“Swastika Rehabilitation Day”

Last week Karen Areosty, regional director of the ADL, sent out an official bulletin alerting the community to the celebration of “Swastika Rehabilitation Day.” (See their blog here) The celebration is being coordinated by a group interested in rehabilitating the swastika from its Nazi past, reclaiming that symbol’s meaning of “good luck” that it had in the Asian world. 

I appreciate the group’s distress about the transformation of this once great symbol into a symbol of evil. When I worked with the Jewish community in Bombay, India I was indeed startled to see its prevalence throughout the region, including in synagogue ornamentation.  For Jews and much of Europe, the symbol itself can be seen as a personal affront.  In my father’s home growing up there was one book that was shelved with its spine facing in: William Shrier’s still useful The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich with its swastika emblazoned on its spine was just too provocative to have visable in the living room.

As the ADL bulletin makes clear, the group has no link to extremism or anti-semitism and appears motivated by the attempt to transform and reclaim the symbol.  While I accept their motives and am grateful for ADL’s advance “heads up” on this event, the celebration strikes me as completely tone deaf to the very real post-Nazi meaning of the swastika.   

Like any symbol, the swastika operates as a cultural signifier, a sign of values with which it has come to be associated for any particular group of people. The reason that the swastika became such a powerful symbol of evil is not merely because of the evil propagated under its flag but also because it never had the depth of meaning or connotations that it did in India or elsewhere in the east. The project of the Raelians is thus not a project of reclamation, but a project of transformation.

So what’s the harm? The Jewish community is entering a period of dramatic transition in which the remaining survivors of the Holocaust are becoming fewer and fewer. With the loss of these first person accounts the distinctive horrors brought about by the Nazis will be harder to convey.  To the extent that symbol retains its association with evil, it provides a powerful educational tool to communicate that time to our children; we should resist the call to transform them into design patterns to convey “good-luck.”  

As hard as it is to imagine, there will of course come a time when the Swastika will have as little visceral resonance to us as a Cossack’s boot or an inquisitor’s robe does to us today. Indeed, it is apparently making a comeback already as a design pattern in urban graffiti, with no anti-Semetic intentions.  But natural evolution of a symbol is beyond anyone’s control.  In the meantime, I think we should understand the value to all of us of retaining that symbol’s power to communicate the feeling of evil unadulterated.   

I am grateful to our own Holocaust Museum and Learning Centerthat for almost 20 years has conveyed that message powerfully to our community and, along with partners like the ADLAJC and the JCRC, promote tolerance, education and acceptance for all. 

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