most deadly extremist movement in the United States in the past decade, responsible for 76% of those killed by extremists between 2009 to 2018.
McAleer told the audience at Temple Sholom that he had spoken to other Jewish groups about his past, but seeking forgiveness from those he harmed in his “own backyard” was conspicuously absent from his prescribed process of confronting the fear and shame behind the damage he had done in Vancouver.
“This synagogue is ground zero because the very first anti-semitic act that I did was to place a National Front sticker on that front door,” he confessed, pointing to the doors in back of the room where they sat. “It’s come full circle back to here.”
McAleer contends that neither he nor others who embrace white supremacy were attracted to the movement by its conspiratorial ideology that the Aryan or white race is under threat. Rather, it was acceptance by those in the movement of people like himself — angry and hurt by emotional trauma inflicted by family or peers. In McAleer’s case, he points to a cold relationship with his father and beatings by administrators at a Catholic school he attended.
He found solace in the intensity of punk rock music and discovered soul mates in the genre’s biggest following — skinheads, some of whom were attracted to the violence advocated by white supremacy, he explains in his soon-to-be published autobiography “The Cure for Hate,” an unflinching description of his life from violent extremism to what he calls “radical compassion.”
“The ideology is secondary,” he says. “It’s the need to belong that makes them susceptible to white nationalism. If a child had to believe that the earth was flat in order to get that attention and acceptance from that community, he’d believe it.”
But McAleer wasn’t satisfied with a superficial awareness of white supremacy. He became a student and devoted disciple of its founders. He traveled to meet some of its leading proponents and became a leader of the movement in his community and Canada. He was an organizer in the Aryan Resistance Movement — at the time, Canada’s largest racist skinhead movement — and in 1991 he created the Canadian Liberty Net, a computerized voicemail system that was prosecuted twice under the Canadian Human Rights Act for spreading hate speech.
McAleer was 23 years old at that time and at the height of his influence in the movement. Then an event that would mark the beginning of a yearslong thaw from extremism occurred: he became a parent. He writes that looking into the eyes of his newborn daughter was the first time he had connected with another human “since ... I couldn’t remember.
“We were bonded. I felt a tingle start at the top of my scalp, travel down my body and move out of my feet and into the floor. It was an intense sensation. I only knew one thing: that moment had changed me,” he writes. “I didn’t know how or in what way, but I left that delivery room a different person than I’d entered it.”
It took McAleer about a decade to “physically” disengage from the movement. And that was the easy part. Getting the ideology out of his head proved more difficult.
“What happened was the ideology and identity become intertwined,” he says. “It’s not just a belief system, it’s an identity, it’s who they are.”
And he said the anti-Semitism component of white supremacy, particularly Holocaust denial, was the most difficult to resolve because it took the most time to understand. “So it takes a lot more time to unlearn,” he says.
The unlearning has less to do with debating facts, he says, than it does with recognizing why one joins in the first place (an intense need to belong to something) and experiencing unexpected compassion (radical compassion) from those that the person has harmed.
McAleer experienced that compassion from congregants at Temple Sholom where he acknowledged to the Jewish people there the role he played in inflicting fear and pain in their lives. “There’s always a person who has his arms crossed and doesn’t believe a word I say. And that’s OK,” he recalls. “But the vast majority came up and shook my hand and gave me hugs.”
This month, McAleer speaks to two other Jewish congregations in the Vancouver area in advance of the upcoming high holidays.
McAleer and several former white supremacists and a former Latino gang leader, who have independently experienced the intoxicating camaraderie of a hate group and the radical compassion from those they hated, found each other and formed Life After Hate in 2011.
In between his schedule of speeches and trainings, McAleer, 52, spoke to the Deseret News by phone from his home in Vancouver about his life’s work of combating the growing threat of white supremacy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: You wrote that a common theme among those who join the white supremacist movement is a longing for acceptance. What has happened to someone, like yourself, when they can’t find that sense of belonging in their family, church, neighborhood or school?
Tony McAleer: Everybody’s got a different life trajectory, but we all want to be loved and have approval and acceptance. In my case, I associated church with the beatings at Catholic school and when you are seeking that approval from a parent incapable of giving it you look for that acceptance elsewhere. And that is the seduction of the ideology. Because of social conditions, it attracts people who need that approval. I received a letter from a mother who said her son is a genius with Asperger syndrome and he’s up to his eyeballs in this white nationalist stuff. But what scared her the most is that these people have embraced and accepted her son in a way that no one in his life ever has.
“If we want to get at the problem, we need to get at the root and understand why the ideology was attractive in the first place and what their deeper vulnerabilities are.” — Tony McAleer
DN: For those who know someone who has become involved in white nationalism or for law enforcement trying to identify and prevent the violence associated with it, why is knowing the reason someone joined important to understand?
TM: The intuitive thing to do when you want to change someone who has embraced the ideology is to debate with them. But when you attack the ideology, you also attack the person’s ego and their identity, and all the defenses go up. You’re immediately coming from a place of judgment and that’s going to shut the person down. If we want to get at the problem, we need to get at the root and understand why the ideology was attractive in the first place and what their deeper vulnerabilities are. When people can be vulnerable and feel listened to and not judged and attacked the walls come down and healing begins to occur. The ideology needs to be dealt with eventually, but to go at it first thing is a mistake.
DN: It’s understandable why extremists wanting to change would seek forgiveness from those they harmed, but you also say the extremists need to forgive. Who would they forgive?
TM: I think ultimately themselves. I can guarantee there’s some harm of some kind in the background of every white supremacist that’s at the root of their extremism. So, they need to forgive whoever created that lie about themselves.
DN: Isn’t that an easy way out of not accepting responsibility for their actions?
TM: Because someone is forgiven does not mean they are not accountable. I absolutely hold myself accountable. That’s why I do what I do. It’s my way of giving back. But there’s a great quote from the Dali Lama: “The more I have compassion and forgiveness for myself, the more I diminish my capacity to do harm.” If I’m angry and I hate myself and I don’t deal with that, it cannot help but spill over negatively onto the people around me. Forgiveness is not about letting you or the other person off the hook. What forgiveness does is release that anger and negative emotion around that event.
DN: In your book, you describe going through a spiritual awakening and learning the practice of meditation. Is spiritual journey an essential part of the recovery from extremism?
TM: I’ve observed lots of people go through a spiritual journey because when you connect to something much greater than yourself, it allows us to move on beyond thinking of about yourself. I’m struggling with whether or not you could possibly achieve that without having a spiritual experience. I would think it’s possible, but unlikely.
DN: How would you characterize your faith now?
TM: Very spiritual, but not religious. If I’m feeling out of sorts and not myself, I do a walking meditation in the woods near my house so I can reset myself and get spiritually reconnected. I jokingly refer to the forest as my spiritual chiropractor.
“The underlying problem of white supremacist violence was around long before Trump and it’s going to continue long after he’s gone. And I think as long as we try and make it about that person, it blocks us from actually getting to the root of what actually is going on in the hearts and minds of young people who are drawn into extremism.” — Tony McAleer
DN: In your book you wrote that you weren’t by nature the stereotypical violent, tough skinhead and that your power and influence came through the words you used to incite anger and violence. How do you react when you read or hear media personalities or political leaders use anti-immigrant rhetoric and accusations of racism?
TM: Words do matter. We can utter words that influence people to take action or do nothing. I think the way we talk about people who disagree with us is problematic. When we dehumanize people as if they’re not worthy of any form of dignity, that they should just be removed from society, and we start closing our eyes to the humanity of our fellow citizens and noncitizens we contribute to the division that I think is a real plague on society today.
DN: President Donald Trump has been accused of fueling extremist violence by the language he uses and that he’s given white nationalists a leader and voice they haven’t had before. Is that fair?
TM: I think it is an oversimplification of what’s actually going on. The underlying problem of white supremacist violence was around long before Trump and it’s going to continue long after he’s gone. And I think as long as we try and make it about that person, it blocks us from actually getting to the root of what actually is going on in the hearts and minds of young people who are drawn into extremism. It gets us away from actually finding meaningful solutions.
DN: What can internet and social media companies do to address hate speech on their platforms but not cross the line of censorship and violating the First Amendment protections of free speech?
TM: I think it’s a real quagmire for tech companies. They can’t please everybody and where does it end? If it’s not on Facebook, it ends up on 4chan or 8chan (which has been shut down). But we can’t just sit back and say it’s their fault. We as individuals also come into play in who we are every day. Are we kind? Do we dehumanize people for the color of their skin or a completely different reason? It’s about who we choose to be in every moment of every day. Without that human component, I don’t think you get anywhere.
DN: White supremacy ideology has been found to be a motive for the gunmen in several of the mass shootings in the past year. While your work in combatting violent extremism is gaining attention, do you feel hopeful the problem can be effectively addressed?
TM: I’m hopeful, but I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Our actions come from one of two places: fear or love. The challenge for society is to act bravely from a place of love, to go outside our comfort zone and see the humanity of someone who we couldn’t see before. People are getting sucked into the fear, but also people are tired of the fear. And I think there’s an incredible power of people to inspire other people. When I think of how I can walk into a synagogue, where I put a sticker on the door 30 years earlier as a neo-Nazi and have that congregation forgive me, that gives me hope.