Jewish author makes case for befriending neo-Nazis

September 19, 2017

Through the cacophony of repressive responses to hateful speech, ranging from banning “hate speech” to violently assaulting speakers, Forward columnist Bethany Mandel strikes a hopeful tone in her piece “We Need To Start Befriending Neo Nazis.” She asserts that the answer to bigotry is not censorship, but respectful and constructive dialogue with the bigoted.

Mandel’s argument is rooted in three extraordinary examples of those who “convinced individuals committed to a life of hatred to turn away from that hate. Through the power of listening, and treating these people with their heinous views as humans first and foremost, they were able to alter the destinies of those they encountered.”

The first is Daryl Davis, an individual familiar to our readers as a guest on our “So to Speak podcast” and a keynote speaker at our 2017 FIRE Student Network Conference. Davis is a black musician known for engaging with Ku Klux Klan members, asking them face-to-face, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” By utilizing thoughtful and considerate discourse, Davis was able to persuade many of the highest ranking KKK members to renounce their views — and even their Klan robes.

Mandel then turns to David Abitbol, founder the blog “Jewlicious.” He befriended Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church known for picketing the funerals of Jews, gay people, veterans, and Muslims, among others. Mandel explains how “[t]he power of discourse, questioning, and true curiosity on both sides got the better of her. Their year-long exchanges led to Phelps-Roper leaving Westboro, and not just Phelps-Roper; she took most of her family with her.”

Mandel’s final example is Derek Black, described as “the scion of famous white supremacists” due to his father’s creation of the white nationalist website Stormfront. After Black’s racism was exposed at a small liberal arts college in Florida, Mandel discusses how “one of his classmates, Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew on campus, decided to invite Black to a Shabbat meal. . . . And eventually, Black, like Phelps-Roper and the two hundred men (and women) Davis befriended, renounced the ideas that had once filled him with such hatred.”

These inspiring examples of fighting hate with compassion and dialogue are as striking as they are successful. At FIRE, we have consistently argued that the answer to abhorrent speech is more speech, and while not everyone is likely to undertake such remarkable efforts as those whose stories Mandel highlights, we can all benefit from a willingness to engage with those holding opposing views. For a few compelling illustrations of individuals putting this principle into practice, we encourage our readers to read Mandel’s piece.