Recognize Swastika as spiritual, not just hateful, to foster mutual respect and tolerance.

Recognize Swastika as spiritual, not just hateful, to foster mutual respect and tolerance.

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Coalition of Hindus of North America started this petition to Senator Kaminsky and

Dear Lawmakers:

We, the undersigned, write to you expressing concerns about NY Senate Bill S6648 (A8545): An act to amend the education law, in relation to requiring instruction regarding symbols of hate. This Bill, which is now with the Assembly's Education Committee, requires New York schools to instruct students on the noose and the Swastika as symbols of hatred in grades 6 through 12. As written, the Bill would likely perpetuate misunderstanding and misuse towards the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Native American communities, and can lead to perverse consequences due to a lack of the proper context.

To foreground our concerns, we want to first applaud the stated intent of this legislation, "fostering a more inclusive and tolerant society for all." This is even more urgent, given the recent increase in hate crimes against the Jewish and African American communities within the State of New York. Incidents of the (neo-)Nazi emblem being graffitied outside Jewish homes and synagogues, often accompanied by horrific acts of violence, by anti-Semitic and white power groups have become an alarming recurrence. As a Nazi emblem, the Swastika in the West is inscribed with the transgenerational trauma of the eleven million Jews killed by Nazi persecution, and its use today is meant to have a chilling, intimidating effect on Jewish Americans when used in these ways. It is important to recognize it as such.

Yet, as we see the interwovenness of religious bigotries, the important work of fighting anti-Semitism must not inadvertently stoke resentment against other religious minorities. Here, the Bill is problematic. Far predating World War II, the Swastika is a millennia-old religious symbol, standing for good fortune, peace, and prosperity in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Native American spiritual traditions. It remains a common sight in many Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples and practices around the world. This includes its quite common usage in religious rituals and as a “welcome sign” into homes by the American Hindu community. This understanding of the Swastika as an auspicious symbol was prevalent in American culture, as seen on fruit-packaging, Coca-Cola products, and Boy Scouts paraphernalia.

Here, fostering a more inclusive and tolerant society for all must also consider the context in which the Swastika is used by these religious traditions. Just as, the legislation notes, "many of our youth are not aware of the hateful connotations behind Swastikas," (line 4) fewer still are aware of its original meaning to the dharmic traditions and indigenous peoples. Therefore, requiring “the meaning of the swastika as the emblem of Nazi Germany,” be taught to students, reinforces a singular meaning of the symbol, without recognizing that its anti-Semitic bigotry emerges from context-specific usage. The United States Holocaust Museum notes that Nazis and Adolf Hitler misused the ancient Swastika and created the Hakenkreuz (Hooked Cross), with specific color schemes and background. It further cautions: “To avoid misunderstanding and misuse, individuals should consider the context and past use of Nazi symbols and symbols in general.” This fact is widely documented in a variety of other sources.

As written, the Bill would likely perpetuate exactly this misunderstanding and misuse towards the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Native American communities. In fact, lack of proper context can often lead to perverse consequences, such when a Jewish student was disciplined for a hate crime by a prominent University for possessing a Swastika he brought back from India. Students from the aforementioned communities are also at increased risk of having their religious practices falsely recast as hateful within the classroom. Many of us have experienced this firsthand. It is important that we equip our children with proper knowledge about world cultures and religions, so that they can develop the mutual respect and pluralism that must be the cornerstone of any multi-racial, multi-ethnic and inclusive society. Unfortunately, by requiring that the Swastika be taught as a symbol of hatred and intolerance without proper context or appreciation for its myriad uses, the NY Senate would likely engender hatred against the cultures and traditions of thousands of children in New York who deeply revere this symbol of good fortune, peace and prosperity. 

It is important to note that the vital nuances in this conversation have been recognized by Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summits, and various Hindu-Jewish and other interfaith coalitions. There is so much room and longing for our communities to come together, and we fear that this Bill might end up serving as a hindrance.

Hence, given the Bill’s intention of fostering tolerance and inclusion, we submit that recognizing the usage of the Swastika as an anti-Semitic symbol and its usage as a symbol of reverence are not at odds with one another. Therefore, we urge the NY Senate to:

  • Develop a standardized fact sheet or other resources for educators that explicitly recognizes the different, context-specific meanings of the Swastika. 
  • Refer to the Swastika’s anti-Semitic manifestation as “Hakenkreuz,” “Nazi-inspired usage of the Swastika,” etc. within the Bill and accompanying materials to distinguish it clearly from its ancient and continued use by many cultures. 
  • Consult stakeholders from the Jewish community, as well as the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, African American and indigenous communities to help develop culturally competent, sensitive resources and messaging around this initiative.

These changes must be undertaken, and when relevant, be made in the body of the Legislation to prevent the Bill from having the negative consequences outlined above.

Sincerely,

The Coalition of Hindus of North America (www.cohna.org)

And, the Undersigned.

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