BOONE — Two men spoke in Boone about their journeys from being anti-Semites to activists during the A Day Against Hate event aimed to combat hate on Appalachian State University’s campus and the wider community.
Students and community members poured into the university’s Plemmons Student Union to listen to German-born T.M. Garret and Egypt-native Hussein Aboubakr speak on Oct. 27. The event was hosted by App State’s Alpha Epsilon Pi and Center for Judaic and Holocaust Peace Studies as well as national organizations such as Hillel, The Simon Wiesenthal Center and StandWithUs.
Garret spoke to students at last year’s Day Against Hate event, when he spoke about his past as a “far right Nazi skin head” organization as well as starting a German chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He had since founded a nonprofit group in Memphis, Tenn., that conducted outreach programs and anti-racism/anti-violence campaigns.
In the last two years, Garret started speaking publicly about his journey. He said it wasn’t until his visit to Boone that he started to really connect with the Jewish community.
Even with the work he was doing, when minority groups were targeted, he said he couldn’t empathize with them.
“I showed empathy,” Garret said. “I was worried about them; they were my friends. Whenever something happened, I reached out to them to make sure they were OK. But I could not wrap my head around what it was like to be targeted.”
A Day Against Hate took place on the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. While he has been an activist for many years, Garret said it wasn’t until the synagogue shooting in Halle, Germany, earlier this month that he truly understood what it was like to feel unsafe to be Jewish.
The day before the attack in Germany, Garret said he participated in a Jewish Yom Kippur — also known as a Day of Atonement — service in Memphis. He said it’s a holiday when Jews ask for forgiveness, and by participating he would have come “full circle.” The next day the synagogue in Germany was attacked.
“I realized something … I was sitting in a synagogue yesterday with a kippah on praying in Hebrew, and I actually was a target,” Garret said. “Even though the president of the synagogue mentioned the precautions and security measurements … I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t fathom that somebody would come and enter the building to shoot everybody inside. The next day I realized I could’ve been one of the victims. All of a sudden I knew how it feels not to be safe to be Jewish.”
When Garret was done speaking, an audience member asked him why he thought hate had been growing at an incomprehensible level in the last few years. Garret replied by saying that he thinks the hate has always been there, but is just now coming to the surface.
Garret spoke about how a comic he drew at school poking fun at Nazis and the Holocaust led his classmates to call him the “Nazi kid.” Similarly, Aboubakr wold read comic books depicting a Jew as the super villain. This message was perpetuated in mosques, schools and cartoons, saying Jews were evil and Muslims were in a “great battle” with them.
Aboubakr grew up in Egypt with his Arab Muslim family. While his family wasn’t particularly religious, when Aboubakr was 11 years old he started to frequent mosques and delved deeper into the religion. He played videos for those in attendance that depicted Muslim leaders giving messages to “fight, defeat and annihilate” Jews, and that the Jews were their “sworn enemy.”
As the middle child, Aboubakr said he had a hard time gaining parental attention. He wanted to be valued, and thought he could gain this value by becoming like the heroes in the comic books. He decided to learn Hebrew to help the world to get rid of the Jewish pathology. He went on to study Hebrew at Cairo University.
“I started to read different stories of Jewish history and people in general that were vastly different than the romantic stories of the super villains,” Aboubakr said. “When you read it you won’t find a history of super people who control anything or have power over anything. You will actually find a history of a hated minority who were persecuted … over thousands of years of history. It was a striking contrast to what I thought or what I’ve heard about the great enemies of good.”
Aboubakr later would choose not to adapt to the regime’s official anti-Israel and anti-Semitic curriculum and was persecuted by the Egyptian State Police for being the first visitor to check out books and watch films at the Israeli Academic Center of Cairo.
In 2010, Aboubakr was jailed and tortured for his studies of Israel. Later that year, he was suspected of being a “Zionist agent” and was held in a military detention camp and tortured. He was again later jailed for his contacts with Israelis and writings expressing hopes for coexistence and peace, according to StandWithUs — an international and non-partisan Israel education organization aiming to fight anti-Semitic.
Aboubakr received asylum in the United States in 2014 and has worked as an assistant professor of Hebrew studies. In 2019, Aboubakr joined StandWithUs as an educator.
An audience member asked Aboubakr if he himself had been stereotyped. He answered by saying while he has felt accepted in the United States, there was a time when a woman on an airplane asked if he was a terrorist. Even with this example, he believes that hatred is not impossible to beat. To combat hatred, Aboubakr said education, dialogue and honesty with one another is important.
“Hatred hurts us all,” Aboubakr said.
For more information on Garret’s organization CHANGE (Care, Hope, Awareness, Need, Give and Education), visit www.changememphis.org. More information on StandWithUs can be found at www.standwithus.com.