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Do swastikas always target Jews?
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Do swastikas always target Jews?

Experts see varying intent in graffiti with Nazi symbol

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Spray-painted swastikas were discovered Feb. 28 on a pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation. Photo via Facebook 
Spray-painted swastikas were discovered Feb. 28 on a pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation. Photo via Facebook 

A swastika is not always a sign of anti-Semitic hatred, according to Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “But it usually is.”

With anti-Semitic incidents ricocheting from one to another — from swastikas in schools and parks, to bomb threats against JCCs, to graveyard vandalism — little room is left to ask bigger questions. 

On the heels of the latest local incident — a bridge in a public park in South Orange tagged with swastikas — NJJN turned to two experts, Joshua Cohen, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional office, and Potok, to unpack the significance of the swastika and offer insight into if and how its meaning and intent can vary from incident to incident. 

When someone draws a swastika, the vandal is doing two things, said Cohen: “destroying property and sending a message of hate.” 

But the message is not always specific. The swastika “has become a ubiquitous symbol in graffiti,” Cohen said, but it does not always carry “anti-Semitic intent.” The specific message depends on a variety of factors.

One is the historical context. According to Potok, anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology have been gaining ground over the last 40 years, the last two-three in particular. “The radical right has been ‘Nazified’ over the last 30-40 years, and by that I mean they are identifying Jews, rather than blacks, as their primary enemy,” he said. 

The swastika was used to represent the Nazi claim of Aryan supremacy, most pointedly its subjugation of the Jews, and so became known around the world as a symbol of hate. While the character originated as an ancient sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, it is virtually never used that way in the United States. (In the rare instances that it is used in that context, said Potok, users take care to make it obvious that it is not being used as a Nazi emblem.) 

Swastikas drawn on a synagogue, a Jewish gravestone, or a Jewish person’s home, both experts agreed, present the easy case. As Cohen puts it, “We know the intent.” 

However, according to Cohen, a random swastika appearing in a neutral location is an entirely different proposition. Incidents involving the image found with no accompanying anti-Semitic imagery or writing on, say, a dumpster at a 7-Eleven or an overpass on the Garden State Parkway, he said, fall into a category that the ADL has stopped including in its annual audit of anti-Jewish hate crimes. There is no indication that such cases specifically target Jews — although Cohen and his colleagues continue to speak out against them. 

Potok was less ready to categorize such incidents that way. “We just don’t know what the intent is until we find the perpetrator. But my guess is that the majority of swastika graffiti is in fact aimed at Jews. It’s just anecdotal, from my experience, but I have lots and lots of stories.”

A swastika found in a school bathroom, something being reported with increasing frequency in New Jersey — such incidents have occured in recent months in South Orange, Sparta, and Westfield — presents a bigger challenge for Cohen than for Potok. 

“It is more likely than not that a swastika in a middle school boys’ bathroom is just an expression, in general, of a kid trying to be tough and bad,” said Potok. The swastika is sometimes used “by extremely obnoxious teenagers” who might just as easily scrawl “a picture of Satan, or genitals, or whatever they think will be most offensive to the grown-ups around them. They might not even understand what it is.” 

Cohen, however, finds these incidents more troubling. “What’s going on with that particular student and with the school climate that he feels the freedom to be so bold?” Cohen asked. He added, “It speaks to the mood and climate of our community.”

Beyond the school setting, when it comes to swastikas found in public places, both Potok and Cohen look for telltale signs that reveal intent, like targeted language, other symbols, and even demographics. 

“If there’s accompanying racist language, or an SS lightning bolt, or if the word ‘Jew’ is there, or there’s threatening language, then we know what this is,” said Cohen. “If it’s just a swastika,” he asks: “Is it in a predominantly Jewish community? In an area frequented by Jews? What’s the accompanying language?”

Cohen emphasized that with each case, “it’s imperative that the entire community stand up and condemn these incidents….” And, of course, “strive to keep them from happening.”

Cohen cautioned that regardless of the specific intent, it would be a mistake “to minimize the swastika. It shocks the conscience, and we all know what it is. It’s a hate symbol.”

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