Perspectives on Hate From a Rabbi and a Former Neo-Nazi Skinhead

Mar 16, 2017

Since the beginning of the year, there have been at least 100 bomb threats targeting Jewish Community Centers across the nation. Synagogues and cemeteries have been desecrated in New York, Pennsylvania and recently, Arizona. Today we hear two voices on the subject of hate, its manifestation and destructive potential. First a Rabbi in Flagstaff and second a former neo-Nazi skinhead both of whom know the depths of the emotion.  

Christian Picciolini is a former neo-Nazi skinhead. He now runs an organization that helps people leave hate groups.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER

Hello My name is Rabbi Mindie Snyder. I am the spiritual leader of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I had the good fortune of growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where there are many Jews. Many different kinds of Jews. The Jewish history in Philadelphia is significant. There was a certain sense of safety and security within my Judaism. I didn’t feel othered. And then sometime during high school the news reported that my synagogue had been vandalized. Things had been stolen from the holy arc. Swastikas had been painted on the walls and windows were smashed. And that’s when I really stated seeing bigger crimes against our people.

Violations the Jewish people through sacred spaces like synagogues, like cemeteries has been increasing over the past two months in particular.

The first thing I feel is outrage that people feel they are entitle to or have the right to harm an entire group of people. And whoever is perpetrating these crimes probably doesn’t realize that the harm they do to the Jewish community worldwide affects our Muslim friends, our Christian friends. These are family to us.

Rabbi Mindie Snyder of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff.
Credit Justin Regan

What is not being discussed in the media as much as perhaps it could be is the relationship between the expressions of-and I’m going to use the term ‘hatred of Jews’ because ‘anti-Semitism’ was coined by a German person many years ago preceding World War II. And what does anti-Semitism really mean? It almost sound like a euphemism. So let’s talk about hatred. One of the things that’s not being discussed is the root of hatred. What hatred really is. How hatred grows. How hatred is perpetuated over generations. How hatred is expressed, not only in its most dramatic fashion, like God forbid blowing up a building. But there are some very subtle expressions of hatred. That one can hear.

Hello my name is Christian Picciolini I am the co-founder of Life After Hate, a non-profit that helps pull people out of hate groups. I was a member of America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang.

I was first recruited in 1987. I was a normal kid and at 14 years old I was searching what all kids are searching for. I was looking for an identity. And a man came up to me one day when I was smoking a joint in an alley. And he looked me in the eye and he took the joint from my mouth and he crushed it with his boot and he said ‘don’t you know that’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile?’ I was suddenly struck with this man’s charisma. This man who was America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead. And he promised me paradise. He promised me the bullies would stop picking on me, that I would belong, that I wouldn’t feel marginalized any more.

The racism isn’t something that they lead with. They lead with pride, they lead with acceptance, they lead with a sense of nobility if you were to fight against the enemy. And it was always an ‘us against them’ narrative. It was always somebody else’s fault for the problems we were experiencing in our lives. That immigrants were taking our jobs, that blacks were moving in to our neighborhood and increasing crime and that the Jews were in control of our lives, in control of the media and the finance systems.

I got married at 19 years old and we had our first child, and I held my child in my arms and suddenly reconnected with the innocence that I lost at 14 years old. And I had something tangible to love instead of something to hate, and it changed my priorities.

In 2009 I found the courage to co-found an organization called ‘Life After Hate’ which is an organization dedicated to helping people disengage from hate groups and hateful ideologies. I knew how hard it was for me and others to leave. Even though we had lost the ideology it was difficult to give up that community and identity.

On Election Day a bucket of gasoline was kicked over on to all these smoldering sparks that already existed across the U.S. And now the folks that are involved in these movements and hateful ideologies feel very embolden because some of the same things that are being said by our leaders now are what we said 30 years ago. While we didn’t call it the ‘lying press’ we called it the ‘Jewish press’ we know that’s the same thing. We understand that when they call for a ban on a certain religion that’s something we were calling for 30 years ago.

When I’m asked what we can do to solve the xenophobia and racism it’s a pretty daunting question to try to answer and what I think we can do is only affect the people that are closest to us. Our family, our friends, our coworkers. And we can do that not by being confrontational or aggressive but we can do that by listening. Because when we listen people will eventually give us the reason why they might be going down a certain path of hatred or violence or prejudice. These are difficult conversations to have. Nobody likes to have these very uncomfortable conversations but the truth is we need to because we’re disconnected now more than ever.

My goal is really to just listen, understand and connect people who might have different backgrounds so we can realize we have more similarities than differences.