Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, used to say that every Jew needs a favorite anti-Semite. His was Friedrich Nietzsche, the controversial German philosopher who blamed Jews for originating various social and philosophical ills. Mine is Abdullah Antepli.
To be clear, Antepli is no longer an anti-Semite. Today, he teaches at Duke University, where he previously served as the second full-time Muslim campus chaplain in American history. He was the first imam after 9/11 to deliver a prayer in the U.S. Congress, and the only one to have done so twice. For his pointed criticism of religious and political extremism, he has been banned from multiple authoritarian countries, including his native Turkey. He speaks six languages and has used them to build bridges between disparate communities, most notably Jews and Muslims, which is how we met.
Like many, I’ve been inspired by Antepli and his work, including his admirable ability to be a caring critic of his own community. In holding his own co-religionists to account, he sets an imposing example and challenges others like me to be just as achingly honest in our self-assessments. Indeed, when I write a piece that is critical of members of my own community and their commitments, I am often thinking, What would Abdullah do?
But as Jews prepare this week to observe Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, I have been struck by another insight about Antepli: If he had been born just a few decades later, he wouldn’t exist.
I don’t mean this literally. There would still be an Abdullah Antepli walking around somewhere. But in the age of social media, our society would never have allowed him to become the remarkable person that he is today. That’s because growing up in Turkey, Antepli was a proud, card-carrying anti-Semite. One of the first books he remembers receiving was a children’s adaptation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the influential anti-Jewish forgery that purports to record the meetings of a global Jewish conspiracy. “I was filled with rage,” he recalled in conversation. “When I saw something visibly Jewish, like a Hasidic Jew, I would feel sickness and I’d want to throw up.”
Today, Antepli wryly describes himself as a “recovering anti-Semite.” But if his story had happened more recently, he might never have gotten to rehab for his prejudice, let alone been given the chance to accomplish all the good that he has. After all, in 2022, it would take just one photo on social media of a young Antepli at an anti-Semitic rally to torpedo his chances of ever gaining public trust. It’s one thing to move beyond a bigoted beginning that has been lost in the haze of history; it’s another to try to do so when that past is immortalized online and serves as your first Google result. Every time this alternate Antepli might have approached Jews for dialogue, he would understandably have been met with deep suspicion, if not outright protest. He’d have been forever branded with his worst moment, unable to grow beyond its confines.
As he put it to me, “If there were smartphones and people were taking pictures and they surfaced, would I ever have been able to do the kind of work that I do? Impossible.”
This is a story about Antepli, but it’s also about the rest of us. Thinking about him makes me wonder: How many other Anteplis are we stifling today? How many other people are out there who might otherwise have learned from their mistakes, but are no longer allowed to? How much future good have we denied ourselves in the name of ostracizing past evil?
My point here is not that we should forget the past, or that people should not be held accountable for it. Rather, it’s that individuals should be allowed to learn and grow from it. That is, after all, the entire point of Yom Kippur. It is not a day on which we forget our sins, but on which we repent for them. This sounds like a cliché, but it’s frankly countercultural in the age of Twitter, online public shaming, and constant consequences. As I’ve written previously, “while our society today is very adept at imposing punishment, it is very poor at providing a path to rehabilitation.”
Critics of forgiveness correctly argue that it can entail real costs when improperly bestowed: Insincere offenders can take advantage of society’s grace to perpetuate their abuse. This is a real concern, and underscores the need for accountability. But erring too far in the opposite direction carries a steep price as well: We are losing our Anteplis.
After all, it is rarely the powerful who are permanently penalized by social media’s insatiable inquisition. Whether they are forgiven or not, they will always have another podcast, TV show, or Substack. Rather, it is the confused teenager raised on the prejudices of his peers who is most hurt by our collective resistance to granting second chances. When we provide no path for a person to progress beyond their past, we prevent them from reaching their potential, and risk locking them into a life of moral mediocrity.
The sports-and-culture critic Ethan Strauss calls this the “Shrink Man” approach—a form of “stigmatized summation” that reduces an individual and their complexities to whatever we most dislike about them. This is a bad way to look at people in the moment. But as Antepli’s story makes clear, it has even worse repercussions in the future, depriving us of those who might learn from their mistakes and turn them into impetus for change.
Indeed, it is often profound flaws that motivate people to reach moral heights. This was certainly the case for Antepli. “There was nothing positive about what I felt about Jews as people and Judaism as a religion,” he told me. “But partially because of that, eventually in my attempt to recover, I made incredibly good Jewish friends. I learned so much. I became a better Muslim.”
Not all of us can be an Antepli. But we can open up the space for people like him. There will always be time for punishment, and there will always be people eager to impose it, often with justification. But this Yom Kippur, let’s resolve to make room for something else: possibility.
For the musically inclined, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist for the Yom Kippur season, which you can listen to here. As always, you can reach me with your questions, comments, and critiques at firstname.lastname@example.org.