Hate is the most powerful emotion we face. Hate driven by fear, doubly so. If we look to the Old Testament, we can see the strength of fear-driven hate in Psalms, in calls for vengeance and the need to hate one’s enemies.
Those who allow their hate to manifest itself into acts of violent extremism know all too well of hate’s power, as their fear and perceived sense of vengeance today drives them to neo-Nazi groups built of a combination of misogyny and antisemitism.
As we gather here today in remembrance, we can also see how hate can bring out the best of our fellow men and women. We can reflect on how the world responded to the atrocious acts of hate perpetrated by the Nazis against their fellow people. How nations stood shoulder to shoulder to fight against such hate, to liberate concentration camps, and ultimately to build the nation of Israel. In the face of some of the worst hate this world has ever seen, we stood up to say antisemitism and hate speech and hate crimes against the Jewish people just could not stand. We saw how the power of hate could also motivate and drive society to act for good, using such hate as a vehicle to demand acceptance, love, and belonging.
Put more simply, we saw that there can be life after hate.
Nearly 80 years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, we continue to see the specter of hate and fear casting a shadow on our community. Last year, we saw pseudo-celebrities like Kanye West and Kyrie Irving embracing the tropes of antisemitism to build their brands and following, while expanding their voice on social media platforms. Recent data from the Anti-Defamation League highlights a rise of antisemitism in our supposed civil society, with a 20-percent increase in antisemitic incidents from 2021 to 2022, and a 50-percent rise in such incidents in our K-12 schools.
But I don’t need to tell you about these frightening statistics. You know there is no disputing that acts of extremism, including public displays of antisemitism, are on the rise. That is why it is so important that we ask what we can do, both as individuals and as a community, to confront and overcome such increases in hate these days.
The ugly head of anti-Jewish hate is on the rise yet again because violent extremist incidents on the whole are increasing. In recent years, we see far too many incidents of anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-LGBTQIA, anti-immigrant, anti-undocumented immigrant, anti-government, anti-women, and antisemitism casting a dark shadow on our community. These numbers increase because some people are fearful. They increase because we think we are being denied what is rightfully ours. They increase because we are struggling. And historically, the Jewish community is one of the easiest targets for such hate. As our frustration and fears grow, we need targets. And we let the overused tropes of antisemitism drive the selection of such targets.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Psalms also teaches us to “turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Proverbs offers that “a man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.”
At Life After Hate, we focus our efforts on providing the tertiary supports that those who celebrate evil, who stir up strife, and who embody anger need to leave behind their lives of hate. It is not easy work to try and rehabilitate an American Nazi. The work is complicated and soul sucking and messy. It can lead to one questioning his faith and asking if he is capable of improving, even in the smallest way, our civil society. And it can lead to questions about whether certain people are capable of, are worthy of, rehabilitation and forgiveness.
History is littered with examples of how the strength and negative impact of hate and hate-driven actions can grow when left unchecked. I believe we can help violent extremists, particularly those driven by antisemitism, disengage from hate and deradicalize their behaviors. I believe people are worthy of a second chapter in life. And I believe the costs are too high for us not to believe in second chances.
This does not mean that we issue blanket forgiveness or embrace a pollyannish belief of absolution. As a Catholic, I embrace the notion that absolution can only come through contrition. As CEO of Life After Hate, I operate under the mantra of compassion with accountability. As a human being, I believe in the power of empathy and in the possibility of redemption, while knowing that both must be earned, and cannot simply be bestowed.
Each day, I work with former violent extremists in support of those who are seeking to leave behind their lives of violent hate. Some seek this change because they have hit rock bottom. Some do so because they fear of being exposed as a bigot or antisemite in their community. And some do so because they recognize the error in their language, their action, and their ways.
Truth be told, those who commit themselves to exit lives of hate are some of the bravest, strongest individuals that I have ever encountered. They have decided to leave behind their hate families and hate lives with no guarantee that they will be welcomed back into civil society. They know that we are far more likely to judge them by the worst of actions they have committed in their past, instead of recognizing their desire to make amends for such actions. They understand that they must struggle each and every day to take responsibility for their pasts while working to earn our collective forgiveness. And they do so knowing that we may never see them as anything other than haters and antisemites. Yet they are committed to changing their lives, rejecting the negativity of their pasts in search of positivity.
That is why accountability is non-negotiable when it comes to our work and when it comes to confronting hate and antisemitism today. Accountability is the pathway to redemption. It transcends punishment, and exists independent of forgiveness. It empowers us to move beyond the grief of knowing our past choices inform current events. It is the lifelong commitment to action that adds good to the world; and to calling out inaction and refusing to turn a blind eye to the pain of fellow human beings.
It is why we are driven to embrace the belief that compassion and forgiveness is possible for even the ugliest of actions, as long as bad actors take full accountability for lives and for the hate they have previously preached and embodied.
As we gather here at St. Timothy’s Church, I am reminded of the words of Pope Francis, who preached, “Who am I to judge?” I was raised believing that God was the ultimate arbiter of whether we have lived a life of good or a life of evil. I know that man is fallible, and that our mistakes can be both negligible and severe. I know that some of us have committed evil acts, while there are a limited few who are the living embodiment of evil and hate. As such, I believe that I am called to do what little I can to help my fellow humans lean toward a life of positive actions while rejecting a life of hate. I believe that we are capable of making amends for hurting our fellow men and women. I believe that grace can be achieved if we repudiate hate, deradicalize our words and deeds, and disengage from movements driven by antisemitism.
I believe compassion and redemption can be earned, if one takes full accountability for both the good and evil they have spread on their communities.
Today, I close with two thoughts for you. The first is from Ephesians, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away … along with all malice.” I, for one, could wallow in the atrocities of hate and in the growing impact it is having on the people and communities we love, silently wondering why. Or I can set aside that bitterness and let the hate of others drive me to works of positivity, of light, of good, of redemption, and of love. I choose the latter.
I end, though, letting you hear the words of those who once lived lives of hate, but now work tirelessly to redeem themselves and take accountability for their pasts. I want you to listen to former extremists, so you can hear them, in their own words, speaking of their own pursuit of belonging and hope. I ask you to consider if efforts to drive down hateful acts and reduce antisemitism are worth our time and efforts. And as we join together here today, remembering the millions of lives lost because of violent antisemitism, I ask if we are collectively capable of responding to such violent hatred by demonstrating compassion through accountability.
The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stb59XVFQjA
We are all accountable for our past actions. We are accountable for our words and deeds, and for our silence and inaction. We are all accountable to our community and to our fellow humans. And we are accountable to ensure that the atrocities of the past are always remembered, yet never replicated.
(The above remarks were delivered by Patrick Riccards at Temple Shalom of Central Florida’s Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day Event at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Lady Lake, Florida, on April 18, 2023.)