THE JEWISH NEO- NAZI
HOW A FORMER SKINHEAD BECAME AN ANTI-RACISM ADVOCATE
John Daly got into the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in the usual way. Like most recruits, he was a young man feeling angry and vulnerable in his l i ttle hometown, Ocala, Florida, in the late 1980s.
“Getting to know these guys ( skinheads) I felt like I had a sense of belonging and I felt like I had people who would help protect me, should I so need it, and with jocks in a small town, you need it,” he said in an interview. “More than once I had cars stop, guys get out, and just beat me up on the side of the road.... I was trying out the facade.”
That made Daly typical. But he is a rare outlier for two reasons. The first is that he got out of organized white supremacy clean, and now pursues antiracism advocacy, including a speaking tour of Canada that begins this week in Halifax. The other, more bizarrely, is that he is devoutly Jewish, and after his religious secret was discovered and his fellow neo-Nazis almost succeeded in killing him, he moved to Israel, where he lives today in Ashkelon near the Gaza border.
At first, this contradiction in terms — Jewish neo-Nazi — was not so glaringly obvious. In fact, Daly first joined a subgroup of skinheads who were opposed to racism, and motivated more by generalized anger, social disconnect and a love for drunken brawling than racist ideology — like a clique for people who did not fit in as a rocker, a jock, or a redneck.
He told them he was Jewish, that he was not interested in joining. But then one guy lifted his shirt, showed him a tattoo of a black and white hand cracking a swastika in two, and said: “No, that’s cool; we’re anti- racists, man.”
“It was by him showing me that that I was like, all right, these guys are safe,” Daly said. There were a dozen subgroups of skinheads at the time, he said, including communists, gays, blacks, some of them engaged in a blood feud with the racist skins. “The whole goal really is, bottom line, to fight.”
It would not be the first time someone showed him a tattoo on the down- low, like a secret handshake.
Over time, bigger players in the subculture would come to Ocala and expect Daly and his friends to “do the song and dance,” to play along in the rituals of overt neo- Nazi hatred. Then a violent rivalry forced him to formally join the hardcore racist skinheads, and once he did, he says he came to realize they had closeted supporters all around, in the police force, in his neighbourhood.
“I was afraid and I did not know who to turn to,” he said. “I remember going to things at the local park, and having adults walk past, lift up their sleeve and have a tattoo of a swastika, and saying ‘ Keep up the fight.’ And you’re like, this is a grown man with kids, out on some holiday like the Fourth of July, and this is somebody who’s supporting us.”
All along, as he marched brazenly in jackboots and shirts with images of Hitler, Daly knew the peril he was in. Gang membership is only empowering until they turn on you. He was now an officer of a major neo- Nazi group, and he started keeping a diary in anticipation of his own murder. In the interview, he recalls the irony that, once rumours of his Jewishness got out, it was one of the antiracist skins who let the others know where he lived.
In the fall of 1990, senior members of the white supremacist American Front came knocking at his home, and rather than let them in to see the signs of his family’s Judaism, or expose his brothers to their menace, he went along in their car to a party at Daytona Beach. It was a setup. They tried to get him drunk, then jumped him. He has described it as a “boot party” — a barrage of kicks to the body and head as they shouted “Die, Jew boy, die.” They held him underwater and left him for dead, expecting to be able to claim their spider web tattoos, which signify murder.
The next morning, a ranger kicked him off the beach, assuming he was drunk, and he drove himself to hospital. In time, some of his attackers took plea deals, but the leader, Richard Myers, gave a Hitler salute in court and was convicted of attempted murder and other crimes.
Today, as he starts a speaking tour of North America, with a movie newly made about him called Escape from Room 18, Daly reflects on the resurgence of white nationalism in the United States. But other than urging young people to ask for help, he is reluctant to draw grand political conclusions from his personal experiences.
“There is nothing I can tell you now, because retroactively going back 27 years in the past, to say, OK, this is what you should have done, is impossible, and it’s not a way to live. I’ve come to terms with what I’ve had to go through. I’m quite happy with what I had to go through. I’ve travelled all over the world telling this story, and that is something that is phenomenal. I gladly would have gone down to the beach to get beaten that night had I known what would take place in the long run,” he said.
Daly speaks to various Chabad locations in Ottawa on Friday, Montreal on Sunday, and Toronto next Tuesday.
After his secret got out and fellow neo-Nazis almost succeeded in killing him, John Daly moved from the U. S. to Israel. He’s spreading his anti-racism message across Canada this week and next.