This past week a quasi government committee here in Ohio voted to accept the design for a Holocaust memorial that included a large Star of David. A memorial to honor the victims of that horrific event seems appropriate but including a religious symbol as a large focus of the installation seems crossing the line between church and state. However it seems some atheists jumped the gun and likened concern over the religious symbol to being a Holocaust denier. Those atheists should do their homework before being ‘outraged’.
The Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish religion, has a place in the history of the Holocaust because it was used by the Nazis to “mark” Jews before they were shipped off to the death camps during World War II. However the Holocaust didn’t only affect Jewish people.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.
Here is the model of the memorial. The Star of David is at the top center of the picture:
It was because the memorial was not inclusive enough and featured a large Star of David in the design that caused the Freedom from Religion Foundation to send a letter of complaint and also a threat to sue the State of Ohio for a 1st amendment violation:
The design selected for the memorial was created by Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind’s design incorporates two rectangular structures made of stainless steel with the story of an Auschwitz survivor embossed upon them. In the negative space between the two structures is a very large sacred religious symbol known as the “Star of David” which dominates the structure, even from a long distance. FFRF believes with the state of Ohio it is important to memorialize the Holocaust. We also believe that the solemnity and import of the task can be accomplished without permanently placing a religious symbol on government property. As the Star of David was deemed by European Jews to be the symbol that “would represent Judaism just as the cross did Christianity,” its prominent inclusion in the memorial gives the impression of an endorsement of Judaism
Even if the symbol is viewed in the context of a memorial honoring victims of an atrocious genocide, it ignores the fact that there were other victims of the Holocaust. Thus, it gives the impression that only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are being honored by the state. There were five million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, resisters to the Nazi regime, Catholic priests and Christian pastors, homosexuals, the disabled, and Africans who were brought to Germany following World War 1.3 If the memorial included only a pink triangle, it would appear to honor homosexual victims of the Holocaust above all others. Similarly, including the Star of David so prominently in the planned memorial is exclusionary, ignoring the sacrifices made by the many other groups only cares about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, not Christian, nonreligious, or other non-Jewish victims.
The monument could resemble numerous powerful war memorials across the U5. Which do not use any sectarian images: including the National World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Each is secular in nature and Without religious reference, which offends no one and is respected by all. The lack of religious imagery within those memorial designs neither diminishes their significance nor detracts from the respect and honor shown for the victims of those conflicts.
However it seems Daniel Fincke didn’t read the letter, or read up on the actual design, and in a knee jerk reaction assumed the worse:
But I am aghast, livid, embarrassed, ashamed, and offended to report to you that Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation has written a letter opposing this memorial under the false charge that it is exclusionary and violates the principle of the Separation of Church and State simply because it features the Star of David on government property and (only allegedly but not actually) omits other victims of the Holocaust. And David Silverman of the American Atheists has gone on FOX News also to attack this memorial on the same grounds. In doing so they show an outright offensive in ability to understand the multivalence of symbols and their different meanings in different contexts and in the process conflate the affirmation of the Jewish people’s dignity, endurance, and victory over one of the world’s most monstrous and horrific attempts at utter genocide with a government endorsement of the Jewish religion or religion in general is unbelievably historically and culturally ignorant.
Daniel got it wrong – very wrong.
FFRF isn’t opposed to the memorial. It is opposed to the large Star of David in the design that seems to say that only Jews suffered during the Holocaust. Two other designs submitted were able to honor the victims without using the religious symbol.
Not only did Fincke get FFRF’s motivation wrong by attempting to use the antisemitism smear, he doubled down to argue the Star of David isn’t religious.
One can be opposed to the Star of David on public land without being anti-semitic just like we aren’t anti-Christians because we don’t want big honking Latin Crosses in our parks or in the 9/11 Memorial.
Fincke would fit right in with Christian apologists who make the false argument that religious symbols have a secular purpose. You can’t divorce the symbol from the religion just as you can’t claim a chair is anything but a chair.
The symbols make a statement-not of religious faith. They are not needed for that. They assert simply and starkly, as I’ve said, POWER OVER the nonbelievers…. In the course of that proceeding, one of the sponsors of the creche was asked about his interest in viewing it while it stood on Scarsdale’s Boniface Circle during the Christmas season. To my surprise as the questioner, it turned out that he never bothered to go look at the creche at all, let alone to admire or draw inspiration from it. But on reflection that should not have been so surprising. The creche was not there for him to see or appreciate for its intrinsic spiritual value in his religious universe. It was there for others, who professed other religions or none, so that the clout of his religious group should be made manifest-above all to any in the sharply divided village who would have preferred that it not be there: This is the low road., followed by at least a good number of those who seek for. their religion and its symbols the imprimatur of government. If it is religious at all, this stance betokens a weak and self-doubting species of faith.
Faith and Freedom, Religious Liberty in America, Marvin E. Frankel (retired U S Federal District Court judge) Hill and Wang, N Y (1994) 55-64.
The other problem with looking the other way while a large Star of David is on public land is that theists then use that in future fights to get more religious symbols and laws into our government. One example of this argument was the 10 Commandments monument allowed to stay on the grounds of the Texas state house because it hadn’t been challenged in 40 years:
If these factors provide a strong, but not conclusive, indication that the Commandments’ text on this monument conveys a predominantly secular message, a further factor is determinative here. As far as I can tell, 40 years passed in which the presence of this monument, legally speaking, went unchallenged (until the single legal objection raised by petitioner). And I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that this was due to a climate of intimidation. Hence, those 40 years suggest more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect, primarily to promote religion over nonreligion, to “engage in” any “religious practic[e],” to “compel” any “religious practic[e],” or to “work deterrence” of any “religious belief.” Schempp, 374 U. S., at 305 (Goldberg, J., concurring). Those 40 years suggest that the public visiting the capitol grounds has considered the religious aspect of the tablets’ message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage.
That Star of David on the memorial becomes a “Trojan Horse” that will be used to shoe horn religion across the wall between church and state.
I want to close this post by using a well known quote used to describe people who looked the other way when the Holocaust got started. I think it has relevance to reactions about this case from people like Daniel Fincke.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
Atheists need to speak out about any violation of the 1st amendment, even if it seems trivial, because if we don’t, we might end up more marginalized than we are now. If they do it to us then they will do it to others who don’t belong to the majority belief system.
To burst the bubble of people like Daniel Fincke, who think theists will like us more if we look the other way and be silent while they walk all over us, they will NEVER like us. They will just find something else to hate about us.
We need to stop giving a shit what theists think about us and fight for our principles – oh, and do our homework before complaining about something being done in the Atheist movement.