The swastika and the migration of symbols

The swastika and the migration of symbols

It’s safe to say there’s not a Jew alive who does not associate a swastika with the Nazis. We cringe when we see one, in a play or film or photograph, on a uniform or tattoo. We feel a visceral sense of revulsion.

While the swastika was a positive symbol in a number of ancient cultures, its modern message is purely of evil. That’s why it is so often resorted to by (mostly) young punks who think evil is glamorous (they like those shiny black boots) and want to get attention.

Thus we were taken aback to learn that the Anti-Defamation League has revised its approach to graffiti and swastikas in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. (See page 19.)

In the words of ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, “[T]he swastika has, for some, lost its meaning as the primary symbol of Nazism and instead become a more generalized symbol of hate.”

If we understand this correctly, carving out a swastika in a field in a region where no or few Jews live would not count, for the ADL, as an anti-Semitic act but merely as “a more generalized symbol of hate.”

The swastika may have indeed spilled over into the larger culture, like BP’s oil spill, fouling many waters. But it would not be a generalized symbol of hate if it were not already a particular one. It derives its malign power to shock from the Nazis – and not just from their jackboots but from their literally murderous hatred of Jews.

Should we stop reacting to graffiti (or other manifestations) of swastikas just because some people have no knowledge or sense of history?

When symbols grow they tend to accrue meanings, not lose them. The vandal who carves a swastika into the aforesaid field is, whether he knows it or not, a Jew-hater whose act does indeed belong in an audit of anti-Semitic incidents.


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