Last September, a week before Yom Kippur, a former skinhead sat before the Jewish community whose synagogue he had vandalized decades earlier.
It was the site in Vancouver where Tony McAleer committed his first anti-Semitic act before he rose to prominence in the white supremacy movement.
“I had to face this congregation that I had harmed,” he said. This would be his personal Day of Atonement.
He came before them nervous, ashamed and fearful. And he shared his journey.
Tony was 15 when he developed a loose association with neo-Nazis. It wasn’t the hateful ideology that drew him in.
“I became a skinhead because I felt weak and powerless,” he said. He felt invisible. The attention and approval that came with his hate group made him feel safe. “I had so much invested in this identity. It wasn’t about whether I was correct.”
Over the years, those relationships slowly became his entire identity, and he often appeared on television as a spokesman for the white supremacist cause.
His mother was horrified. While her love was unconditional, she told him, their relationship was not.
“She held me accountable,” he said. She told McAleer, by this time a single father, that if he was going to have one foot in the world of neo-Nazis, she wasn’t going to be around to help him raise his children. It was help he desperately needed. He left the movement in his early 30s, but he never dealt with the wounds that made those views attractive to him in the first place.
In a political moment when racists feel emboldened to publicly share their hateful views, family members may struggle with how to respond. Last summer, some were surprised to discover their children or siblings had marched holding Tiki torches and chanting Nazi slogans in the violent Charlottesville, Virginia rally. A Ladue High School graduate was seen marching alongside neo-Nazis and KKK supporters, and his sister apologized for and condemned his actions on Facebook.
The main organizer of the Charlottesville rally is planning another demonstration in August across the street from the White House on the anniversary of last summer’s deadly protest.
The underlying emotion that draws people to hate groups and extremism is toxic shame, said McAleer, now 50. Consider the opposite of shame: pride. These groups offer an expression of false pride. It took McAleer years of therapy to discover the source of his shame. His Jewish therapist, who listened while he expressed doubts about the Holocaust, helped him get to the root of his disordered thinking. Eventually, he pushed McAleer to share his story so he could help others. In 2012, McAleer went public about his past, speaking on television and radio about how he was drawn into a white supremacist movement and how he extracted himself from it. He has also co-founded a nonprofit, Life After Hate, where others can share their stories of similar experiences. He advises schools, towns and organizations about how to break cycles of hatred and disrupt recruiting. He speaks all over Europe and America.
“There’s no academic way of making someone compassionate,” he said. “It happens through experience.”
Earlier this month, McAleer spent three days at the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial in Poland as part of a documentary he is making.
“It’s also part of the process of healing and confronting who I used to be,” he said.
It took years before McAleer could confront the community he had hurt in his hometown.
The Jewish congregation asked him tough questions about vengeance. They talked about how one atones for a sin when you don’t know exactly who the victims are, which is often the case in spreading hate speech. He apologized to the congregation at Temple Sholom, but he did not ask for their forgiveness.
“I don’t know if I had the right to ask for forgiveness.”
After the hour-long talk, several of the congregants came up to thank him, shake his hand and hug him.
They had forgiven him anyway.