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August 24, 2000

'Intent matters' in swastika incident

To the Editor:

"Knowledge dispels fear" appears prominently on the Royal Air Force medallion once proudly worn by my English uncle. He, no doubt, would have pleased Stephen R. Covey, author of "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," whose Habit Number One is: Seek First to Understand.

I thought of my uncle (and Stephen Covey) recently after reading in the TAB about an incident that occurred at the July meeting of the Newton Human Rights Commission ["Uproar ends commission meeting," July 20]. Brenda Loew, a Jewish woman whose family includes Holocaust survivors, following discussion of recent alleged anti-Semitic portrayals of swastikas in the city, held up her own sketch of one, intending to demonstrate that that symbol need not always be one of anti-Semitism or hatred. For her efforts, Loew was accused of committing a "hate crime," the Newton Police were summoned, a police report filed. I found this incident to be a chilling one that reminded me of when I was a child of perhaps four. I, like Loew, had sketched a swastika. I proudly held it up for my German mother to see. She said: "That is a symbol of hatred! Never draw that again!"

Decades later, I began studying the history of Nazi Germany. As a result, I now understand more clearly the emotions and motivations of that time. Horrific crimes were committed. The swastika was omnipresent, misappropriated and metamorphosed (for Nazi victims) into hate itself, contrary to its universal original meaning of good fortune and abundance. Look closely at the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem - the swastika is there. Buddhist and Hindu shrines, First Editions of Kipling, early coinage - it is there. What does the Brenda Loew incident tell us about the intentions of the Newton Human Rights Commission?

Seeking first to understand the incident better and especially the point of view of the members of the Commission, I telephoned City Hall, and was advised that the intent of the individual does not matter, only the action, and the swastika is always a symbol of hatred. Alarmed, I called the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and was assured that intent is important. In fact, state law defines a "hate crime" as " ... any criminal act coupled with overt actions motivated at least in part by racial, religious, ethnic ... bias." and requires of a perpetrator " ... specific intent to put his victim in fear because of his or her membership in a protected class." Absent such intent, there can be no "hate crime." In letters to the Tab, however, Lynn D. Goldsmith, commission chairman, states: "No matter what the intent of the person displaying the swastika, there remains no doubt in the minds of most people that a swastika is a symbol of hatred .... "

"Knowledge dispels fear." What can be made of this incident? Brenda Loew, it seems to me, has moved beyond a narrow, historic misuse of an ancient symbol. Others, perhaps not seeking freedom from intimidation but rather a continuation of the victimhood of their ancestors, are themselves now guilty of perpetuating the fear.

Finally, to quote Lynn Goldsmith once again: " ... there remains no doubt in the minds of most people that a swastika is a symbol of hatred .... " "Most people" implies a minority, however large or small, who disagree. Is the right of Brenda Loew to begin to let go of historic baggage rather than remain in perpetual paralysis unimportant? Is the right of a Buddhist, Hindu, perhaps an Orthodox Jew, to view a shrine or temple (the "Wailing Wall") incorporating a swastika or swastikas in their design, intending the older optimistic meaning, unimportant? Should they be "haters" by definition? I don't want to believe this.

George H. Foord Jr.

Winslow Road


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