ADL Downgrades the Swastika

by Dr. Clemens Heni

The Anti Defamation League (ADL) is a vitally important NGO in the United States, known for the fight against anti-Semitism since 1913.

On July 27, 2010, the ADL announced the downgrading of the most important symbol of Nazism, the swastika.

“‘We know that the swastika has, for some, lost its meaning as the primary symbol of Nazism and instead become a more generalized symbol of hate,’ said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, in a statement. ‘So we are being more careful to include graffiti incidents that specifically target Jews or Jewish institutions as we continue the process of re-evaluating and redefining how we measure anti-Jewish incidents.’”

Even one of the best organizations on the planet can make an honest mistake. We are all but human.

This was an unfortunate, dangerous and frankly a truly relevant decision with serious implications for the US, Europe, the Middle East and the entire world.

“The painting of a swastika—the dark, ubiquitous signature of hateful vandals everywhere—will no longer be automatically considered an act of anti-Semitism under new guidelines for recording attacks against Jews announced by the Anti-Defamation League.”

Prominent support comes from Los Angeles, California:

Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and now a consultant, said he agrees with ADL’s decision.

“The presence of swastikas in certain contexts is not sufficient to prove anti-Semitism,” he said.”

However fine the motives (showing universalist feelings of inclusiveness to all targeted minorities), this is, in the final analysis, a distortion of history and an obfuscation of the most anti-Semitic symbol Germany (and the world) ever had. But it is not only a matter of history.

Here are some personal encounters from recent years.

On a sunny late summer day in 2008 I travelled to the mountains near Bennington, Vermont, just before starting a Post-Doctoral appointment at Yale University at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). The Green Mountain is part of a lovely countryside, just disturbingly overshadowed by the fact that we saw a well set in a stone swastika at a river. Wow, are we back in Austria or Germany, where swastikas can be found aplenty in public?

The swastika is the best known and most important anti-Semitic symbol, even before the Holocaust. Everyone who knows German and has a little background in history knows the Hakenkreuz-Verlag (‘Swastika Publishing House’), a German publishing house, established in 1919 by Bruno Tanzmann, a “volkish” author. Hitler himself declared in his “Mein Kampf”, which you can even find easily at the book-store at Grand Central Station in New York City (in Germany printing and distributing of the book is prohibited, for good reasons):

“In 1920, Adolf Hitler decided that the Nazi Party needed its own insignia and flag. For Hitler, the new flag had to be “a symbol of our own struggle” as well as “highly effective as a poster.” (Mein Kampf, pg. 495)

“On August 7, 1920, at the Salzburg Congress, this flag became the official emblem of the Nazi Party. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the Nazis’ new flag: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” (pp. 496-497)

After the Holocaust the swastika became the most important symbol for all Nazis and Neo-nazis to show their support of National Socialism and particularly the destruction of European Jewry. The swastika is by far not just a symbol of some generalized form of “hatred” as the ADL claims.

Showing a swastika on a wall, a sidewalk, a traffic sign, on pillars, roofs etc. etc. indicates that someone is 1) well aware of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and 2) wants to show very quickly and unmistakably his or her support for this.

Is there ANY symbol more anti-Jewish than such a swastika?

In Germany swastikas are forbidden in public, though this does not prevent them for being everywhere.

Applying the psychoanalytical concept of derealization of Sigmund Freud we can analyze the ADL decision as a means to say: “the swastika was not the symbol of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism, it is just a symbol of hatred of what- and whoever”. This is a distortion of history.

Or have a look at some streets in Beirut, Lebanon, during the last soccer world cup: they displayed German flags, including swastikas, because these Arabs are so proud of Germany and Hitler. Even a swastika in India at a Restaurant, or in Latvia on a sidewalk is not at all a symbol of cultural heritage, today. After 1920, when the swastika became the definitive symbol of the Nazi Party in Germany, a swastika was already indicating that someone is in support of the German anti-Jewish Nazi movement.

After the gas chambers of Auschwitz, after Treblinka, Sobibor, the killing of Jews in the woods in Lithuania or at Babi Yar in Ukraine and all other places of the Shoah the swastika, part of every iron helmet of German soldiers, their uniforms etc. etc., every swastika is a symbol of the Shoah. Period.

A painted swastika in the woods of Vermont indicates that there are people who have no problem with the Holocaust, who intimidate Jews and other victims of Nazis. In any case such a painted swastika makes fun of the killed Jews, and endorses the Holocaust, as Neo-nazis or Muslim Jihadists do. Even youngsters are acting anti-Semitic when painting a swastika, because every single Holocaust survivor, her and his relatives, grand grandchildren, and all people who remember (personally or collectively or by knowledge of history) the unprecedented crimes of the Germans (and their friends) during National Socialism remember a swastika as the very core of what happened in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.

Now, of  course Nazis, right-wing extremists or supremacists who wear T-shirts showing the swastika, as some did in Tennessee recently, aim at African Americans, immigrants, Hispanics, and others. Racism comes as an addition to anti-Semitism in this case.

But firstly and foremostly, a swastika intimidates Jews.  It is the symbol that nowadays says what it means:

“Have a look, Jews, we remember Hitler and his Germans, thanks ever so much for what happened in the Holocaust”.

As ever, a benign slackening of standards in the West is contemporaneous with a malicious change undertaken for the worst possible motives in the East. It was only several months ago that Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz reported in the Yiddish edition of the Algemeiner Journal on a Lithuanian court’s ruling in May 2010 that the swastika is just an ancient national symbol and is therefore legalized entirely (more on his website: This is the moment to be sending the most unambiguous possible message to the Lithuanian authorities.

The ADL should reconsider its decision to downgrade the swastika. Showing, painting or endorsing this symbol first of all means support for the Holocaust. The swastika is the best known anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish symbol worldwide, regardless of where it is painted.


Dr. Clemens Heni is a political scientist and author. He received a Ph.D. in political science in 2006 (Innsbruck, Austria, “summa cum laude”).

He published two books on German anti-Semitism and has published articles in the US, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Norway, Czech Republic in English and German about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, German ideology and political culture, anti-Americanism, cultural relativism, Islamism, and Israel.

He was a post-Doctoral researcher at Yale University until 2009. In 2010 his new book Antisemitism as a Specific Phenomenon will appear.