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What the ADL really said about swastikas
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What the ADL really said about swastikas

I received a letter the other day which took offense to what someone thought was a new Anti-Defamation League policy on the swastika.

Because of a misreading of a recent newspaper headline, the writer — and presumably other New Jersey residents — was under the mistaken impression that ADL no longer considers the swastika as an anti-Semitic symbol. This is nonsense.

This past summer ADL released its “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” for 2009 and in doing so we also updated our methodology for tabulating the incidents. When we looked at the incidents that took place in New Jersey and across the country, we concluded that the swastika remains a powerful symbol of hate, but — interestingly — the swastika is not always used in targeting Jews. The swastika has become, for some, a generalized symbol of hatred.

In the past year we’ve witnessed a number of examples of this phenomenon. In April, swastikas were painted on the walls of a gay Latino bar in San Francisco. In Brooklyn, a copy of a newspaper with a swastika written on the forehead of a picture of a person of Arab descent was posted on a wall. A swastika and anti-gay graffiti were painted on the walls and door of the Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Community Center in Florida.

After a careful study of these incidents, we at the ADL concluded that we could not automatically consider any of these incidents as acts of anti-Semitism simply because of the appearance of a swastika.

We are painfully aware that the swastika is the symbol of Nazism, the most significant and traumatic anti-Semitic movement in the history of mankind. ADL knows as well as anyone about the far too many instances of swastikas’ being aimed at Jews and Jewish institutions in acts of anti-Semitism.

For example, in New Jersey in 2009, ADL recorded scores of incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism involving swastikas. A woman in Morris County found a swastika created in the snow on her car. In Somerset County a yeshiva was defaced with orange swastikas. In Monmouth County, a young Jewish student was harassed by someone who sent photographs of a swastika to her cell phone. Those incidents were counted as part of the ADL’s 2009 “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” because it was clear that the swastikas were specifically used with anti-Semitic intent.

In considering the context of a swastika we must be clear: In no way is ADL minimizing the swastika as a hate symbol. The swastika is a hate symbol. What we are doing is making an effort to determine the likely target of this imagery.

There are several elements underpinning this change in how we evaluate incidents. First, we are continually evaluating how we identify anti-Semitism, taking into account the changing landscape of how people communicate. The surge of cyberhate is a prime example.

Second, in spite of the cynical criticism that periodically appears suggesting that ADL exaggerates anti-Semitism, in fact we take great pride in being thoughtful and accurate. We know that our new methodology will lead to a reduction in the number of incidents described as anti-Semitic, but we are less concerned about the overall number because this new approach is more nuanced and therefore a more reliable barometer.

Third, while our annual “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” is a significant tool to ascertain the level of anti-Semitism in this country, it is only one tool.

To achieve a full picture of anti-Semitism, ADL employs many forms of measurement and analysis, some more readily quantifiable than others. We regularly conduct public opinion surveys that reveal the American people's attitudes toward Jews. 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, ADL looks at the state of anti-Semitism in this country from a broad range of perspectives.

In 2010, the New Jersey Jewish community is blessed to be living in a place and time where we have never been freer to worship in the manner that we wish. Unlike other areas in the world, this country has not provided fertile soil for anti-Semitism to take deep roots.

On the other hand, even while it is on the margins, anti-Semitism still remains a real phenomenon in this country and American Jews consider it to be an important issue.

Rest assured that ADL will always give it the serious attention it deserves.

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