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WTF Is Swastika Rehabilitation Day, And Why Is That A Thing?

Um, why are there swastika banners flying all over the place?

In the past few days, people in places like New York and Chicago were stunned to look up and see swastika banners flying across the sky. It's 2015 after all, 70 years after the end of the Holocaust.

So why is a symbol associated with Nazis and genocide being flown in major U.S. cities? Turns out it was part of the sixth annual Swastika Rehabilitation Day.

These days the swastika is still used by Neo-Nazis and other hate groups, but the Pro-Swastika Alliance, the group behind these banners, say they want to reclaim the original meaning of the ancient symbol. Thousands of years before Hitler's Nazi party began using it, swastikas could be found in different religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, as a sign for good luck.

Pro-Swastika Alliance

“European children should be told at school what a beautiful symbol the swastika is instead of referring only to the dark use made by the Nazis,” the Pro-Swastika Alliance says on their website. Later this week the group is planning to hold an event in Tel Aviv, where a significant number of Holocaust survivors live.

As you might imagine, people looking up at the sky and seeing swastika banners typically don’t think of Hinduism or Buddhism when they see it. Whatever the general consensus of the swastika’s meaning before the Nazis, now it's easily associated with war, genocide and racism. But the Pro-Swastika Alliance is not the only group to say they want to reclaim the symbol.

Besides Swastika Rehabilitation Day, there has also been a Learn to Love the Swastika campaign. In 2013, 120 tattoo parlors spent the day giving out free swastika tattoos. Technically, people getting the tattoos were supposed to say beforehand they weren’t Neo-Nazis, but this would be hard to prove. Like the Pro-Swastika Alliance, they said it was about the older meaning of the swastika, not the current one.

"I accept the legitimacy of this criticism from the Jewish community, which was hit hardest by the Nazis," Peter Madsen, artistic designer at one of the tattoo parlors in Copenhagen, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency at the time. “But [I] refuse to let evil keep this symbol.”

Beyond tattoos and banners, there has been an uptick in swastika designing, even to the point of making swastika shaped donuts on T-shirts. The line about the swastika having a good meaning before the Nazis used it is true, but the idea of reclaiming is problematic.

First off, reclaiming something is always a controversial issue, with people frequently highly divided between those who want to redefine an offensive word or symbol and others who feel it would be detrimental. Second, whenever a word or symbol once thought offensive is reclaimed, it’s done by the people that it hurt, not by others.

For example, when some in the gay community decided to retake the word “queer,” they decided it among themselves. The same group who had been wounded by the homophobic insult moved to change what the word meant into something more positive. It wasn't a movement spearheaded by heterosexuals.

Jewish people and their allies are not the ones calling for a reclaiming of the swastika in this case. And it's no wonder: In 2015, Jewish people still suffer more religious hate crimes than any other group in America, global anti-Semitism is rising and one in four people have been found to have anti-Semitic beliefs.

“I believe that a symbol that was once something else, but which the Nazis took hostage, cannot just be washed clean,” said Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Congregation of Copenhagen, about the free swastika tattoo incident.

What might be a well-meaning campaign to take back an old symbol instead feels like a trivialization of genocide. It feels as if people who weren't touched by the Holocaust are telling people who were that, It’s time to get over that and reclaim this because we’ve decided it’s best. Flying a banner of a swastika is bound to revive a dark period in history that includes concentration camps and pogroms -- not a warm, fuzzy feeling that leaves you thinking, “Oh, we were wrong about the swastika.”

Stephen Heller, author of “The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption?” lost family in the Holocaust and has written about the swastika’s allure as well as its dangers. “I ... argue against those who want to reclaim, through art, the swastika in its benign form,” he wrote. “It is too late for such righteous attempts. The atrocities committed under this magnificently designed form must never be forgotten.”