Rockaway angered by swastika ad

By Kelsey Durham

Lawmakers across the city criticized an organization this week that was seen flying a large swastika banner over some of the city’s beaches last weekend, including Rockaway Beach.

A plane carrying a banner that had the anti-Semitic symbol paired with a peace sign and a heart was spotted flying over Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and the Rockaways Saturday. The symbols were followed by the URL proswastika.org, which identifies itself as a group aiming to return the swastika symbol to its original connotation of peace.

The website issued a new release July 10, saying the advertisement to be flown that weekend was paid for by a group called the International Raelian Movement, which claims to exist in order to push a “swastika rehabilitation effort.”

The movement, whose U.S. headquarters are located in Las Vegas, is a UFO religion founded by a former French racing driver back in the 1970s. A spokesman for the group told USA Today the group is not anti-Semitic but is instead a peace-loving, pacifist organization.

After hundreds of beach-goers in Brooklyn and Queens saw the banner fly across the sky, elected officials said they received complaints from constituents about the advertising, and some leaders said they have begun looking into ways to better regulate it.

“When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe I was seeing a swastika with a heart and a peace sign,” state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said after the banner flew through his district. “What bothered me most is that some organization is hiding behind free speech, but they don’t realize that symbol means so much more to my constituents. It’s a symbol of hatred, torture and murder.”

Lew Simon, district leader for the Rockaways, said he was “mortified” to see the banner flying above the beach Saturday and said a photo posted to Facebook immediately attracted dozens of comments from people angry at the ad that he said was “in poor taste.”

“Everybody has their First Amendment rights to their beliefs, but don’t use something you know is very hurtful to billions of people,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. There is a lot of advertising going on where people use things that are uncalled for, but this really took the cake. It’s unacceptable.”

Simon said he even called the Federal Aviation Administration to find out who owned the plane, but he said he was told by the agency that it did not document that information.

State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Howard Beach) has recently vamped up his efforts to monitor what he called “inappropriate” advertising, saying the swastika banner over Rockaway Beach was the latest in a series of ads that have spurred complaints.

He cited a banner spotted in his district last year that portrayed a woman in minimal clothing promoting SKEnergy Drink, which was flown over a Little League game and caused parents to complain about the inappropriate image being shown to children.

The assemblyman has reached out to the city Department of Consumer Affairs and said he has begun exploring legislation that would more closely regulate the placement of advertising.

“I have two young children at home and I do everything I can to protect them from vulgar and inappropriate material,” Goldfeder said. “We need to find the balance to allow our families to enjoy their neighborhoods while keeping the vulgar and offensive content of ads in check.”

The First Amendment protects free speech but has loopholes that allow for punishment if content is deemed obscene or could incite a riot. Addabbo said the banner could be seen as something that would start a riot but said the law makes it hard to stop until something actually happens.

Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows), who represents one of the city’s largest Jewish populations in northeast Queens, also criticized the move by the proswastika.org group and demanded it make a public apology to the people of New York before shutting down its operations completely.

“Flying a swastika over New York City is categorically and unquestionably wrong,” Weprin said. “Regardless of what this symbol means to others, the swastika is tied to the most oppressive and criminal regime to ever exist and is the strongest symbol for anti-Semitism there is. The swastika is a symbol of horror and hate and I condemn its use for any purpose.”

Addabbo said he has begun checking into what legal action can be taken to prevent the public from being subjected to such advertising in the future. He said as of now it seems there is little that can be done, but he said that would not deter him from continuing to look.

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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