It is 2012 and it has been 77 years since World War II ended, yet the image of a swastika still shakes us to our core. Associated with Germany’s Nazi Party and the hate it perpetrated, the swastika to many is a symbol of evil and intolerance. Someone who uses it conjures up all the passion and anger connected to the Holocaust, when millions of Jews died because they were deemed an enemy due to their ethnicity and faith.
So when a swastika appears in Borough Park, Brooklyn (an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood) today, the outrage is understandable. When one of these symbols is painted on a synagogue, it is apparent the persons doing this knew what they were doing and it was purposeful and hateful. We immediately think that these persons are sick, twisted, and racist, but is there another possibility?
I heard people talking about this in a local store (in Queens) this morning. One older man said something about it being stupid, not racist. “It was just kids being stupid” he noted. The man he was talking with (who was wearing a yarmulke), responded, “Stupidity is no excuse for racism.”
If kids have a can of spray paint in their hands, chances are something is going to get hit. No matter what they splatter, it is obviously vandalism, but think of all their choices as to what they leave behind. It could be some kind of tag to let others know they were there. It could be their names, their favorite teams, their gangs, or whatever else that lets the world know they were there. If these kids choose to leave a symbol of hatred like a swastika, are they truly realizing the weight of this action? Can a 16-year-old kid have any clue as to what this means to an old man who may have numbers on his arm and have spent time in a concentration camp?
The symbols found in Brooklyn were on the synagogue, a Jewish grocery store, a Jewish restaurant, and three other places not obviously connected to Jewish people. The NYPD’s hate crimes unit is investigating this, and I heard it reported on the radio that surveillance images captured two of the perpetrators in the act. It is possible that these people will be caught soon, and then what will happen? Will they be charged with a hate crime?
Years ago I traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. It is impossible to explain the transformative experience that is for an American. Even with everything I learned in school, seeing this sacred place shakes you to your core. I have also visited the former concentration camps in Europe, but perhaps the most moving place I have ever been was the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Here I saw the power of love that subsumed all the hate around it. Anne wrote her diary despite a cruel world outside those walls, and the image of Anne is hauntingly familiar and yet new again. The Nazis may have killed her and most of her family members, but they could not destroy her enduring message of love and hope.
Anne wrote, “In spite of everything, I think people are still good at heart.” All these years later, that message overwhelms the stupidity and hatred of the swastika symbol. Are these goons who painted these things in Brooklyn good at heart? You’d have trouble convincing some people, but they may just be kids who weren’t thinking, or they could be purposeful, on a mission of hatred. The investigators will no doubt get the answer.
Until then, we see swastikas and shake our heads. It’s 2012 and people should know better, but they do not. We have to wonder sometimes if they ever will.
Photo Credit: annefrank.org