Pro-swastika banner doesn't fly with New York beachgoers

The banner, sponsored by a fringe religious group as part of its 'Swastika Rehabilitation Week,' was flown up and down New York beaches over the weekend.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
People sit on the beach at Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 2, 2014.

A small plane dragging a flittering swastika banner, set within a Star of David, left beachgoers agape at New York’s Coney Island carnival atmosphere this weekend, as a fringe religious group sought to promote its “Swastika Rehabilitation Week.”

The banner outraged thousands, including those in neighboring Brighton Beach, which is often casually referred to as “Little Moscow” in Brooklyn because of its concentration of Russian Jewish immigrants. The banner was also flown up and down beaches along the coast of Long Island, where hundreds of thousands of New York bathers flock each weekend.

It’s the latest incident in which Americans are confronted with a message that many consider offensive, prompting a strong response.

The banner, commissioned by the Raelian Movement, based internationally in Geneva and in the United States in Las Vegas, also included the peace symbol and a heart to promote the small religious group’s efforts to “rehabilitate” the swastika – an ancient Sanskrit symbol originating in India and representing the origins of life.

“The swastika symbol is one of the oldest symbols on the Earth and can be found in all religions and traditions, on all continents!” says one of the group’s websites, proswastika.org, which was advertized on the plane-dragged banner. The group also advertized its views in Miami and other US cities as part of its week-long effort.

Raelians believe in an “atheist intelligent design theory” in which cosmic scientists cloned life on earth and now return in UFOs to visit. For them, the swastika embedded in a Star of David represents the infinity of time and space.

But many beachgoers and local leaders were outraged by their message. “Was there any kind of pre-screening, pre-clearance of what was going to be flown over?” asked New York Council Member Mark Treyger, grandson of Holocaust survivors, who represents Coney Island.

“I will not accept their twisted logic,” the Democratic councilman told CBS New York. “And I am also going to speak out against sending chilling messages of fear and intimidation to residents.”

One of these residents, Loren Azimov, agreed.

“I was dumbfounded by it. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and everyone [in Brighton Beach] knows someone whose family was affected by the Holocaust,” Mr. Azimov told Sheepshead Bites, a local news blog. “The timing could not be worse with everything going on in Israel and Palestine.”

But Thomas Kaenzig, spokesman for the organization, said the symbol shouldn’t continue to be associated only with the Nazis and the Holocaust.

“By keeping the negative connotation of the swastika and linking it to Hitler, you only give credit to this guy’s monstrosity,” Mr. Kaenzig told the New York Post. “It’s very important to reclaim it and explain to the public that this symbol has a beautiful origin.”

The group had sponsored a “Swastika Rehabilitation Day” in previous years, but this was the first time it organized for an entire week, including this weekend’s flybys. It conducted similar public events in 20 cities last week in Africa, Australia, Europe, and Asia, the group said in a press release.

But local residents and leaders are demanding that airborne advertising banner companies stop giving the group a platform.

“It is absolutely disgusting and an egregious act of hate and intolerance,” Mr. Treyger said. “Whatever this hate group is, it’s an unacceptable act.”

Kaenzig, a “guide” with the group, denies that it harbors any anti-Semitic views. But Raelians have been also criticized as a sex cult, and in 2002, a member generated controversy after claiming to have cloned a human being.

Canada's largest billboard company recently rejected the group's order for a large sign that it wanted to display, Kaenzig said.

"The company representative said many people would see our ad as offensive and inflammatory, so they wouldn't post it," he said. “So this poses a real catch 22. How can the world be reeducated about the truth of this symbol if we can't get the word out to show people?”

He continued, “Luckily, religious freedom is more respected in the United States than in Canada, so we are able to do more here.”

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