The Memorial in Question
If I were to comment on the Ohio Holocaust memorial on aesthetics alone, this would be a very short article. It’s very well done. It is stunning. The depressing theme of the memorial would probably overwhelm me if I went, but even then the artistic merits of it would be obvious to me.
Which makes it a real shame that this memorial has to be on public land, since that means that I feel, as secularists, that we should speak out against its construction.
This is going to need to take some unpacking, because of the social values we have here in America, people are going to call folks like me some really stupid things. But before I do that unpacking, I’ll state my position baldly:
While the Star of David has symbolism beyond mere religion, the meaning here is derived from its status as a religious symbol, and can’t be easily ignored. This very argument has been used by people to defend the Christian cross on public land, with much more nefarious intent. This context should be carefully considered when supporting a Star of David at one location while asking for crucifixes to be removed from other locations. The implication of an unequal standard is obvious.
Moreover, I think the victims of the Holocaust would be badly served if the manifestly larger result of a memorial is ammunition for Dominionists on the move to continue to ostracize the descendants of those victims from the halls of government. Or worse, to consider them only as literal fuel for the apocalyptic fire.
Symbols are one of the most effective ways institutions communicate values to people, and weakening the non-endorsement of religion in order to make a statement that genocide should not be forgotten undermines both messages.
As supporters of the monument are quick to point out, context is important, and I agree. The context of this monument is clearly one of religious entanglement. In Ohio, the government tasked a statewide Jewish Federation with the design process. Governor John R. Kasich declared:
“We need to have remembrance in this Statehouse. And I call on the Jewish community along with our brothers in faith to develop some sort of a memorial that members of our legislature and members of the public as they pass through this great rotunda will be able to understand not just the history of a time when people wouldn’t stand, but the fact that it’s today we must stand against evil.”
Gov. Joh R. Kasich, Ohio
“Brothers in faith” does not have a lot of interpretations that exclude religion. Worse: in a sentence, people without faith are excluded, and the message moves beyond religious entanglement to one of exclusion and discrimination. This should be considered.
If I had it my way, the secular groups I support would fight to keep this memorial off public land while simultaneously looking for a new home for it. The stated values of the memorial are one that should resonate with the FFRF and AA beyond the usual array of intersecting lines we’ve had to deal with. After all, anyone with an understanding of Jewish history can tell you that the uniform of bigotry more often had a clerical collar than a swastika.
..and that’s pretty much it. I’m not a lawyer, a philosopher, or a politician. I’m just someone who wants the 1st Amendment to remain with as few exceptions as possible, because I’ve seen the effect its erosion has had on the country.
Informal Discussion of Arguments
Why are we even talking about this? There are Jews, many of them don’t believe in god. Some of them are as staunch antitheists as we are. They have a shared culture. Therefore, there is a secular Jewish culture. This is not difficult.
Anything else is just handwaving.
I would add that part of belonging to a secular Jewish culture would be a personal narrative about their reaction to the religious parts of Jewish culture. But that’s not even distinct, I think a part of belonging to a secular American culture is a narrative about a reaction to Christianity. You’ll find that American Jews have both narratives.
The Star of David as a Religious Symbol
The Star of David may have started out a secular symbol, but it has taken on a religious significance to the point where it is an inherently religious symbol. I think if we’re going to talk about how those symbols began, we’ll have to apply an even standard.
In which case, it’s important to note that the crucifix was originally a method of punishment in the Roman Empire, and had no special spiritual significance. Also, the crescent moon is clearly an astronomical symbol.
Good luck with that.
I really have to talk about this? Really?
Alright, let’s unpack this one, as ridiculous as it is. Speaking skeptically, the evidence for the Holocaust is absolutely overwhelming. Based on Occam’s Razor alone, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
I’m hesitant to bring personal stuff into this, but given that Holocaust denial has already been leveled at me, I feel justified in doing so. I’m an Irish white guy from Chicago, with no familial connection to World War II– I don’t have a lot of family history, and many of my relatives were dead before I was born.
My wife, on the other hand, is a very different story. Her grandparents and their family members, those that escaped, were scattered through Palestine, Argentina, and the U.K. in 1938.
Do I need to spell it out?
This is just “Islamophobia 2: This Time They Hate the Jews!” The people who are going to hate us over this were predisposed to hating us anyway. Being a member of a social equality movement means doing things the majority isn’t going to like.
Just ask someone in the LGBT movement. Or a black person.
Rebecca Friedman contributed to this opinion piece.