Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

The Swastika

Right: Hindus in India celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps in the shape of a swastika (Source: Reuters/Spiegel Online).

The BBC is reporting that "Hindus in Europe have joined forces against a German proposal to ban the display of the swastika across the European Union." It goes without saying that all true advocates of freedom of speech and expression are also staunchly opposed to any swastika ban. So, I will dispense with any discussion of that topic and focus instead on its use in the Palestinian solidarity movement.

The use of the symbol by the Palestinian solidarity movement (PSM) is problematic, to say the least. In my American experience, members of the general public are often not knowledgeable or thoughtful enough to understand the point that PSM activists are trying to make when employing the symbol. Americans have been conditioned to react viscerally to the swastika as a symbol of hate and they often can't get past this reaction to seeing the very real parallels between Nazi and Zionist behavior and ideology--parallels attested to by more than one survivor of the Nazi genocides. In such circumstances, the use of the symbol is generally, I think, not helpful. I'm not arguing against the validity of the PSM using the symbol but against the expediency of its use when decoupled from a broader context and discourse--the kind that does not fit onto a sign or in a slogan.

That said, there is another good reason why PSM activists should probably forgo use of the swastika. As the BBC and Reclaim the Swastika point out, the swastika is an ancient religious icon and peace symbol found in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. As Ramesh Kallidai of the Hindu Forum of Britain says, "The swastika has been around for 5,000 years as a symbol of peace. This is exactly the opposite of how it was used by Hitler."

The swastika was even rather ubiquitous in the West before the Nazis misappropriated it. Unfortunately, the use of the swastika by PSM activists not only invokes the Nazi-swastika association but, moreover, it reinforces it to detriment of those traditions who have positive associations with the symbol and are trying to reclaim it.

So, let's consider leaving the swastika to our Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Navajo, Hopi, Druid, Finnish, etc. sibs as a religious symbol and consider leaving it out of the Palestinian solidarity movement as a public protest symbol. Of course, people of good will can disagree on tactics and strategy and we ought not quarrel with one another unless a matter of principle is at stake. On the matter of expediency, I would say that no principle is at stake but I would think that respecting the sensibilities of people for whom the swastika has spiritual significance is a matter of principle.

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