For weeks I have been trying to understand the discourse surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag in public settings which erupted anew in the aftermath of the recent shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting, which claimed the lives of nine innocent people gathered for Bible study, shocked and horrified our nation. In the days and weeks since the debate around the symbolism of the Confederate flag has swirled at a fever pitch. The flag has now been removed from the South Carolina Capital. Yet, I still find myself troubled by some of the discourse that followed the shooting and the funerals for those nine victims.
I have no problem understanding that some people genuinely view that flag as a part of their heritage as Southerners. I am troubled by the notion that in clinging to a cherished symbol, people can overlook or willingly sublimate the reality that their symbol has been co-opted. How honest are they being with themselves as they hold onto the symbol and in the process, ignore that it has come to represent something more than its original meaning? In the case of the Confederate flag, we know all too well that it became a symbol of racism. It became a symbol that invoked fear. It represented the denial of civil rights and for far too long represented the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of blacks in our country.
As a Jew, it strikes me that there is a ready analogy in the power of another symbol, the swastika. Save for some neo-Nazis and other fringe hate groups, I believe that relatively few in our country today would argue with the notion that a swastika is a symbol which should not be displayed in light of the power it held for Nazi Germany and its genocidal acts against Jews and others. I know that some people are unaware that the swastika was, in fact, hijacked by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party. According to some accounts, the word “swastika” comes from a Sanskrit word (‘svastika’) which can be translated to mean “well being,” “good existence,” and in some instances, “good luck.” Needless to say, these earlier meanings were completely sublimated and perverted as Hitler and his followers used the symbol to galvanize support for their genocidal program.
Removing the Confederate flag from public display need not be seen as an act of denigrating the history of the Confederacy from a different historical era. It was long past time for our nation to acknowledge that the Confederate flag had been hijacked. It had become a symbol invoking fear and galvanizing hatred of “the other.” Symbols have potency – and sometimes we must be honest about the reality that sacred symbols have been hijacked and abused and must be removed from the public realm to places where their historical meaning can be preserved and even honored while their power to instill fear can be defanged.