The organizers of an international rally designed to improve the supposedly maligned reputation of the swastika expected to cause a furor when they hired a place to fly a banner featuring the Nazi symbol and they couldn't be happier with the results.
But their satisfaction came at the expense of people in New Jersey and New York who were upset to see the huge sign on Saturday equating swastikas with peace and love.
"It got the attention, so it was a success," said Thomas Kaenzig, organizer of "World Swastika Rehabiliation Day".
The event, the third of its kind, was designed to return the swastika to its original meaning, which in Sanskrit literally means "to be good," according to Kaenzig. The event was put on by a UFO religion known as the Raelians that claims to have 70,000 members. They believe the swastika is a symbol of the elohim, a race of extraterrestrials who they claim created humans.
Kaenzig hoped to get attention for the cause by flying a banner over New Jersey and New York City and a second one in Los Angeles.
But it aroused criticism from people like Don Pripstein, president of the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, who told the Associated Press that whatever the group's intentions are, the image is still horrific for many Jews whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
"They may have good intentions, but the image is more powerful than good intentions at this point," he said to the AP. "The image is so horrendous that no matter what their ultimate purpose is, it's extremely negative."
The Raelians are known for being provocative: The group's symbol combines the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Kaenzig justifies what might be considered an offensive combination by saying it's the end result that matters.
"One thing leads to another," he told the Huffington Post. "Some people will go beyond the knee jerk reaction and go to the website and see what we're really about."
Before Germany's Nazi Party embraced the swastika in the 1920s, for thousands of years it appeared on Hindu and Buddhist temples, in Native American artwork and even in Jewish synagogues in Israel.
Fellow Raelian Rick Roehr said the group's objective is to take back the swastika from the Nazis.
"Our objective in this annual "Swastika Rehabilitation Day" is to… rehabilitate the image of this very ancient symbol which has, in recent decades, been equated only with Hitler's horrors, when in fact, the swastika has always meant something very beautiful, peaceful and loving for billions of people all over the world and still is by billions of people," he said in a statement the group's website.
But based on Twitter reactions to the banner, most people didn't see it that way.
It's a gorgeous day... And some idiot is flying a swastika banner off the tail of his plane up and down Manhattan.
— Miguelina Nunez (@MiguelinaNunez) June 23, 2012
Before the event, Menachem Wecker, who blogs about art and religion for the Houston Chronicle, predicted people would be cross at the pro-swastika rally.
"The swastika has longstanding meaning as a symbol of peace, and nothing the Nazis did can change that," Wecker told The Huffington Post by email. "The reality is, however, that it also carries Nazi baggage now, and anyone who thinks they're going to 'take it back' or 'own it' by holding some kind of public forum without offending a lot of people is deeply mistaken."
Still, Kaenzig said change can happen one person at a time.
"The person who owns the plane company went to Mexico on Saturday and got a call from a woman complaining about the banner," Kaenzig said. "He told her, 'Look, I'm spending $80 on roaming charges listening to you. Could you just go look at the website?
"She called him back five minutes later and apologized, saying that she was a teacher who taught her kids about the Holocaust and never knew the history of the swastika."
UPDATE: A woman claiming to be the woman who called the plane's owner in Mexico said she didn't apologize to the plane owner.
"I wanted this explained and said I now understood the origin of the swastika," she said. "He on the other hand, apologized for offending me and my heritage. We came to an agreement after I told him this was originally thought to be extremely offensive."
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