Elchanan Poupko

No Excuses for Swastikas

It was supposed to be a quiet, informative, and predictable morning. I went to downtown Manhattan to attend a conference titled:” Understanding and Mitigating the Threats to Faith-Based Institutions”. The conference was organized by Pace University, Homeland Security, and had representation from the FBI, NYPD, and other amazing organizations who keep us all safe. Between the various Jewish institutions I work in, I figured it is important I attend. The room was filled with Rabbis, Imams, priests, Monks, and community activists. On stage was a panel with FBI Counterterrorism, NYPD, and NYS Police. Suddenly, I see on the table right in front of me, what I had least expected: a big bold swastika, with a bright red background. I was appalled. Instinctively, I snapped a picture and sent it to a friend at the ADL. It just didn’t seem to make sense. Here we were at a conference on keeping institutions safe from hate crimes, and there’s a Swastika right there in front of me.

I then went on to continue to listen to the informative session and the helpful information coming from the women and men who keep us safe. Then came the question and answer section. The monk with the book got up—holding the book— and shared some thoughts from Buddhist doctrine on the importance of love and peace. He then raised the book in front of the whole room, explaining that swastikas were not a symbol of hate, but rather an ancient Buddhist symbol of peace. There was a strong feeling of discomfort in the room, and we moved on to the next question.

I approached the man when the session was over, not knowing who he was, and asked him if he thought it would be appropriate for an American to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, waving a picture of Harry Truman. The man insisted it was a symbol of love and that is what it stands for.  I then learned that the man was Rev. Dr. Kenjitsu Nagasaki who was the author of the book.

While I was not sure if this was a book promotion on the back of an entire conference or just a lack of sensitivity, I am still sure it was very wrong. No matter where you came from or what your culture is like, and you give a New York City driver the middle finger, you can expect to be treated accordingly.  The fact that he chose to have the bright red color, associated exclusively with the Nazi party, is also something to think about.

The debate over Confederate symbols is beyond the scope of this article, but if you show up to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) with a confederate flag, you most likely will not be very welcome. The same and more, is true for a Swastika. Perhaps we can debate whether it is appropriate to use a Swastika deep in Tibet or in a village in Japan, and I would strongly argue against, but having a Swastika anywhere where Jews, LGBTQ, Poles, Russians, Americans, Gypsies, Allied forces, or anyone who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, live, is very wrong. There are no excuses for Swastikas. Feel like you have been wronged by Hitler and the Nazis hijacking your symbol of peace and destroying it? join the list of people hurt by the Nazis. Either way, there should never ever be an excuse for Swastikas. Period.

Eliminating hate begins with the recognition of the existence of others. Displaying symbols of hate—especially a Swastika which is most associated with pathological hate—should be off limits. It is unthinkable and unacceptable that a group purporting to increase peace and love should banner the epitome of hate and violence.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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