Friday, December 17, 1999

Pokemon's "Swastika" and the Right to Cultural Privacy (Jewish Week and Stamford Advocate)


Pokemon's "Swastika" and the Right to Cultural Privacy

by Joshua Hammerman
Originally Appeared in The Stamford Advocate, 12/19/99

On Veterans Day last month, the day after the Pokemon Movie opened, nine-year-old Paul Springer and his younger sister Ilana came to my office, seeking my advice. They brought with them a Pokemon trading card featuring two of the series’ 150 characters, Golbat and Ditto, alongside what looked like a swastika. They wanted their rabbi’s opinion as to whether engaging in further Pokemon activities was, well, Kosher.

Much was riding on my recommendation. Paul had already given away most of his Pokemon cards and was quite upset, as was his grandfather, a refugee from Poland who had lost many of his family in the Holocaust. As a father, I couldn’t help but consider that my own two children were looking forward to seeing the movie that day. As a rabbi, I couldn’t help but think of how our synagogue’s parking lot had been desecrated with swastikas only two months before. And Buford Furrow’s attack on Jewish children near Los Angeles was also fresh in our minds.

But as a lifelong student of religions and advocate of cultural diversity, I knew something else -- that it wasn’t really a swastika. I pulled a book from the shelf and held up the Pokemon card to a photo of Hitler, with arm extended in his infamous salute and an "authentic" Nazi swastika on his sleeve. As one Hebrew School student later remarked, "the tentacles face the other way." It wasn’t a swastika at all next to the Golbat and Ditto. It was a "manji," a Japanese sign of hope, a symbol whose meaning evokes for the Japanese exactly the opposite of what a swastika connotes to those of us in the West. Doing some quick research on the Internet, I was intrigued by the claim that the Nazis deliberately reversed this emblem, transforming an ancient Asian symbol of life into one of death. I managed to convince Paul and Ilana and myself that a strong letter to Nintendo might be in order, but that it was OK to see the movie.

A few weeks later, Nintendo pulled the card, claiming that it was never intended for distribution in the West and that "what’s appropriate for one culture may not be for another." That claim at first made me bristle at the company’s insensitivity to the Pauls and Ilanas of this world. But then I wondered about the fairness of it all, whether we in the West have a right to bulldoze ancient cultures whose symbols don’t quite suit our sensibilities. Or have we simply reached the point where East has met West, and never the twain shall part? In our new border-less civilization, is there still room for cultural privacy? Or must everything fit neatly into a single, bland package?

In this global village, the wall of separation between church and state still stands tall, but the one separating church from mosque and synagogue is dropping fast. Through the Internet, a Jew whose name isn’t Kissinger can now "visit" Saudi Arabian holy places, and I do, often, then occasionally extending my multicultural hajj to Chartres, the Vatican, or to one of my favorites, the gorgeous Meenakshi Hindu temple in Madurai, Southern India. Usually, I end up at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (called the Kotel in Hebrew), where, through a live camera feed called Kotel Kam, this Conservative male rabbi can zoom his way smack into the women’s section, unbeknownst to the Ultra-Orthodox overseers of this Jewish holy site. I love these on-line expeditions, but wonder if through my temerity I am crossing too many cultural boundaries, compromising the uniqueness of other faiths and denominations, and possibly betraying my own. As we become more crowded on this shrinking Earth, there still must be a place to respect the belief-space of the other.

If any symbol deserves to be internationally taboo, it is surely the swastika. Nintendo should have been able to see the problem that would arise. But I fear for a world where the symbol police will be out in force, cruising the Web for non-conformity to standards that no one really sets.

Maybe it is time to set some, so that cultural privacy will be respected, and so that those few symbols sullied by universal evil will gain the international censure they deserve. Perhaps our world is small enough now that Buddhists might consider voluntarily giving up or modifying the manji, understanding that they are paying an unfair but necessary price for the crimes of leaders half a world away. Other faiths must also be willing to follow suit. The Catholic Church has certainly done its part, reversing centuries-old positions regarding Jews and Judaism, tenets of faith that had fed anti-Semitism for nearly two millennia. Adherents of all faiths are coming to understand that no one creed possesses a monopoly on truth, and that we all have much to learn from the Other.

Given this increase in dialogue and understanding, new rules of interfaith engagement might prevail. That means not engaging in missionary activity, especially of a deceptive nature. "Jews for Jesus" and other so-called Messianic Jews routinely dupe people with their Christological interpretations of Jewish symbols and rituals like the Passover Seder. This activity demonstrates no respect for the cultural integrity of another faith.

For Jews, the Millennium presents a particular dilemma, since it is based on a Christian calendar calculations. By the Jewish date book, we are in the year 5760, and Y2K is based on the supposed birth date of a popular Jew whom Jews don’t recognize as the Messiah. Yet rather than scorn at the world on Dec. 31, Jews would do better to join others in serious reflection, made even more serious by the fact that New Years Eve and Day happen to coincide with the Sabbath.

So in the end, we all have something new to learn from the manji: for us in the West, to see the joy the serenity it brings to the Buddhist, and to accept it; for our Eastern neighbors, to see the grimace of pain on the face of Paul’s grandfather, and to change it.

Monday, December 6, 1999

A Review of Give Me That On-line Religion"

 "Surfing for God:

A Review of Give Me That On-line Religion"

(This article originally appeared on

"Give Me That On-line Religion" by Brenda E. Brasher. Jossey Bass. 208pp. $24.95

If there is one commonly accepted truth about the emerging cyber-culture, it is that the only constant is change. Only a couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of writing my own book about spirituality and the Internet, people were just beginning to realize that cyberspace connected us to one another in ways analogous to offline religious experiences.

Now that fact is accepted as a given, what with the proliferation of major religious Web sites like Beliefnet and the nearly universal access to the Internet that suddenly spans all the generations. When I toured with my book, I was astonished at how many seniors turned out for my lectures, and at how cyber-savvy they had become.

So we've reached a new stage in our exploration of religion in cyberspace, one of redefinition and advocacy. This is the underlying premise of Brenda Basher's most recent contribution to the growing genre of books dealing with online spirituality, entitled, "Give Me That Online Religion." Basher, an assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Ohio, draws upon her vast understanding of a variety of world religions and the role of religion in society in exploring the topic from a variety of perspectives.

She makes two main points: 1) that religion is a necessary and valuable contributor to a civil society, or as she calls it, "a rich incomparable meaning resource -- necessary ballast to individual identity," and 2) that religious expression must be fostered, cultivated and protected online.

She looks at how traditional religions, including Judaism, have been enhanced. She notes that previous technological innovations were catalysts for change -- television, for instance, led to the slow ascendancy of image over word, and to religious services designed to look like media events. Now, we are moving toward what she calls an "electronic souk of the soul," where developing forms of hypertext surfing are becoming a religious experience unto themselves.

We are learning to broaden our spiritual horizons. Where television opened the door to seeing carefully staged presentations of other cultures, "cyberspace puts us in direct one-on-one contact with our neighbors around the world." Millions of people are only a mouse click away, she adds, "and they are all our neighbors." This poses some moral dilemmas (such as whether cyber sex constitutes adultery) that Basher explores in detail.

She broadens the definition to include some cultural phenomena that we might not automatically associate with "old time religion," including virtual shrines to the cult of celebrity (everything from "Star Trek" celebrations to Princess Diana memorials). Basher also explores modern apocalyptic movements like Heaven's Gate, emphasizing again that, despite the dangers, cyberspace must continue to be a place preserved for people to "climb and roam."

This book reads best as a series of disconnected reflections rather than a sustained, integrated argument. But that in itself is a product of our new, hyperlinked zeitgeist, where writing, like praying and believing, is taking on the spontaneous, word-association flavor of Web surfing. The book will certainly find its place in this still tiny genre, a first-generation study at how we are religious online and how, all expectations to the contrary, traditions of the past are not being subsumed by the eternal present of cyber-culture. As we become more and more computer-like in our thought processes and more technologically sophisticated, we are most certainly not leaving religion behind. God is coming along for the ride.