Sunday, December 8, 2013

Swastika Slandering

            Earlier this year, on November 13th, tattoo parlors around the world offered free tattoos of swastikas as part of an ongoing effort to restore the swastika that the Nazis abused to its original meaning. The swastika is a symbol that originated in Hindiusm and that prior to the Nazi’s hijacking, had purely positive connotations. Unfortunately, since World War II, most western civilizations now view the swastika as a symbol of Nazism, white supremacy, and hatred. However, the swastika is still widely used in Asia and in Indian religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. 

            About a year ago, a concerned individual came across a pair of swastika earrings at Bejeweled, a jewelry store in Brooklyn, New York, and proceeded to send a picture of the earrings to a gossip website. As to be expected, the jewelry store quickly came under fire. The storeowner, Young Sook Kim, originally defended her decision to sell the earrings, claiming that the swastika is a symbol in Tibetan Buddhism. Numerous New York politicians responded to her defense with animosity. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer claimed, “…a swastika is not a fashion statement. It is the most hateful symbol in our culture and an insult to any civilized person.” He then proceeded to make underhanded accusations of anti-semiticism on the part of Kim by detailing anti-semitic incidents in Manhattan and Brooklyn. City Councilman Steve Levin called the storeowners actions as “totally outrageous” and claimed “they should be sensitive to what that symbol means to Jews around the world.” However, the most hostility came from State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who called Kim’s defense nauseating and stated “It’s sick. It’s insulting. It’s degrading. The average person, when they see a swastika, they see it as a symbol of hate. End of story.” City Councilman Steve Levin then decided to visit Bejeweled to inquire about the earrings at which point, the owner agreed to stop selling he earrings. Levin then reiterated his former statement, claiming, “We have to be sensitive to what each other has gone through.” Unfortunately, I think the irony is lost on Levin.

Bejewled Jewelry Store
            Growing up in a western civilization, I too feel discomfort when I see the swastika, and I am sure that to many, the swastika evokes feelings of horror that I will never understand. However, that being said, the United States Constitution guarantees a right to freedom of religion, something that was threatened when New York politicians bullied a storeowner into removing a symbol of her religion from her store. The United States Supreme Court has demonstrated numerous times in the past that it is willing to protect minority religions, even when in doing so, they cause discomfort to the majority. For example, in Church of Babalu v. Hialeah (1993), practitioners of a religion called Santeria, which practiced ritualistic animal sacrifice, wished to establish a place of worship in the city of Hialeah. The idea of a Santeria church in Hialeah caused great discomfort to many members of Hialeah, and the city council proceeded to outlaw animal sacrifice. The Supreme Court decided that outlawing of animal sacrifice was not religiously neutral and ruled it unconstitutional, protecting the minority at the expense of the majority’s comfort. In another case, Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), three Jehovah’s Witnesses were soliciting in New Haven, asking people on the street if they could play a phonograph record for them. The phonograph record included an attack on Catholicism, and as the area where they were soliciting in was highly Catholic, the record offended some people who were solicited. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested for soliciting without a permit, but the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction, claiming that the Jehovah’s Witness’ actions were protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments. These two Supreme Court cases demonstrate that there is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, but not a constitutional guarantee of freedom from being offended, even if the offense is understandable to “any civilized person.”

            There are those who claim that it is impossible to rehabilitate the swastika after what has happened in World War II. While this is an argument I understand, it is often irrelevant, because for some people, the swastika does not need to be rehabilitated. The swastika is still used widely in other parts of the world, and for people from these parts, the swastika still has its original meaning. Another argument is that the swastika is often still used as a symbol of hatred and anti-semitism in the United States. While this is true, it is fortunately usually easy to see when the swastika is being used as a symbol of hate rather than a religious symbol by looking at the context. I therefore can find no state interest that is compelling enough to justify burdening Kim’s free exercise of religion.

Young Sook Kim was therefore denied her right to freedom of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when she was bullied, insulted, and coerced into removing an item bearing a symbol of her religion from her store. Levin was correct in saying that we need to be sensitive in what others have been through. However, this includes being sensitive to those of a minority religion that views the swastika positively, and is forced to deal with the polarized opinion of a western civilization.  


Nicole D said...

I agree with you. Although we could all agree that the swastika as a symbol of anti-semitism and nazism is wrong, I am not even sure it would be constitutional to ban that as it would interfere with someone's right to free speech. It is even more problematic to coerce someone out of selling a symbol that they are proud of for completely different, positive connotations. Although everyone has the right to express their opinions, and even dislike of the earrings, I think that the idea of attacking this store owner and asking her to remove them from the store is crossing a line, and violating both her freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Sayeh B said...

I also agree with this assessment - the point of the First Amendment is to help protect the minority from the potential coercion and social pressures that come from the majority. Kim has the right to sell whatever she wants in her store and if it happens to offend someone, then maybe they shouldn't shop there. There is no constitutional guarantee to not being offended, but every person does have the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion, which is exactly what Kim was trying to do.

Jennie M. said...

I agree with what has been said before me and I definitely see elements of free speech in this case in addition to free exercise. While I think it's true that most Americans see the swastika as a symbol hate and antisemitism, this does not take away from the symbol's other meanings ans uses, particularly those relating to minority religions.

I don't think selling swastika earrings is the most savvy business plan, but the store owner has the constitutional right to do so.

Kaela Diomede said...

I agree the the presence of the Swastika is definitely still a jarring and unpleasant symbol. I know that I would have a hard time separating what I know and feel about it and its original meaning. I do think that the store owner has to right to sell them, but I do think, that regardless of it original meaning, this symbol is beyond offensive to a particular religious group.

Dan W said...

I think this is a free speech issue more than a free exercise issue. While the legitimate religious significance of the swastika earrings outweighs any concerns about hatred, I believe that the earrings should be able to be sold even without the religious justification. The right to sell and wear jewelry with any symbol, hateful or not, is protected in the right to free speech. I understand the concern with the swastika as a symbol of hate and I personally do not support it but I stand by my claim that the right to free speech outweighs all other arguments.

Sam Cohen said...

You raise an interesting point, though I disagree with you. While we certainly should be tolerant of minority religions, there is a big difference between being tolerant of a religion and protecting people from having to feel fear, pain, or anguish when seeing a symbol that to many in our country represents death, destruction, and violence. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah is a much different case, in that it was ruled that the government was targeting one religion and not being neutral. In this case, it seems to be a neutral government interest to stop the selling of swastika earrings or merchandise because they have a neutral interest to prevent anything that represents death and violence and all of the unspeakable tragedies that the swastika reminds us of, not matter what the religion is.