His story broke the internet - a former leader of the White Nationalist movement renouncing his racism and anti-Semitism and apologising for the damage he had done. In a follow up feature that quickly went viral, Washington Post investigative journalist Eli Saslow revealed the catalyst for Derek’s change of heart - an invitation to Shabbat dinner!
To appreciate just a how dramatic it was, we need to look into Black’s ‘illustrious’ heritage. Derek is the only child of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard who founded and runs Stormfront, the web’s biggest racial hate site. Stormfront is a forum for 300 000 neo-nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists to share their views and the site is banned in several countries where Holocaust denial and hate speech are crimes. Then there’s Derek’s mother, Chloe, whose first husband was David Duke, a white nationalist of exactly the same ilk as her husband. Duke has travelled the world promoting his views and books which include a title called Jewish Supremacy - My Awakening to the Jewish Problem. Duke is Derek’s godfather.
Derek brought his family much nachas as a child, his father affectionately calling him “the Devil’s child” - as a compliment. At age 10, he created a children’s forum on Stormfront. Later he created his own radio show. As he grew up he traveled around the country with his father speaking at White Nationalist conferences and by his early 20’s he was organising them. He entered politics campaigning for mainstreaming white nationalism, and trying to attain recognition of ‘the white genocide” taking place in America through Jewish social domination, immigration and policies designed to help minorities.
The level of indoctrination to which Derek was subjected, as well as his own activism makes his rejection of the very foundations of his life all the more intriguing. When Derek enrolled at liberal arts school New College to study medieval history he anticipated ostracism for his racist views and kept them a secret secret. He was however soon outed on the university’s student message board, where his picture appeared with the caption “Have you seen this man?” Now everyone knew who he was - the scion of the White Nationalist movement. The ensuing outcry included verbal abuse and calls for his expulsion from the school.
Fellow New College student and orthodox Jew Matthew Stevenson wondered if Derek had ever met someone Jewish, and if doing so might change his mind about Jews. Every friday night he would invite his diverse college friends over for kiddush, a Shabbat meal and conversation. Derek, who was now being shunned by everyone at New College so much so that he had special permission to live off campus, decided to accept Matthew’s invitation to Shabbos dinner. For the first time in his life he was faced with diversity. Week after week he went back for the lively, warm and eye-opening debates and gradually Derek broke free of the prison of his own mindset.
The only person to show him any kindness, the only one to reach out to him in friendship was Matthew - who as a Jew was a ‘usurper’, (his father’s term for their Jewish neighbours). He had always believed “Jews must go,” leaving America to its rightful inhabitants, the white race. He had justified his views with “logic”, the biological differences between races, (the stuff of Mengele’s experiments) but now that he had actually met a Jew - sat at his Shabbos table and liked him - it was harder to feel that old prejudice. He started doing his own research.
Derek’s change of heart caused major fallout in White Nationalist circles. His father went into a depression, having to admit to Stormfront’s users that his son had betrayed everything he had been taught to believe. Several members reacted by issuing death threats. David Duke theorised that Derek was suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”, because he had developed empathy for his liberal academic captors. Derek simply developed empathy. He began to relate to others as human beings, not as faceless representatives of their respective races. He began to see and appreciate individuality. And he did all this because Matthew Stevenson invited him for Shabbos, treating him as a fellow human being, worthy of kindness, made in the image of G-d. Derek’s transformation means there’s hope for overcoming prejudice and hate. All it takes is kindness, dialogue, diversity and maybe just a touch of homemade chicken soup.
Adapted from an article published on aish.com
Paula Levin is an author, writer and editor living in Johannesburg, South Africa. She works with her husband in advertising and they are blessed with three children.