LONG BEACH, N.J. (AP) — A group that claimed responsibility for flying a small plane towing a swastika banner over New Jersey's shore and New York City over the weekend said the display was not meant as an endorsement of anti-Semitism, but as an attempt to resurrect the symbol's more benign roots.
The sight startled beachgoers on Saturday afternoon and set Twitter abuzz. A group called the International Raelian Movement, which believes humans were created by extraterrestrials, says it was responsible.
The movement said on its website that the flyover was part of its third annual Swastika Rehabilitation Day. In a statement posted Sunday, the group reiterated its belief that the swastika is actually a symbol of peace and beauty that was corrupted by Nazis in 20th century Germany.
"Any negative emotions regarding the swastika by people under the age of 70 years old are obviously linked to their education and not to their experiences," the statement read in part. "It's about time people were re-educated to understand the original meaning of the oldest and most recurrent symbol in the world."
Etzion Neuer, acting head of the Anti-Defamation League in New Jersey, also noted that the swastika predates Hitler by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. He said that the group is not racist and that towing the swastika was a "misguided, but not malicious, act."
"They use the swastika in the traditional Eastern context, not the Nazi context," he said. "But to us it's incredibly insensitive because it's dismissive of the pain it causes to the Jewish community. It's an egocentric attitude, completely unconcerned about the way it's viewed by others."
Don Pripstein, president of the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, said some of his congregants saw the plane and "some said it practically ruined their weekend."
"They may have good intentions, but the image is more powerful than good intentions at this point," he said. "The image is so horrendous that no matter what their ultimate purpose is, it's extremely negative. We still have people in this generation who lost parents or grandparents" in the Holocaust.
A phone message left at the Raelians' office in Las Vegas wasn't returned Monday. A letter on the website www.proswastika.org attributed to the North American Raelian Movement addressed Pripstein directly.
The group is "extremely sympathetic to the horrors suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis," the letter reads. "We work incessantly so that nothing of the sort will ever be able to take place again — for Jews or any peoples."
Raelians believe humans were created by extraterrestrials, according to the movement's website. The group claims to have more than 70,000 members worldwide.