Detroiter Jeff Schoep ran America’s largest neo-Nazi group for 25 years before leaving in 2019. How should Jews feel about his reformation?
This article is part of The Anti-Semitism Project, a Jewish News editorial series exploring how we talk about hate, bigotry and political speech in 2020. Read our Editor’s Note about why we pursued this story.
In summer 2019, Rick Eaton heard something shocking. One of the most prominent neo-Nazis in the U.S. was leaving the movement.
As co-director of the digital terrorism project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights organization which tracks hate group activity, Eaton interacts with his fair share of white supremacists. And he was very familiar with the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi group in America, and its “commander”, Jeff Schoep (pronounced “Scoop”), who had been in the group for the past 27 years and led it for the last 25. Until now, it seemed. Schoep, now 46, had just walked away from hate groups for good.
“I wanted to go and meet him immediately,” Eaton said, remembering how, more than a decade prior, he had met Schoep while working undercover at an NSM barbecue. So he flew from the center’s L.A. offices to Detroit. This time the two were meeting as each other’s authentic selves, in a hotel lobby by the DTW airport. (Schoep will only say he lives in “the Detroit area,” not wanting to reveal his location for fear of retaliation from the group he once led. “They view me as a traitor,” he said.)
The two talked for hours about Schoep’s journey, and Eaton pushed him to bring his message to a broader public. Schoep wanted to enter the world of peacebuilding, where he could try to use his story to deter people from joining hate groups like he had. Eaton could help him do it.
“As soon as I sat down with Jeff in the lobby and started talking to him, personally, I felt that he was real from the beginning,” Eaton said.
Six months later, he brought Schoep to face a crowd of Jews at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a Modern Orthodox shul in Skokie, Illinois. It was the same Chicago suburb where, four decades earlier, a different neo-Nazi infamously won a Supreme Court case that allowed his hate group to march through a neighborhood filled with Holocaust survivors.
But Schoep was there to ask forgiveness. And he received it.
“The people were so kind and forgiving and loving,” he told the Jewish News two months later, from COVID-19 quarantine, after fumbling with his Zoom settings. “I don’t think I ever received so many hugs in my entire life, until I got there.”
Ever since he could remember, Jeff Schoep had wanted to be a Nazi.
His grandfather was one, he said: an ethnic German from Prussia, he fought in the Wehrmacht (Nazi armed forces) against Allied troops during WWII, on the Eastern Front as well as in the Ardennes. After the war, Schoep’s grandparents were sent to POW and refugee camps before finally coming to the U.S.
Growing up in rural Minnesota, Schoep was fascinated by his grandfather (who died last year) and read everything he could about Nazis. He didn’t come from a traumatic childhood like many who are drawn into far-right ideologies; both of his parents had good jobs, and his family was middle-class, he said. Schoep’s interest in Nazism was purely his own decision.
When he was 15, Schoep traveled to Germany to visit a great-uncle who had also fought for the Nazis and had half his face burned off at the Battle of the Bulge. This was shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, and while in Germany, Schoep met his first group of skinheads. “I was fascinated by the Third Reich,” he said. He didn’t know any Jews, but he hated them all the same. “The Jew was the cancer and the other races were symptoms of that cancer,” he said of his beliefs at the time.
When Schoep got back to the U.S., he wrote letters to every American neo-Nazi group he could find. In 1992, at age 18, he joined what was then called the National Socialist American Workers Freedom Movement, based near him in St. Paul, Minnesota. Members read literature like Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Henry Ford’s The International Jew. Before long Schoep was enthusiastically attending the group’s rallies, holding anti-Semitic signs like “Six Million More.”
Shortly after Schoep joined, the group’s leader stepped down and appointed him in charge of the movement. He was 21 at the time. Schoep shortened the group’s name to the National Socialist Movement — a more direct nod to Nazism — and his long career at the head of the country’s most prominent hate group had begun.
Up until he left the NSM in 2019, Schoep had spent his entire adult life in the movement. He earned his income from operating a white-supremacist music and apparel label called NSM88 Records; “88” is white nationalist code for “Heil Hitler.” He orchestrated their rallies and their entire public image, and issued strict edicts to his followers: no bad words or racial slurs (except, of course, for the swastika on their flags); no sharing of violent or racist memes online; no real-world violence, “only self-defense.”
All of this was done against the wishes of his own family, including his grandfather, who warned him not to get involved in any Nazi movements. Schoep was unwilling to discuss more details of his family on the record, but Eaton said Schoep’s mother, an attorney, had once lost a judgeship appointment after links to her son were made public. Even this wasn’t enough, at first, to dissuade her son from his cause.
In 2007, Schoep moved from Minnesota to Detroit, taking the NSM headquarters with him and incorporating the group in the state of Michigan. Detroit’s dramatic economic downturn, he reasoned, would make for fertile white nationalist recruiting ground, and he was right. “The movement did better in the big cities,” he recalled, “especially cities that had racial strife or economic problems.”
Besides, he added, Michigan had always been one of the most-represented states in the NSM, though he said he never kept an accurate count of the group’s total members. But the state does have a long strand of bigoted activity, including prominent and still-active membership in the Ku Klux Klan; the Michigan Militia movement that launched in the mid-1990s; and anti-Semitic preachers like Father Charles Coughlin and James Wickstrom. Both of them were quoted frequently within the NSM.
It took many years for Schoep to begin to see the error of his ways.
He first began to have doubts about his cause in the mid-2010s, unsettled by positive interactions he’d had with people from various minority groups who’d reached out to him. Among some of his unlikely new friends were Daryl Davis, a black blues musician who’s played for Chuck Berry and B.B. King and is known for befriending Klansmen and convincing them to renounce their memberships; and British Muslim documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who profiled Schoep for a documentary, White Right: Meeting the Enemy, which screened locally in February at an event hosted by NEXTGen Detroit and others.
In addition, Schoep said he befriended an Orthodox Jewish woman in the Detroit area, whom he declined to name, citing safety concerns.
Beginning to doubt the hate he preached, but too scared to strike out on his own, Schoep tried to rebrand the NSM in a way that would make it acceptable to mainstream politics. After Donald Trump was elected president, Schoep saw an opening. In fact, he said, the state of America in 2016 was what the NSM had always wanted.
“I had hoped for that kind of polarization,” he said. “We wanted America to break down, you know, a socioeconomic collapse, because we felt that during that time, that’s when the movement would rise up and people would be looking for answers.”
Schoep directed the NSM to insert themselves into the immigration debate by setting up their own “patrols” along the Southwest border. The ploy worked: new members signed up because they saw the group as “the only ones doing anything about illegal immigration.”
Most significantly, in 2016, Schoep removed the swastika from the NSM’s flag. The move was deeply controversial within the group (most of its followers were still proud Nazis), but Schoep was no longer interested in emulating his own Nazi heritage. He promoted the NSM instead as “a white civil rights group,” in the vein of the growing popularity of “alt-right” groups promoting similar ideology.
This was what the NSM looked like to Acacia Dietz when she decided to join the group in 2017. Dietz, now 36, was raised in a conservative Christian family in rural Ohio and initially moved to Metro Detroit to attend Rochester College (today Rochester University), a private Christian school. Her father was a pastor, and as a child, her favorite movie was Fiddler on the Roof. In school, she said, one of her biggest mentors had been a Black dean; she even named her son after him.
None of that stopped Dietz from joining the NSM. Thanks to Schoep’s rebranding, she didn’t know about its Nazi ties. She only knew it as a civil rights group for white people, and, she tells the JN, that was enough for her. She was initially motivated to join by her anger at the left for what she believed was their own intolerance of people with right-wing views.
“When I first got involved, my mission was to show that these individuals were human too,” Dietz said. “I guess you could say I was pretty naïve.”
Like Schoep, Dietz rose through the ranks of the group quickly. Shortly after joining, she became the NSM’s propagandist, responsible for editing the group’s online videos and crafting its message on social media in order to lure in new followers. In a major accomplishment, she got the NSM reinstated on Twitter after being previously banned for hate speech.
Dietz said it was only later, after she was already immersed in the group, that she realized what its members believed all along: “The Jews control everything.”
“I didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was,” she said. “I had never been really exposed to that.” One day she finally asked Schoep what it meant. “He’s like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’”
In August 2017, Schoep took the NSM and their new, swastika-free flags to Charlottesville, Virginia, to march in the now-infamous “Unite the Right” rally. What unfolded there would prove central to his decision to leave the group.
Organized by an array of far-right and white supremacist groups in response to the Charlottesville city council’s attempts to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the rally became one of the largest public displays of anti-Semitism in American history. Hundreds of marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” and one individual drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
One month after the rally, a group of 10 Charlottesville residents filed a civil suit against the organizers, naming Schoep as a co-defendant in his capacity as leader of the NSM. Drawing on a statute known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which gives the president power to combat white supremacist organizations, the lawsuit (which is still ongoing) accuses the Unite the Right organizers of conspiring to commit racist violence.
Today, Schoep calls the rally “horrific” and denies that either he or the NSM played a role in planning it. “I wasn’t even on the speakers list,” he said, claiming that he “wasn’t really interested in going,” but went anyway because he saw defending the preservation of the Lee statue and other “historical” memorials as “a good cause.”
But being named in the suit “stressed me out,” he said. Even as he made public statements defending the NSM, he said he realized he couldn’t be a part of the group anymore.
This led to a series of dramatic twists. Schoep confessed to James Hart Stern, a Black activist he’d become friendly with, that he wanted to leave the NSM. Stern successfully convinced Schoep to hand legal ownership of the group over to him; planning, as he told reporters at the time, to use the group to deter new followers through techniques like playing Schindler’s List on its official website.
As soon as Schoep had turned over the group, Stern attempted to “plead guilty” to the lawsuit on behalf of the NSM. Because this was a civil case, he was legally prohibited from doing so.
The move felt like a betrayal to Schoep, and the two had a bitter falling-out; he wrested control of the NSM back from Stern, only to formally announce his retirement from the group a few weeks later, in March 2019. (Stern died of a heart attack that October, at the age of 55.)
Dietz was on the NSM’s board of directors at the time Schoep left and briefly became the legal owner of the group before she, too, made the decision to leave after two years on the inside. In the process, she dissolved the NSM in the state of Michigan.
Another member would soon revive the group in Florida, and today the NSM continues to spread hate without its former leader, including through its Detroit chapter. At the city’s June 2019 Pride Parade, several NSM members marched while screaming ethnic and homophobic slurs at passersby. Many chapters have returned the swastika to their flags, as well, according to Eaton, who has continued to monitor them.
But Schoep and Dietz were now home free. Both still living in the Detroit area, they connected with each other on the outside to form an anti-hate group called Beyond Barriers. Today they describe the NSM as a “cult,” and are both grateful to have left. When people still in hate movements reach out to Schoep, he tries to convince them to leave, too. Dietz, the onetime propagandist, makes their videos.
There is a growing international community of people who have left hate groups. They call themselves “formers.”
Among the more famous formers: Derek Black, son of Don Black, founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront (Derek lived for a time in Michigan after his retreat from hate); Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps; and, now, Schoep.
All three made their journeys at least in part aided by Orthodox Jews they had befriended while still in hate movements.
Since other formers have found media attention and speaking engagements from their own high-profile exits, some observers have questioned whether Schoep’s transformation is sincere. A recent New York Times article cast doubt on his journey, emphasizing the relative quickness between his formal exit from the NSM and the beginning of his public outreach.
Complicating Schoep’s rehabilitation is the fact that he continues to defend himself in the Charlottesville lawsuit, strongly denying that either he or the NSM played a role in organizing the march or the violence that followed. By his own admission, if the suit goes to trial, he could find himself on the same side of the courtroom as people who continue to actively preach hate and anti-Semitism. But he’s willing to do that.
“This is about being transparent, and if I go in and tell lies about something that isn’t true, then I have no honor,” he said.
For his part, Eaton believes Schoep’s conversion wholeheartedly. “I’ve done enough of these [hate group conversions] that I think I have a sense of what’s sincere and what’s not,” he said. “And I do believe that Jeff is extremely sincere about all this. Plus the fact that it’s not like something you can do for a year and then renege on. You know, he’s chosen his path, and it’s a good one.”
But maybe the right question isn’t whether Schoep is serious about leaving hate groups behind — by all accounts he appears to be. Maybe the right question is what Jews are to do with a man who once led calls for their extermination and is now suddenly appearing in synagogues, saying he wants to lead people like himself away from what he spent a quarter-century doing.
To this point, Schoep is especially interested in doing work with Jews. It’s why he agreed to be profiled by the JN in the first place.
“The more I can reach out to the Jewish community, for me, it’s an honor,” he said. “I’ll always carry the burden and the shame from my past and the things that I’ve done, but if in some small way… I can turn a negative into something positive, then it’s a good mission to be on.”
COVID-19 interrupted Schoep’s anti-hate tour before it could really begin, but his first Jewish stop in February was already life-changing for him. At Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, Rabbi Ari Hart welcomed him and showed him the congregation’s Torah scrolls, though Hart did not plan the visit.
Hart told the JN he still struggles with the question of how to respond to figures like the one who entered his synagogue.
“On the one hand, we believe in teshuva [atonement] and we should show the beauty and dispel the myths and lies people say about our people,” Hart wrote in an email. “On the other hand, we need to stay safe when we know that there are so many out there who seek to do us harm.”
At his talk in Skokie, which was posted to YouTube, Schoep confessed that, though he is free of it now, his anti-Semitism was the very last prejudice to leave him. More than a month after hearing that, Hart admitted, “I am still processing that statement.”
But if others struggle with what Schoep stands for today, Schoep himself is more confident than ever about his new path. He has already seen enough of this new world, he says, to reject the conclusions that informed his old one.
“I once believed, and many of the people in the movement believe, that the Jewish people hate non-Jews,” he said, adding that after he left the NSM, “a guy I once knew for years told me the Jews will hang me one day, and hang all of us that fought against them, and I would never be forgiven.
“That’s the kind of message I get, but I don’t believe it anymore. I used to think that way, too, so now I try to fix others’ way of thinking. If nothing else, it’s less people hating each other.”
Further Discussion: Jewish News Editor Andrew Lapin will host a Facebook Live session Tuesday, May 26 at 1:00 p.m. EST to respond to reader questions about this story. You can submit questions ahead of time to firstname.lastname@example.org or via the JN’s Facebook page.