A new context for the swastika

A new context for the swastika

A headline reading that the Anti-Defamation League no longer necessarily counts the appearance of a swastika as an anti-Semitic incident seems counterintuitive. After all, the swastika is the symbol of Nazism, the most significant anti-Semitic movement in the history of mankind.

But that is exactly what ADL has done in updating its methodology for its annual survey of anti-Semitic incidents in America.

We have concluded that the swastika remains a symbol of hate and, wherever it appears, it is an example of some form of hatred but not necessarily targeting Jews. Haters of all kinds and those directing their venom toward a variety of groups use the swastika to make their point.

In 2009 we came across a number of examples of this phenomenon. In New Jersey’s Salem County, swastikas appeared on park benches, which police deemed anti-Semitic vandalisms. ADL concluded otherwise and deemed it a general act of hate and not anti-Semitism because there was no significant Jewish community in the area.

A swastika was etched on an automobile of a Hispanic resident.

A swastika and anti-gay graffiti were spotted on the walls and door of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Community Center of Central Florida.

A copy of a Brooklyn College newspaper with a swastika written on the forehead of a picture of a person of Arab descent was posted on a wall.

In none of these cases did we conclude that it was a matter of anti-Semitism because of the appearance of a swastika.

Yet there were dozens of other instances where swastikas were aimed at Jews and Jewish institutions, primarily in acts of anti-Semitic vandalism against synagogues, community institutions, and private property. Those incidents were counted – and included in the league’s 2009 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents – precisely because it was clear in those cases that the swastikas were specifically used with anti-Semitic intent. ADL recorded at least 289 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism involving swastikas in 2009, contributing to a total 1,211 anti-Jewish incidents across the country.

In no way by doing this is ADL minimizing the swastika as a hate symbol. It always is. Rather, it’s a question of determining the likely target of this imagery.

The significance of this change in how we evaluate incidents lies in several elements.

First, it is part of an ongoing process in evaluating how we identify anti-Semitism at any given time considering the changing landscape of how people communicate. The surge of cyberhate is a prime example of continuing challenges in assessing the extent and impact of anti-Semitic expressions. Quantifying online hate the way we did offline makes no sense. But it has real impact.

Second, despite comments that periodically appear suggesting that ADL “hypes” anti-Semitism, this is all about getting it right. We move forward with this new approach knowing that our new methodology will surely lead to a reduction of the number of incidents we will report.

We feel comfortable that this new approach is less reflexive and takes into account the context for any incident.

Third, this is to make clear that ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents is for us a major tool to ascertain the level of anti-Semitism in this country, but it is only one tool. We employ a number of other vehicles to round out the picture, some quantifiable, others analytical. Our decision to re-evaluate how we categorize incidents involving swastikas is part of an ongoing effort to fine-tune the ADL Audit, which we have used for more than three decades as one barometer of anti-Semitism in America.

Periodically, we conduct public opinion surveys that reveal, in depth and over time, the American people’s attitudes toward Jews. Included in these surveys are attitudes of different religious, racial, and ethnic groups as well as college students and faculty.

We monitor and report on anti-Semitic manifestations from the far right, the far left, and extreme Islamic groups. We survey the state of anti-Semitism on campus and in the media.

In other words, we look at the state of anti-Semitism in this country from a broad range of perspectives.

American anti-Semitism is a complicated subject. As the most welcome home to the Jews in the history of the diaspora, America is often seen as the place that is different, where anti-Semitism was not a dominant feature.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism is still a real phenomenon in this country and American Jews consider it to be an important issue. So the subject deserves a serious and evolving approach. Our new more stringent way of measuring incidents is one element in that approach.

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