The swastika now shows up so often as a generic symbol of hatred that the Anti-Defamation League, in its annual tally of hate crimes against Jews, will no longer automatically count its appearance as an act of anti-Semitism.
“The swastika has morphed into a universal symbol of hate,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization. “Today it’s used as an epithet against African-Americans, Hispanics and gays, as well as Jews, because it is a symbol which frightens.”
Observing the trend, he said that his group had decided it would examine reports of scrawled swastikas for contextual clues. If it appears Jews were not the target, the incident would not be included in the league’s annual audit of anti-Semitic hate crimes.
“A year ago there was a swastika put on Plymouth Rock,” Foxman said in an interview. “We saw it as a symbol of hatred against America, maybe against immigrants, I don’t know. But to count that swastika as an anti-Semitic incident would not be accurate.”
Using the new measure, the Anti-Defamation League logged 1,211 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2009. It included 422 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism like swastika graffiti, as well as violent episodes like the murder of a security guard at the U.N. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The tally was down from 2008, which found 1,352 incidents — in part because of the new approach to swastikas. (The group is considering whether to issue a separate report on swastika incidents that were excluded from its audit).
The change was first reported by The Jewish Week, a New York news weekly.
The swastika symbol, a symmetrical, hooked cross sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, was appropriated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party and became the defining motif of anti-Jewish hatred. It is still the contemporary calling card of many neo-Nazi groups.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish educational and human rights group based in Los Angeles, said he understood the reasoning behind the Anti-Defamation League’s move.
“The swastika is shorthand for every racist and bigot on the planet,” Cooper said. “It is amazing that 60 or 70 years later that symbol has not lost any of its potency.”