How the Sabbath cured one man’s hatred

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Ku Klux Klan. Photo by Martin via Flickr creative commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/arete13/4126186099/

Ku Klux Klan. Photo by Martin via Flickr creative commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/arete13/4126186099/

The Sabbath is good for a lot of things.

Apparently, it can be very good at healing hate.

This is the story of Derek Black, a young man who was a leader in the white nationalist movement. It was originally told by Eli Saslow in the Washington Post — and the story has been breaking the Internet.

You could say that white nationalism was in Derek’s genes. His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, a white nationalist website, with more than 300,000 users. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke.

This was Derek’s education: America was for white Europeans, and everyone else would have to leave. He learned to be suspicious of the United States government, of tap water (!), and of popular culture. At the end of third grade, his parents pulled him out of public school in West Palm Beach, Florida, and they home-schooled him.

Derek enrolled in New College in Sarasota. Around campus, he mostly kept his opinions to himself. He studied in Germany for a semester.

Someone found out that Derek was a white nationalist. He “outed” Derek, and posted this revelation on the New College internet message board. The message went viral.

Derek had an acquaintance at New College named Matthew, the only Orthodox Jew at New College. For months, Matthew had been hosting Shabbat dinners, where he invited a diverse group of people.

Matthew decided that his best chance to influence Derek’s thinking was to reach out to him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” he said.

He sent Derek a text message.

“What are you doing Friday night?”

He invited Derek for Shabbat dinner.

Derek came. In fact, he became a regular attendee at Matthew’s Shabbat soiree.

The other members of the Shabbat group slowly began to warm up to him. Tentatively at first, but then more assertively, they began to ask Derek about his views.

Derek said that he was pro-choice on abortion. He said that he was against the death penalty. He said he didn’t believe in violence, or the KKK, or Nazism.

He said that he did not even believe in white supremacy, which he insisted was different from white nationalism. He said that he was worried that massive immigration was going to result in what he called a white genocide.

And then, Derek’s studies conspired to convince him that he was wrong about certain key ideas.

Because he was majoring in medieval history, he came to understand the history of Europe. Derek had thought that the white race was biologically superior. But, his studies did not confirm those beliefs.

He learned that in the early Middle Ages, European culture lagged behind Islam. He learned that white culture was not necessarily superior; in fact, the entire idea of a white race was a modern idea.

One of Derek’s Shabbat friends wrote to him about his involvement in the white nationalist movement.

“Get out of this. Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has.”

And so, eventually, Derek issued the following statement.

After a great deal of thought, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.

The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.

And, as you can imagine, when Derek disavowed the white nationalist movement, it was tantamount to him disavowing his relationship with his father.

Derek decided to leave the white nationalist movement, at an interesting time. It was at the moment when the current presidential campaign gave permission to many of its followers to re-group and to re-state their hideous messages. It was at the moment that the radical right rebranded itself as the alt-right movement.

How has the alt-right movement been keeping busy? By sending anti-Semitic messages and tweets about every Jewish reporter who has had the chutzpah to criticize the Trump campaign.

Hadas Gold is the editor of Politico’s “On The Media” blog. A photoshopped image of Gold was posted on Twitter, including a bloody bullet hole in her forehead and a yellow star pinned to her chest.

She also received emails with threatening and anti-Semitic messages.

“Don’t mess with our boy Trump or you will be first in line for the camp,” read a message accompanying the photo.

According to the ADL, there have been 19,000 Twitter mentions of journalists that contain at least some anti-Semitic content.

We Jews believe in hospitality — or, as the Reform movement refers to it, audacious hospitality.

Jewish hospitality is not only nice. It is not only good. It might actually be transformative — especially, the power of the Shabbat table.

What ultimately weaned Derek away from his hatred? Not just rational arguments. Not just his historical research into European history and the origins of racism.

It was the power of relationship – the power of conversation, the power of listening and understanding, even the power of emerging friendship.

As one of my Christian friends put it: You Jews have a wonderful resource in your hands. It is called Shabbat.

I would like to think that, just as Jews welcome imaginary angels of Shabbat through the singing of Shalom Aleichem — Derek’s better angels came to him on Shabbat as well.

And there was one less hater in the world.