Jewish-Hindu relations and a case for greater understanding

July 24, 2020

With encouragement and support from the university’s administration, I write to you today about the swastika and Jewish-Hindu relations. Understandably for Jews and most people in the west the swastika is a powerful symbol of hate. It became probably the most recognizable symbol of the Nazis. To this day when a Jew sees a swastika they feel terror and relive the memory of the atrocities and genocide of the Holocaust.

The swastika — albeit in a slightly different form — is also significant for Hindus and has been for thousands of years.

As I understand it, the student union president — who is Hindu — was concerned that a New York senate bill would require a narrow presentation of swastikas only as a hate symbol. Could she have said this more delicately and with greater sensitivity? Probably. But her point is not antisemitic and neither is she.

My own view is that there ought to be a way to teach about the swastika as a symbol of hateful anti-Judaism without disenfranchising American Hindus. The Third Reich’s misappropriation of the swastika should be taught as part of Holocaust history.

Jewish-Hindu dialog has come a long way in the last decade. At a 2008 summit which included both Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, representatives of the World Council of Religious Leaders produced a declaration which included the following:

Svastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition. It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances, and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich in Germany, and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetrated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognize that this symbol is, and has been sacred to Hindus for millennia, long before its misappropriation.

Some of the assessments of the current student union president have been unfair and distressing. My sense from her other social media posts is that she is aware of and speaks up about antisemitism. Would that other student government leaders at other universities do the same. Students deserve the benefit of the doubt as they find their voices and learn how to express themselves sincerely and delicately. I was also glad to hear that she wrote a clarification statement. At the end of the day, we need to be vigilant in combating antisemitism, and we should all be allies in that regard.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Seth Winberg

This letter was updated on July 24, 2020, at 6:55 p.m.