Swastika in N.J. field sparks swift response

HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. — A swastika carved into a cornfield has spurred a swift condemnation from both Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders, including New Jersey's governor.

A pilot flying overhead on July 9 noticed the 130-foot swastika in a field in Washington Township.

The incident is being treated as a bias crime. The state attorney general's office, the Mercer County prosecutor's office and the Washington Township police department are investigating.

To Shai Goldstein, executive director of the New Jersey regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, the response to the swastika incident has been model.

Numerous religious and ethnic groups were represented at an ADL press conference held in Trenton on July 16.

"One of the greatest strengths we have is that there was an ecumenical, multi-racial response," Goldstein said.

"That's the best way to isolate bigots."

To aid in the apprehension of the perpetrators, the ADL announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction.

Governor Christie Whitman announced the state will match that reward money.

"Racist acts strike at the heart of our society and injure every community they touch," the governor said. "Hate crimes affect not only the community where they occur, but the state as a whole. They bring out the worst in society and diminish us as human beings."

Last week, Nassau Communications of Princeton, a network of 15 radio stations, announced it would contribute an additional $5,000 toward the reward.

Other community leaders have spoken up.

"At the present time, most of the clergy are taking this up with their congregations with their worship and sermons and prayers," said the Rev. Suzanne Schafer-Coates, spiritual leader of the First Presbyterian Church of nearby Hightstown.

"We are all speaking out against this sort of behavior. We don't want this to happen in our community. It doesn't represent us; the people who are doing it are sick, sad individuals."

Kenneth Boardman, program director for the East Windsor Regional School District, said that educators are actively trying to educate students about prejudice.

"We have always worked hard to address these kinds of issues," he said. "We really believe if you are connected to people, it is much more difficult not to be nice to them."

This most recent incident, he said, proves that anti-bias programs must be part of a school's curriculum.

"I think what it tells us is that you need to continue to have programs such as these to ensure if these [incidents] do occur they are isolated and hopefully that they won't occur," he said.

While officials would not release details about the investigation, published reports have noted that the swastika appears to have been precisely cut and was already several days old at the time of its discovery.

A similar incident occurred in 1996 when a 60-foot swastika was found cut in a cornfield in Burlington County. Eleven people were indicted in the incident, which was linked to a series of bias crimes.