Despite purportedly good intentions, a banner bearing a swastika embedded in a star of David that was flown along the New Jersey and New York shore Saturday ignited a hailstorm of criticism.
According to proswastika.org, the web address listed on the banner next to a swastika, peace sign and heart symbol, the action was intended to commemorate a third annual worldwide "Swastika Rehabilitation Day" sponsored by the Raelian movement. A similar banner was trailed over Los Angeles on Sunday.
In an online statement, event coordinator Thomas Kaenzig said Raelians want to educate about the true meaning of the swastika, "one of the best traces left by those who created us." (Some 70,000 Raelians, according to the movement's website, believe that scientists from another planet created all forms of life on Earth and now make themselves visible in UFO sightings.)
"The attempt to bury it as a symbol of violence and hatred only gives credit to the horrible Nazi ideology," Kaenzig said. "Demystifying the original meaning of this beautiful symbol is the only solution."
But many onlookers didn't buy that explanation, calling police and Jewish organizations to complain.
"It was really, really bizarre," said Ron Rothberg, a Lafayette Hill resident who was enjoying the afternoon in Margate, N.J. "We're just sitting there on the beach and all of a sudden you see a swastika flying overhead. If we had laser guns, we would've shot the plane out of the sky. It left a terrible taste in all of our mouths."
Rothberg, 63, said he didn't care what the Raelians claimed, the banner rang of anti-Semitism.
"I couldn't rationalize any way that it couldn't have been," he said, adding that the company that agreed to fly it should be boycotted. "What is the point to rehabilitate a swastika over a beach full of Jews? In my lifetime, it's just a hated symbol."
South Philadelphian Julie DiLeo agreed that the Raelians had to know exactly how their sign would be received.
"I thought I was hallucinating," said DiLeo, 31, who was raised Catholic. "Of all places — Margate?! The swastika will forever be associated with hate and Hitler and there is no website or banner that will ever change that."
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he received a few complaints but wouldn't take action against the Raelians so as not to give them more publicity. The ADL doesn't classify this as anti-Semitism because of the group's stated mission, he said, but "the juxtaposition of the swastika and the Jewish star is clearly a provocative message."
While it's true that Buddhists, Hindus and a number of spiritual groups historically used swastikas as symbols of peace and luck, the Nazi swastika connotes "all things evil," Morrison said. If somebody wants to revive the swastika's original positive meaning, "you don't do it with imagery associated with the Jewish people."
Morrison also noted that the Raelian movement wasn't even founded until 1974, so it's not as if the fringe group had used the symbol before it was appropriated by the Nazi party in the 1930s.
David Cohen, a Federation official who used to work for the ADL in Boston, added that the swastika's harmful impact on Holocaust survivors and Jews worldwide "should outweigh a fringe religion's desire to improve its image. Use it if you must. But don't fly it publicly simply because you think everyone will understand its previous meaning. They won't."