Update: H&M has agreed to withdraw this item. According to Fashion Forward (in Hebrew) on Mako.co.il, when the design was brought to the attention of H&M management, the problem was understood immediately, the item was ordered off the racks and a profuse apology offered. The storm in a teacup is officially over.
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking through the menswear section in H&M on Oxford Street in London when I came across a rather striking tank top: it featured a skull superimposed over a Star of David.
At first I was taken aback; then I was slightly amused, because this design was obviously a horrible mistake; then I began to wonder whether I was simply being paranoid – perhaps only Jews immediately think of a Jewish symbol when they see two overlapping triangles, and perhaps worrying about a symbol of death emblazoned above the iconic Jewish hexagram was simply my Jewish anxiety in overdrive?
But whatever the designer may have been thinking (and God knows what he was thinking!), what an ordinary, reasonable person sees in this vest is a skull emblazoned over a Star of David – and that is why this item needs to be withdrawn from H&M stores immediately.
I doubt that there were anti-Semitic intentions on the part of the designer, but there is no escaping that the juxtaposition – no matter how accidental – of these two symbols is entirely inappropriate and offensive. The more I look at it, the more I am at a loss to explain how H&M commissioned or even approved this item. It is at minimum an extremely unfortunate oversight in the H&M department, which has displayed an egregious failure of cultural awareness and sensitivity. There is a long history of associating Jewish symbols with Satanic imagery, and this product inadvertently falls within this tradition.
H&M is so far refusing to withdraw this unpleasant item. Its customer services department assures me that it “did not mean to cause offence” and that it was certainly not the store’s intention to “represent a star with… religious connotations”: this assurance is entirely credible, and it would be a mistake to accuse H&M of anti-Semitism, but this design still has no place in British high street fashion, and the only appropriate response for H&M is to discontinue this item forthwith.
Freedom of speech is sacrosanct: the freedom to offend and upset, short of directly inciting violence or hatred, must be an unshakeable principle in every Western liberal democracy. That is why, for example, the London School of Economics made a grave error in booting out the Atheist Society from its freshers’ fair for sporting t-shirts with a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed, which the student union censored for causing offence. It is an abuse of power to censor people for saying things we deem tasteless but they deem important truths. But as H&M itself insists, the unambiguous resemblance of this design to a Star of David was not intended to prove a point, no matter how nefarious: so this is isn’t a free speech issue. This is a matter of H&M making a clearly unfortunate mistake and being unaware of having done so.
I encourage people who are concerned, therefore, to email customerservice.UK@hm.com to explain why this distasteful design should be taken off the racks.