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Doree Lewak

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The Swastika: Making a Comeback, or Did It Ever Really Go Away?

Posted: 03/04/08 09:31 PM ET

Did you hear the one about the book of swastika cartoons? No, seriously. It's springtime for swastikas, c/o Simon & Schuster.

Just in time for Israel's 60th, a book filled with swastika cartoons and illustrations guaranteed to tickle even the most discerning funny bone breathlessly arrives. (Call off the search for the quintessential gift for the nation that's impossible to shop for!). Which really only leaves one question: What took you so long?

Next week, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons will hit bookshelves and below the belt, its very name a nod to the enduring Nazi ethos.

Originally sold under the name "The Swastika Cartoon Book," the Simon & Schuster committee on good taste must have nixed it for the more seemly title with the "swastika" to the right of the colon. Hands down, much snappier!

Synopsized as the author's "desire to disempower the still-potent symbol through humor," this misguided artistic attempt to subvert such a deep-seated symbol misses the mark by a mile. There's tacky and then there's poor taste. The category for this book fits several pegs below the latter.

That the book is the brainchild of a 74-year old Jew lessens the sting by little. Of course it's helmed by a Jew. It would never have been green-lighted if it weren't pegged to a Jew. The seasoned illustrator Sam Gross, having been raised in the U.S., was spared the horrors of the Holocaust, and obviously the good sense to know when to draw -- or rather in this case, not draw -- the line.

So what was his lofty goal again? "To break down stereotypes." Um...yeah.

And it's not just Jews and survivors who should wince at this entreaty to laugh at the heavyweight symbol of hate. The book is an affront to all of us. In a time when the swastika is regularly brandished as a go-to weapon, here is Gross trying to pass it off as entertainment. But what he fails to realize is that the symbol is too ever-present as a tool of hate to minimize as a side-splitting joke.

A symbol that should be long since buried in the dustbin of historical horrors is barely dusty. Instead, it has made a mighty comeback in recent years, between Halloween parties with Prince Harry and parade floats in Brazil; Gross has too much competition for attention.

If there will ever be a time when we can all enjoy a good tickle over the symbolism, it's still about 100 years too soon. Not when we have so much swastika fodder already at our fingertips. We already have it as public art -- on homes, cars and synagogues. Like it's not spraypainted everywhere it shouldn't be, now it's spraypainted in our literature too?

My suggestion? If you really need to satiate your Nazi fix fast, don't go for the sanitized version. Splurge for the good stuff and invest in a set of authentic Nazi memorabilia. Something about buying it at B&N just cheapens the whole experience, no?

Everyone knows that the Hindu provenance of the swastika was cannibalized by the Nazis, getting demonized along the way. Yeah, just like the way everyone knows that "intifada"* -- the poisonous Islamic call of uprising -- has gotten an unfair rap all these years. Gross strives to de-stigmatize the swastika just like Debbie Almontaser wants to de-stigmatize "intifada" and parade it on a t-shirt. The deposed principal of a Brooklyn Islamic public school simply retooled intifada's image, redefining it now as "shaking off," as if to "shake off oppression." That's the funny thing about deeply-embedded images of hate: they stick.

The swastika is already alive and well, with or without Gross's creative contribution. It's enjoyed a streak of popularity that has never abated. It's always been open season on Jews as self-expression through the swastika persists -- that salient salute to Jews that never goes out of style. And the notion of catapulting this book into the mainstream as entertainment is indefensible. There's negligible difference between the Nazi propaganda of the Holocaust heyday and Gross's work now - save for the fact that he's assuring us that it's OK to laugh at it now.

This is not a personal attack on Gross, whose attempt at defending his work is not good enough of a reason to propel it into the mainstream. Yet he cannot claim to be an unwitting agent provocateur -- and has admitted to steeling himself for the fallout.

It's such a direct affront, so close to the bone, that any hope of sanitizing the swastika while survivors are still alive -- living with the constant reminder whether they like it or not -- falls so flat. It's still so shocking to see -- and now we're being asked to train ourselves to stomach it? Find it palatable even?

To ask the public to accept its return backed by a retooled PR pitch is too much to ask. And it shouldn't be asked of us. We have a name for that sort of thing: Shanda, Mr. Gross. Not the right book, not the right time.

* In writing this piece in the heat of the moment, I mistakenly used the term "jihad" when it should in fact have referenced the "intifada NYC" t-shirt in question. I hope this clarifies the confusion.

 

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