Jeff Schoep led the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States, from 1994 to 2019.
But he has since been deradicalized and now runs Beyond Barriers, an organization that works to combat hate. And he will appear virtually before a group of Jewish studies students at Drexel University on Nov. 18 to talk about it.
Alina Palimaru, an associate policy researcher with the Rand Corp., will appear alongside Schoep. Palimaru studies “real life practices to de-radicalize those who have been brainwashed by racist propaganda,” according to an event flyer.
Schoep and Palimaru will discuss “how to get members of hate groups to build a life away from extremism,” according to Henry Israeli, the director of the Jewish studies program.
The event, sponsored by the Laurie Wagman Initiative, will begin at 10 a.m. and run until noon. It’s open to the public, Israeli said. Register at bit.ly/Palimaru.
Israeli said he wants to host the talk because we hear a lot about antisemitism, but not about how to reach antisemites.
“Unfortunately, there are more of them than ever,” he said. “The internet has facilitated that.”
Schoep’s biggest catalyst for leaving the movement was talking to Daryl Davis, a Black musician, and Deeyah Khan, a Norwegian filmmaker with Afghan and Pakistani heritage.
Davis and Khan spoke with Schoep for separate documentary films that came out in 2017. The neo-Nazi participated in the projects, which were exposing white supremacy, to get the movement’s message out, he said.
“Help people see through the lies,” Schoep explained of his neo-Nazi logic.
But in talking to Davis and Khan, Schoep got out of his white nationalist bubble for the first time in decades.
Davis told Schoep about having rocks thrown at him during a Boy Scout parade as a child. The filmmaker thought people were throwing rocks because they didn’t like the Boy Scouts. His parents had to explain that they were doing it because he was Black.
Schoep has five kids, and he said the conversation affected him as a father.
“I was in this movement for my kids,” he said. “I believed that at the time.”
Khan, who is also not white, had similar childhood experiences. She told Schoep about feeling ugly, hated and “less than.”
The NSM leader was a central figure in Khan’s film, “White Right: Meeting the Enemy,” and, by the end of their conversations, he felt her pain. At one point, the cameraman zoomed in on his eyes as he started to understand.
“That was truly the beginning of the end,” Schoep said.
After almost a quarter-century, Schoep realized he was tired. Hating does that to you, he explained.
But the trouble with white supremacists is that they don’t view it as hating, Schoep said. They see it as defending their own people.
Schoep himself got involved after learning that his grandfather fought in Adolf Hitler’s army in World War II. His mother, a German immigrant, wasn’t proud of that, but she also couldn’t hide it.
Once her son discovered this part of his heritage, he started reading about the Nazis. That was when he learned about groups like the NSM.
“And once I got involved, and was getting propagandized to, I was in this echo chamber,” Schoep said.
He compared it to a cult. Everyone around him believed the same things, produced fabricated evidence to confirm such beliefs and then reinforced them to each other.
Schoep said many neo-Nazis could never bring themselves to believe that they supported the Holocaust. So, they told each other it was a hoax.
They also told themselves that they respected other groups, but just saw “the superiority of the white race,” Schoep explained. Neo-Nazis would say things like “Jews are super-intelligent but just evil” or “Asians build things but don’t invent them.”
“They really do believe it,” he said. “You can’t get someone to fight for something they think is false.”
As he now realizes, they were saying those things without ever talking to Jews, Asians or other groups.
But once a neo-Nazi has a real conversation with someone from another group, the falsehood often becomes clear.
With Beyond Barriers, Schoep is working with an ex-white nationalist in his 60s. The man has never met a Jewish person.
“It’s a lack of knowledge,” Schoep concluded.
That’s why it’s also incumbent upon Jews to not give up on these people, Israeli said.
“We have to love our neighbor,” he said.
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