A former Nazi speaks out
After synagogue attack in Texas, former Nazi TM Garret says we can overcome fear.
TM Garret realizes he could have been in that synagogue in Colleyville, Texas – not in his former life as a white supremacist and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but as someone becoming a Jew by choice.
After a terrorist took the rabbi and three members of Congregation Beth Israel hostage during Shabbat morning services, Garret recalled the first time he went to the synagogue to pray. It was Yom Kippur two years ago. He had attended several times as a public speaker, but in 2019 Garret, a researcher and analyst for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, threw his hat in the ring and began to identify with the people. Jewish.
“I had already joined Jewish friends for Shabbat, Passover and Hanukkah dinners. I had given many talks in synagogues and Chabad houses. But I had never gone to a synagogue for the sole purpose of attending services and praying,” he recalls.
In his old days of hate
“So I decided to make Yom Kippur my first time. I met the Rabbi of the Or Chadash Synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee, and was warmly welcomed. Yom Kippur was a perfect day for me. – I had to ask for a lot of forgiveness that night. For the first time in my life, I wore a yarmulke and they gave me a transliteration so that I could pray in Hebrew.
After services, a worshiper sought him out to inquire about anti-Semitism in Germany, where Garret was born. Garret assured him that the Jews would no longer have to worry about the Germans, knowing how much his homeland had atoned for its blatant Holocaust history.
He spoke too soon. The next day – the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – a neo-Nazi attacked a synagogue in Halle, Germany. Garret felt betrayed: “What did I say to those people last night?” Then he realised, “If someone had entered that synagogue where I was last night with the intention of murdering everyone inside, I would have been dead. I looked like a Jew, I prayed like a Jew.
After many years of exploration, the 46-year-old human rights activist finally feels he has found his spiritual home in Judaism.
Garret was born into a German Catholic family that only went to church at Christmas. While he grew up believing in God, religion didn’t play a major role in his life for a long time.
I explored all these bands I once hated and discovered how many of the stereotypes a lot of people believe in are just plain wrong.
He felt like an outcast in the small German town of his youth. Both parents had a drinking problem and they divorced shortly after he was born. His mother was raising four children on her own, which was unusual at the time.
Uncomfortable in his own skin, Garret embraced bigotry to blend in. As a teenager, he fell into hate groups, became a white supremacist, then rose through the ranks to become a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Europe.
Love and compassion melted the hate
Fifteen years ago, after vilifying everyone who was different, from Jews and Muslims to immigrants and homosexuals, a door opened to escape the hell of hatred. He came in the form of a Turkish Muslim who showed Garret the love, compassion, and commonalities that are bridges.
Speak out against hate
“After a long journey, I was allowed to explore all these bands that I used to hate,” says Garret. “I discovered how many stereotypes that many people believe are just plain wrong.
“In 2018, I started exploring Judaism. With the ethics of Judaism aligned with my newly formed ethics, I felt drawn to this diverse community and as I never stopped believing in God, I also found a new religious home. At first, I wasn’t sure what I was more drawn to – community, ethics or religion. I found that Judaism is all that! I developed a deep love for it, and in 2020 it became clear to me. I made the decision to join these wonderful people and convert.
Introspection: will I be a good Jew?
Garret asked himself many questions before coming to this conclusion. Is this the right thing? Does that make sense? Would I be a good Jew? His rabbi reassures him: “It’s a trip. Do your best.”
Garret gets a sense of what it’s like to belong to a minority group. The Simon Wiesenthal Center once gave him a jacket adorned with a Star of David after speaking at the 106th Alpha Epsilon Pi International Convention and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, DC. Carrying it down the street, Garret had a startling thought. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I got hit in the back by a bottle.” He didn’t take off the jacket.
You cannot fight hate with hate. We break down their barriers with compassion and unconditional love.
After the synagogue clash in Colleyville, where the four hostages were rescued, Garret said it was important not to give in to fear. “I think that’s why the Jewish people are still here. They never gave in to fear or gave up their beliefs.
The power of compassion and connection
Garret advises people to recognize that we have the power to help people get out of the forest of hate before they become violent actors hurting people. Try talking rather than vilifying them. Show understanding for their fears, with empathy but not sympathy, while making it clear that you don’t share their views.
Find compassion for those you might disagree with. Seek to understand them as people rather than dismissing them with a label. Look for ways to have a conversation. Listen rather than enter these conversations with the goal of changing them or telling them you’re right and they’re wrong.
They’ll often let you become a trusted source to them before trusting radicals, Garret says. “We break down their barriers with compassion and unconditional love. That’s how I got deradicalized. You cannot fight hate with hate.
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