Memorializing Ethnic Jews With The Star of David Is NOT Imposing Judaism or Religiosity on Non-Jewish Americans

This week Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and David Silverman of American Atheists argued against a proposed design for a Holocaust memorial on state grounds in Ohio that features a Star of David prominently but no other religious symbols equally to that and which acknowledges the 4 million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust in only a smaller scaled way. I have already written a forceful first reply repudiating Barker’s and Silverman’s choice here. In what follows, in response to a wide array of arguments I have encountered from supporters of Barker and Silverman, I am going to explain why to me this is open and shut not a 1st Amendment issue and so not an issue atheists and other defenders of secularism should be fighting or risking cataclysmic PR disasters over.

Any American who goes to a Holocaust memorial in America and says, “You know, there sure were a lot of religious symbols and sayings on display in there, I feel like they were trying to impose on me to change my religion and become Jewish” has completely missed the point. Before we go any further into anything more controversial, can we at least agree on that? I am going to stipulate that “Commemorating the horrors the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish people in the Holocaust is not at all the same thing as proselytizing Judaism to non-Jews.”

Now if routinely on government buildings there were the symbols of any one religion–be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or any other–and if ritual prayers or other acts of devotion were expected (even if not mandated) of all people then pretty clearly it would be reasonable to infer that the government in question was trying to intertwine the religion it made central with civic life. It would be trying to signal to me that this was the religion I should follow. It would be imposing and proselytizing, at least informally, even if it never directly mandated. Because as a member of the polity I want to be able to participate in every civic function and doing that requires participating in this religion. It is this kind of thing the 1st Amendment is set up to protect us from. It is not about protecting us from memorials commemorating a historical genocide which use the symbols of some of the people who were targeted for genocide, which just happen to be religious in character.

Now if I see that the laws of my country are made with specifically and substantially religious justification such that the judgments and dictates of the religion(s) in question were binding on me as a citizen through the civic laws in ways that would not at all be justifiable to my independent reason that did not acknowledge that religion, then I would essentially be conscripted at least in part to obeying a religion that was minimally not affirmed by my own conscience as good and which might outright violate my conscience. The first amendment exists to prevent this. It does not exist to prevent the government from ever commemorating historical events in ways that acknowledge that those events had religious elements or employed symbols of religious people who were part of them. If the government used those symbols to exhort me to follow laws dictated by that religion, maybe there would be a case. But just employing the symbols? No.

Now, let’s say my country refuses to allow any one or two religions to be by themselves civically displayed, intermixing with other civil symbols or having their ritual devotional gestures incorporated into civic ceremonies. Let’s say instead it has displays (either permanent or seasonal) which acknowledge all the religions known to be even minimally well represented in the community. I could see this as just part of the civic government’s perfectly normal function of acknowledging with encouraging pride the variety of informal social institutions and kinds of cultural practices of its diverse community.

Now, if they explicitly excluded representation of irreligious and atheistic people in such displays, I could get the impression that they are saying religions are important social institutions and yet atheism is suspect. That would be a way of signaling to me that my government favored religious people and wanted me to be religious and that I was less of a fully civic participant (or a fully good one) for being irreligious. That would be offensive.

But if they include representatives of irreligious and atheistic people, then I could possibly see this as the government neutrally acknowledging and celebrating the range of diverse approaches to informal community, and not endorsing religiosity over irreligiosity. And while some of us want to argue that the government really shouldn’t be patting religions on the back, even ecumenically and even while including the irreligious and the atheists in the back patting, at least in this case the religious are not getting Favoritism.

And that’s what the 1st Amendment is there to protect us from. It’s there to protect irreligious and atheistic people from being told they’re second class citizens and to pressure them to believe that religion is a vital institution they must participate in. It’s there to see that religiosity itself is not favored over irreligiosity. But again, this is not the same thing as acknowledging that victims of genocide you are commemorating were religious in character or were identified ethnically with a symbol that was religious in origins. Because that’s not signaling that it’s better to be religious than irreligious. It’s just saying, “These victims existed and we want to remember the injustice done to them so it never recurs and since they were symbolized with this religious image we will use it as a symbol to remind us of them and what they went through.” There is no need for the 1st Amendment to protect us from that.

In fact, if we had a memorial in which the government remembered a single specific religious group’s undergoing an attempted annihilation and that religious group was the only one being commemorated, then it would be okay that that memorial only had the religious symbols of that one religious group. That’s not at all like having a single religion endorsed by the state and interwoven with all civic affairs. Because, for so long as the memorial’s function is clear and indicated with lots of symbols of the specific event being remembered, the function of that sole religion who had a presence at the memorial would be purely commemorative of the persecuted people and not an imposition of that religion on others as either true, good, nor necessary to acknowledge to be a full member of this society. This would be especially true if the religion whose symbols were employed for commemorative purposes was a tiny minority religion not even adhered to by the majority of the office holding population. No one at all would assume that the existence of these commemorative symbols on government land would signal that the legislators or executives or judges wanted people to convert to the religion. This should not be a 1st Amendment issue either morally or constitutionally.

Now, it is even less of a constitutional or moral issue if these religious symbols were not just religious symbols but had a long, historical association as also ethnic symbols that applied to and were adopted by people who did not actually believe in the religion’s beliefs or practice its rituals, etc. Imagine, say, one of those symbols had strong independent connotations as a cultural and ethnic signifier distinguishable from the merely religious. Imagine this group was subject to persecution ethnically and not directly religiously during the specific purge being commemorated, such that even the irreligious members of the ethnic group were slaughtered no differently and were marked with this symbol of religious origins no differently due to their unbelief or lack of religiosity. In such a case that symbol in conjunction with signifiers of that specific attempt at extermination of the ethnic group in question would have primarily a secular historical meaning and significance, and not even a religious one. Employing that symbol prominently in a memorial of that attempted genocide would not in any way whatsoever constitute an endorsement of its religious connotations for proselytizing purposes or for the purposes of imposing that religion (or religiosity in general) on outsiders. It would function in that context as an ethnic signifier primarily and neither morally nor constitutionally should be conceived of as any sort of encroachment of the government on individual consciences.

In fact directly trying to expunge the symbol because of its other, religious connotations would be signaling that religious aspects of history are to be scrubbed out of all public commemorations even when that meant erasing the oppressions people suffered on account of their religions (if they were not even remotely tolerable in cases where they are contextually crystal clearly signifying ethnicity and not religion.) And the 1st Amendment should protect us from the government going so far in the direction of ignoring religion that it never even acknowledges the most salient world historical examples of religiously persecuted people for fear that that will be confused with imposing the dictates of those people’s religions as the law for others.

Now let’s say those who are wary of all religious symbols on public grounds allow that the symbols are permissible as long as there is equal representation such that no one religion or religiosity itself is privileged. But let’s say that in the case of commemorating a specific genocide with many victims only one group’s symbol of victimization is a religious symbol. It is reasonable for these people to want all victims to be represented in the memorial. But it is not reasonable to pull out the “represent all religions or you can’t have a religious symbol” rule in this case. That goes for a holiday display, not the commemoration of an heinous genocide where only one of the targeted groups had its members marked out with a religious symbol. Religious symbol representations are irrelevant for the other groups, much as they deserve representation too, it’s not an issue of equal representation via religious symbols in this case. It’s a matter of acknowledging each group in its own way. This, again, is not a separation of church and state, 1st Amendment problem if only one victimized group is represented with religious symbols at a commemoration of a mass genocide encompassing multiple groups.

Now, you might say that if there are multiple groups victimized but most of the groups are only being commemorated with one mention on a plaque while another is having a much bigger and more visible monument with its symbol displayed vividly, that in that case there is lopsided representation of that one, ethnic, group. But that is not an endorsement of that group’s religion even if their symbol is that religious symbol that double-purposes as an ethnic symbol and which was ethnically understood especially and iconically in the event being commemorated.

It may be a prioritization of one group of victims over others, but it’s not government endorsement of that group’s religion. At least not when the purpose is purely commemoration, when that religion is a tiny minority, when that group was at least AN undeniable primary target if not THE primary target of the genocide, when that group endured centuries of lead up persecution that culminated in that event, when that event is core to the identity of that specific ethnic cultural religious group, and when that ethnic cultural religious group in that event constituted 60% of the ~10 million victims despite being less than 1% of the world’s total population at the time. These are all as good reasons as any to be merciful with people when they err on the side of focusing so much on the Jews that they risk excluding proper attention to others. These are far more likely reasons that this happens than that there is an agenda of making any non-Jewish Americans feel pressured into being Jewish.

Prioritizing that group in a lopsided way may risk underemphasizing in a disrespectful way the millions of other people who deserve to be remembered too, if not done carefully. But such a lopsided emphasis on the ethnic Jews would not in any way shape or form be motivated by a desire to promulgate Judaism. And it could be in no way expected in America to have the function of governmentally imposing the Judaic religion on the average citizen. No reasonable person, no matter how irreligious or atheistic, should have any reason to think that just because the Jews were overrepresented in a Holocaust memorial that the American government was signaling it wanted its people to be Jewish. Such would be a totally unreasonable inference. In no way does having a lopsidedly Jewish Holocaust memorial on state grounds in America constitute an imposition of Judaism, either symbolically or effectively, on any American.

So this is not a 1st Amendment issue. Even if it would be, and I agree it would be, better to have more inclusion of all the other victims too and a wider story told overall, this is not an issue that should concern the Freedom From Religion Foundation or American Atheists. Neither organization exists to make sure that every memorial related to an atrocity covers enough victims of that atrocity. If we’d like to advocate for greater coverage of erased victims from history we can do that by proposing constructive alternative projects that address those people. We do not have to conflate a memorial to the Holocaust sufferings of the ethnically Jewish people with government establishment of either Judaism or religiosity in general. Because it is flat out NOT that.

Fighting this as a 1st Amendment issue in court can risk losing and making it harder to fight serious cases in the future. The Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists should drop this issue as soon as possible.

Your Thoughts?

Subsequent to writing this blog post, I convened a panel of proponents and opponents of the memorial for a vigorous and insightful discussion:


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikmik

    The word ‘Jews’ is also a religious symbol. I don’t see the difference between using the word ‘Jews’ and the Star of David. They are both symbols that represent the people who were targeted.
    Do the people that want the Star of David removed also want the word Jews removed?

    • erin.nikla

      This is incorrect. Judaism is the religious term; Jew refers to an ethnic group who typically practice Judaism.

    • 3lemenope

      If you want to be really technical, its a group of ethnic identities, rather than a unified ethnic group. The Ashkenazim, the Sephardim, the Mizrahim, and several smaller groups like the Chabesha (Betye Yisrael) being the most prominent.

  • The Vicar

    You like giving hypotheticals. Well, here’s a hypothetical for you: suppose a state was cutting over seven hundred million dollars in funding for public education, claiming they didn’t have the resources necessary. Now suppose that same state decided to supply a bunch of money (and land) to help erect a definitely redundant and possibly obsolete* memorial. Would you want the state to choose a design which, in its symbolism, used only a symbol which excluded quite a lot of the people the monument was supposed to memorialize, and one which, furthermore, had religious connotations? One which, if permitted, will then certainly be used as a precedent for other religious symbols?

    I suggest, sir, that if you answer “yes”, then you deserve no respect as a self-declared atheist, because you are in favor of using public resources which are in very high demand to be put, however mildly and innocently (if we give them every benefit of the doubt, at least), to the service of religion.

    …I’ll tell you what, though. As far as anyone can tell, there were more Roma (Gypsies) than Jews killed, as a percentage of total population, in the Holocaust, although the numbers are often guesses so that’s open to debate. The survivors didn’t even get recognized as a racially-motivated extermination deserving of compensation until long after most of the survivors of the camps had died, nor did they get a country of their own, like the Jews did. If you will find me a single memorial of comparable cost and elaboration, anywhere in the U.S., which explicitly memorializes the Roma the way the proposed memorial you are defending will explicitly memorialize the Jews, then I will admit that there is at least a precedent, albeit a shaky one, for picking one group to symbolically cast as the sole victims. I am almost entirely certain you can’t do it, though.

    *As I commented on your other post: for Ohio, which was no more involved in WWII than any other state and certainly not a particular refuge of the victims, to spend state money to build a WWII memorial more than 70 years after the fact is certainly odd. In the context of this year’s budget cuts ($764,389,600 in cuts to education alone according to; the total cuts are much higher), it becomes absolutely baffling, not to say insulting.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The issue of public allocation of resources generally is one thing. The FFRF and AA and Camels With Hammers are not in existence to fight over the Ohio state budget for its own sake. If the outcry is genuine over the failure to respect and honor the Roma, then people should take up that cause but it’s not really an FFRF or AA issue. These all could be very interesting issues to debate, but they’re not really a separation of church and state one. The question of allocation of resources is whether the government should freeze all extraneous cultural aesthetic projects until it stops cutting money from education and starts refunding it. That is a complicated values question that is not really a separation of church and state one.

      The only way these become supposedly a separation of church and state issues is if they are putting cultural/aesthetic projects to the front of the line because they’re religious. But commemorating the Jews primarily in a Holocaust memorial requires no especial interest in the religion of Judaism but a rather familiar association between the Holocaust and the Jews as their primary target. That’s it. No agenda or no effective function of promoting Judaism has to be at work to put that particular ethnic group to the forefront in a Holocaust memorial. If people really want to make commemoration of all the other groups greater, that’s one thing. But to accuse a religious motivation or a desire of Ohio to affirm the religion of Judaism because it went with a frankly aesthetically gorgeous design forefronting an ethnic/cultural/religious symbol of Jews generally seems absolutely baseless to me.

      You can argue that if the memorial is to really commemorate adequately what it aims to it should go to greater lengths to honor (or, as you effectively note, even adequately identify) all the classes of victims specifically. But there is no reason to think that the failure to do so is because of a preference for Judaism rather than the unique place that Jews as a people play in the cultural imagination of the Holocaust. That’s the reason this happened. It’s not because they’re a religious group, even if it was from their religion that this symbol of the whole people that was central in World War II derives. You really can’t construct other hypotheticals that capture this reality.

      I mean, Vicar, do you think anyone in Ohio, which is only 1.3% Jewish will drive by that memorial and be influenced to think “we live in a Jewish nation where Judaism is understood to be the truth” rather than “Hitler killed 6 million Jews”? Is that going to be a problem?

      You could argue that someone might see it and say “we live in a Judeo-Christian nation” but I think that’s quite a stretch. I think almost anyone is going to be reminded “Hitler killed 6 million Jews”. And that’s all that reminds them of.

      Since whatever lopsided attention the Jews are getting is because of much deeper, non-religiously but culturally related, reasons that “Holocaust=Jews” in the cultural imagination, this issue of equal representation of victims at the memorial is not one actually driven by anything like the endorsement of Judaism the religion. As such it’s not a 1st Amendment case. So, while possibly worth fighting over for the people under-represented or among the people of Ohio, etc., it’s not worth the preciously finite resources of the FFRF or AA.

    • Philipp Schaub

      “there were more Roma (Gypsies) than Jews killed”

      No there weren’t. Numbers of victims are well established with only a small margin of error. Between 5.6 and 6.3 Million people died in the Holocaust, with the number of Jews far exceeding 5 million of those.
      For comparison: Between 5 000 and 15 000 gays were murdered by the Nazis. There’s a great site called “Wikipedia” where you can look stuff like this up. You should check it out.

      Politically, Hitler rose to power on jews. His “final solution” was explicitly a final solution *of the jewish question*. What got him elected was campaigning on prejudice against jews, NOT against gypsies or homosexuals. He also persecuted Jews explicitly *as a people*, NOT as a religion. The nazis spent quite a few man-hours on examining genealogy records, finding “quarter-jews” and even people who were a “sixteenth-jew”. Hitler did not speak about faith, he spoke about bloodlines and keeping bloodlines clear from “contamination”.

      There is no denying that the Holocaust was about jews in any way. Other people were disposed of along the way, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, but FUCK YOU sincerely for trying to distort history in such a twisted way.

    • 3lemenope

      You misunderstood what The Vicar was claiming. To wit:

      As far as anyone can tell, there were more Roma (Gypsies) than Jews killed, as a percentage of total population[emphasis added], in the Holocaust

      It’s admittedly ambiguous, but I think the only way to read this that makes sense is that the claim is as a proportion of their respective pre-War populations, the Roma were harder hit than the Jews. It’s a hard claim to evaluate. If we go to Wikipedia, as you suggest, the low end of the claim is 90,000 murdered, and the high end is 1,500,000. Problematically, the claimed population of total Romani in Nazi-occupied Europe varies from 1,000,000 to 2,000,000.

      EDIT: I’ll add that it is probably a fairly unlikely claim unless the much higher estimates (or much lower pre-war population estimates) are accurate, since the percent of Jews killed as per the total pre-war Jewish population in Europe is somewhere between 75-80%.

    • Philipp Schaub

      I understood what he was/is claiming. It’s bullshit because it’s disturbingly unsound reasoning. If there was one family in the Holocaust that was killed completely, then that family was “hit harder” in total percentage than the jewish population, because unlike the jewish population, that family was killed to 100%. According to this reasoning, we should therefore commemorate that family specifically.

      It is intellectually dishonest semantic trickery, trying to put things into a fundamentally wrong perspective. An argument can indeed be made with regards to how much the culture was affected by high percentages of a population being wiped out, but this was evidently not what The Vicar was trying to do. Ethically, the number of victims stands on its own and the relation to the number of people that were not killed does not matter.

    • 3lemenope

      The way you truncated the quote it was not clear. Sorry about assuming you erred on that point.

      It’s bullshit because it’s disturbingly unsound reasoning. If there was one family in the Holocaust that was killed completely, then that family was “hit harder” in total percentage than the jewish population, because unlike the jewish population, that family was killed to 100%. According to this reasoning, we should therefore commemorate that family specifically.

      That’s pushing the form of his argument way past the parameters that he was using. Quantitatively comparing two populations that number in the millions is entirely non-analogous to comparing one set of millions of people to one family.

      It is intellectually dishonest semantic trickery, trying to put things into a fundamentally wrong perspective.

      I get, obviously, that you don’t like his framing perspective, which is rather far away from making a colorable claim that it is a frame that is fundamentally flawed. Why is it wrong, from your perspective, to quantitatively compare two populations that participated in the same event?

      An argument can indeed be made with regards to how much the culture was affected by high percentages of a population being wiped out, but this was evidently not what The Vicar was trying to do.

      I don’t think an interlocutor is required to go with an argument only those places that the other approves. He was making quite a specific point, which you are correct to note isn’t the one you think ought to be made. Is asking a question about the lack of memorialization of Roma peoples compared to other victims really supposed to be out of bounds?

    • Philipp Schaub

      Why is it wrong, from your perspective, to quantitatively compare two populations that participated in the same event?

      It is not wrong per se. It’s wrong in this cased because the Holocaust is an exception even among the world’s genocides. As a genocide, it was *all* about the jews. As I already mentioned, Hitler did not campaign by trying to appeal to prejudice against gays and gypsies. The importance of the Jews as being the sole focus of the Holocaust is crucial to the understanding of the political climate and the mindset that enabled it. Other groups only became targets of systematic eradication *after* the NSDAP had risen to power and the constitution had been abolished. Even after other groups were targeted as well, Jews remained pretty much the exclusive target of public humiliation, aggressive political stereotyping and pogroms.

      Other people may have died in the Holocaust, but only ever as an afterthought. From beginning to end, the Jews as a people remained the absolute priority and focus of the public hatred and persecution. Thus their situation is not at all comparable to that of other groups during that time.

    • 3lemenope

      It’s wrong in this cased because the Holocaust is an exception even among the world’s genocides. As a genocide, it was *all* about the jews.

      The Armenian Genocide was “all about” the Armenians. The Porajmos was “all about” the Roma. When the Germans were machine-gunning hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and Slavs into trench pits outside Kiev, it was all about them, too. The Shoah is not distinct in this way in any sense.

      I don’t understand your desire, especially given your complaint that you think people are trying to somehow minimize the Jewishness of the Shoah, to deny ownership of the suffering of other intentional victims of genocide, many of them with the very same perpetrators, to their respective peoples. It strikes me as a bit inconsistent.

      As I already mentioned, Hitler did not campaign by trying to appeal to prejudice against gays and gypsies.

      That is simply not true. The Holocaust Museum, two or three years ago, had an utterly fantastic exhibition on Nazi propaganda (including political campaigns for office), which true to form, complained about and foisted responsibility for all of the German peoples’ problems on all sorts of “degenerates”, of whom Jews were obviously prominent but definitely not alone. If Hitler was obsessed with anything in his rhetoric, it was the Germans, and how to keep them pure and “Aryan” from all sorts of polluting influences. That was his campaign theme if you wanted to pick one. You are correct that he defined Judaism directly in opposition to his concept of Germanness, and this attack did the lion’s share of the work of moving the German state, lock, stock, and barrel, into a human abattoir. It goes too far to claim that it was the only thing that did that work, or that they are the only victims that matter for understanding what was being done and why.

      Pointedly, the Holocaust Museum has a quote from Hitler about the Armenian Genocide, where he points out that he thought he could get away with it precisely because the Ottomans did. This is at least as important for understanding the process that moved a private hatred into a public crime of ghastly proportions as any other feature of the thought processes of the perpetrators.

      Other groups only became targets of systematic eradication *after* the NSDAP had risen to power and the constitution had been abolished.

      Even if this were true, please explain how it might matter for adjudicating who gets to claim that the Nazis tried to wipe them out.

      Other people may have died in the Holocaust, but only ever as an afterthought

      This verges on flat-out offensive. Dead people are dead, intentionally dead, murdered en masse because they were placed in a box and given a label by someone else who denied their humanity. Visiting the intentions of the murderers to speculate on which of their victims they hated the most is pretty disgusting.

    • Nick Gorton

      Intellectually dishonest? Try comparing groups like the Roma or LGBT people to “a single family”.

      No, like Jews, the Roma and Gay people were targeted because of their group membership.

      Similarly, when you try to denigrate the massacres of Roma and Gay people, you are showing your prejudice. Using your logic I could similarly say that the number of people killed in Soviet Russia and Communist China dwarfed the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust so we should say fuck the Jews and only make memorials for people who died at the hands of the Soviet Union and China.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      but FUCK YOU sincerely for trying to distort history in such a twisted way.

      Philipp, I appreciate your passion about this issue, but please don’t directly curse individuals out or in any other ways try to make this a personal matter where that can be avoided. We must be able to maintain an atmosphere of unfettered expression of genuine beliefs defended with evidence and rational argument if we are to get to the truth here. And treating one another civilly is integral to that.

    • NewDawn2006

      Then the citizens of OH should be up in arms, calling their state representatives. School boards, administrators, and teachers should be protesting. Newspapers should be writing articles and editorials. But this is not an issue for the FFRF or the AA.

      As a teacher, I agree with you. If the state is cutting money from education then there should be no frivolous spending. How can you devalue education for the sake of throwing money into a project that A) happened so long ago and B) in a state that really had no more or less to do with it than any other. This is also probably not the only stupid project the state is investing in instead of the most important thing: The minds of our children. I hope if you live in that state that you are making people aware. This is happening in every state and until we as citizens stand up and say “This is bullshit. Do your job or we will vote you out of office” this is what will continue to happen.

  • 3lemenope

    The Shoah, along with its memorialization, gives a singular case study on how governments are capable of using a religious symbol for negative, neutral, and positive ends. The NSDAP used the symbol to stigmatize, oppress, to mark for destruction. The State of Israel uses it as a simple touchstone of shared identity. A government-built memorial can use the symbol to clearly point back to the morally salient fact that the event happened to a distinct group of people, who suffered together because they were thought of as together, marked indelibly by the symbol.

    I will readily admit that I don’t really understand the common modern atheist trope of being allergic to religious symbols as they occur throughout secular life. Most occurrences not placed for explicitly and flagrantly religious ends (the only ones I have an actual problem with) are generally rhetorical and aesthetic artifacts, a testament only to the ability of the tropes of religious forms to replicate successfully. A crucifixion pose becomes a shorthand for redemptive suffering, showing up freely in movies (from Oscar to Man of Steel), for example. As religious tropes continue to be re-purposed for secular ends, as their original holiness (profound separateness) becomes profaned, the sorts of lines that people seek to draw to divide and quarantine secular from religious usage will continue to blur. Given that our culture is already drowning in these symbols, to the point that the bombardment is truly ceaseless, it is difficult for me to get very excited about any given usage, even official usage, unless it radically departs from the norm.

    Tying that back to the first point, if the state tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil, and everything it has it has stolen, then it is odd to expect such an entity to eschew such a potent tool as religious symbolism (finding it lying unattended on the floor perhaps a bit overused), surely itself a powerful language of good and evil, out of abstract principle. Likely atheist and certainly at least heretical politicians like Jefferson and Lincoln happily embraced religious symbolism and rhetoric to burnish their own moral vocabulary. It is most appropriately brought to bear in moments (like memorializing [the endurance, confrontation, and defeat of] hideous evil) of moral extremity where other symbols and vocabularies would fail to convey the texture of the situation. Christianity was a powerful and salient cultural touchstone for African and Caribbean slaves in the US; I think that it follows from Dan’s argument that in such a situation as confronting, discussing, and memorializing the legacy of that slavery that a cross here or there would not be out of line.

    Yes, I know. Heresy. That’s how I roll.

    Also, as a practical matter, I really dislike making people walk on eggshells when they wish to express themselves, and this follows especially if what they seek to express is inappropriate to the context or just generally loathsome. I prefer the honest attempt followed by the honest struggle between legitimacy and delegitimization that inevitably follows a provocative choice of idiom. Assiduously maintaining a principle of separation short-circuits that process, leading to the assumptions and desires of many a religious theist going untried and thus unchallenged (and thus nursed privately into a nice tight wad of toxic ressentiment towards the wider culture).

    I also believe that for the first time in human history since the establishment of organized religion, anti-theistic language, rhetoric, and sentiment isn’t operating at a crippling disadvantage compared to theist opponents. The danger of officially endorsing religious symbols was never, in putatively secular states like the US, outright establishment, especially in the modern era. It was a subtler problem of a government learning it could manipulate the sentiments of its religious majorities to serve its own ends (which might be tangentially religious in nature but really are just about the accumulation and maintenance of power; everything the state has it has stolen). The problem isn’t that by using Christian symbols the state will make us all feel hemmed in enough to become nominally Christian or tuck our heads between our legs and hope nobody notices us, but that the state will be able to leverage Christians against whatever today’s irritants happen to be. One day they might be atheists, another Jews, another Muslims, and so forth. But for the first time, atheists at least find ourselves rhetorically well-armed and situated in a society that is *capable* of being receptive to attacks upon religious privilege. Between the Internet and the march of science (and some free assists from religious organizations self-immolating in a moral sense), it might be possible to defang the issue entirely by making religious rhetoric, in comparison, simply unattractive to the state because it fails to move people in a direction the state might like. Then the separation of church and state will take on a truly ironic dimension.

  • Simon3456

    So would you be similarly opposed to a memorial that included no religious symbols, such as the two that were proposed and rejected by the Ohio legislature? Here are pictures to jog your memory in Hemant’s original article:

    Or are you opposed to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum which has no religious symbols on its entrance? Or the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston which doesn’t either?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Saying that the symbols are wholly permissible and possibly desirable for a commemorative function such that they don’t, at least in the spirit of the law at all make for a serious 1st Amendment issue, is NOT to say that they are necessary to incorporate. But yes a commemoration of the struggle of Jews specifically does seem to merit, if not require, a distinctively Jewish symbol.

    • Simon3456

      Only this is not a “commemoration of the struggle of Jews specifically”. But even if it was, your contention that a distinctively Jewish symbol for such a memorial is required is not something that is reflected in other actual memorials.

      Case in point, look at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There is no Star of David that is visible from far away, and Germany doesn’t even have the same First Amendment restrictions that the US has:

      I understand and sympathize with your immediate intuition that memorializing the Holocaust surely must include a prominently placed Star of David, but again, if you look at actual memorials this intuition doesn’t seem to be corroborated.

    • 3lemenope

      [Deleted by Author]

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I understand and sympathize with your immediate intuition that memorializing the Holocaust surely must include a prominently placed Star of David, but again, if you look atactual memorials this intuition doesn’t seem to be corroborated.

      I said it doesn’t require one. But it merits one. Huge difference.

    • Simon3456

      But again, what is your contention based on, apart from intuition? The fact that a particular architect -albeit a well known one- decided to include it? Have you considered that there may be good reasons a Star of David was not included in those?

      I’ve shown you three other very well known other memorials where there is no Star of David and the one in Dachau was also brought to your attention. Indeed, I’ve not been able to locate a memorial that does include a prominently placed Star of David.

    • 3lemenope

      You didn’t try very hard.

      Holocaust Memorial w/ Magen David

      And another.

      And another. (Look at the base shape.)

      And another.

      And another…

      This is hardly exhaustive, and took about five minutes of Googling.

    • Simon3456

      I meant a memorial that is on public property and/or commissioned by a government agency ie comparable with the case in question in Ohio. Of course a Jewish cemetery would have a Star of David!

      As best I can tell the only one you’ve provided that falls in this category is the one in Harrisburg, PA which is actually not a bad comparison as it is analogous to what Ohio wants to do. Based on looking at it I don’t think there’s a far smaller (ie almost no) chance that a reasonable person viewing the monument would consider it to be a government endorsement of the Judaism as a religion. Which is what the Endorsement Test boils down to:

    • 3lemenope

      Of the ones I listed, the Ústí nad Labem Memorial is on public land, and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Drancy was placed on land donated by the Town of Drancy. The Harrisburg Monument contains not one but six Stars of David, and is as you note on public land.

      These (and many others) solidly show Dan’s contention that the placement of Stars of David on such memorials is at the least appropriate, and perhaps positively merits inclusion, though is certainly not a necessary feature.

      The only wrinkle is the Establishment Clause stuff. For the most part, the establishment test you quote has been replaced/subsumed by the Lemon test, which is more restrictive, banning government activity that merely shows “excessive government entanglement” with religion and religious purposes. The Harrisburg monument probably fails this test, all other things being equal. So the question really is, given the Lemon test, is it right to understand the prominent presence of a Star of David in context in a monument as an “excessive entanglement” and if it is, should we perhaps change what we mean by entanglement?

    • Simon3456

      I’m not a lawyer, but the Endorsement Test is what was mentioned by the expert that James Croft talked to for his piece on this:

    • 3lemenope

      The attenuated Endorsement Test has its origins in a bit of dicta from O’Connor’s concurrence in Lynch v. Donnelly. The Lemon test is explicitly indicated whenever the issue is public funding. If there is no (or nominal) public funding but there is a public display, then the weaker Endorsement test analysis dominates (which was the case in the creche at issue in Lynch). The idea is that if you fail the Endorsement test, you *definitely* fail the Lemon test, but it is possible to pass the first and still fail the second.

      As I understand it, the proposed Ohio monument implicates public funds as well as public location.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    I think defending secularism (not atheism, secularism) when the issue is as hot as the holocaust, is difficult. It requires patience and nuance. The principle of separation of church and state is a very important one, and as Justice Hugo Black one said, we should not approve the slightest breach. In Ohio, the ACLU already lost a case not 100 yards from where the proposed Holocaust Memorial will stand. In losing that case, the slightest breach was allowed. Now another “slight breach” is it be tolerated, and there’s potentially no end. Each piece of new case law slowly tears into the First Amendment, stripping away the primary tool we have in defending our right to free conscience, freedom of and from religion, separation of church and state.

    This is a hard case to make, and requires that committed secularists make their case with tact, nuance and a distinct lack of prejudice. This is also an issue of design: Since one of the factors that needs to be considered when designing a piece of public architecture is its conformity to a secular society, the incorporation of a large religious symbol should automatically preclude the design from being selected.

    Again, two other designs were bypassed to approve this one.

    Some atheists are fine with “minor” breaches of the wall of separation. Many religious people are not. This is not an atheist issue, it’s a secularist issue.

    I’ve written about this on my blog,

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    Christians…. The Star of David is being used to signify or Identify the Monument as being Jewish, not to spread any religion… And, please, in the future, after you take down some of the 5 million freakin’ Crosses that my senses are assaulted by every single day, then I’ll be willing to entertain your complaint about this one Star of David,,,, Until then……….. STFU!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Michael

      The same atheists mentioned in this piece oppose the display of crosses on public land, but have been unable to remove many of them. It’s not simply under their control, and therefore you have no basis for this comment.

  • 3lemenope

    One other thing that strikes me about this situation that differs from most in the US (being as it is predominantly Christian) that Judaism is not an evangelical faith the way Christianity or Islam are. In many ways, they are almost an anti-evangelical faith, in that conversion to Judaism is somewhat discouraged.

    I think this bears, in a practical sense, on the separation issue, because it makes it particularly implausible that any intent of using the state to spreading a religion could be read into this case, since the religion at issue consistently has no interest whatsoever in using the levers of power to spread or encroach on others. Once upon a time back in Biblical days, perhaps a different story, but today is today and it’s been this way for many centuries.

    • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

      You are correct. They don’t evangelize because they don’t really WANT “goys” to become new members, lest they dilute their precious Jewish blood….and financial power. I remember, a few years ago, sitting at a dramatic/comedy performance (about the various types of Israeli people, given as a one-man show by an Israeli performer). At the end, the performer came out and urged Jews NOT to intermarry! My extremely marginally Christian wife was offended, and so was I. I lived in the culture in my early years, and the religious and racial arrogance was astounding. If such arrogance is diminishing nowadays, it’s only BECAUSE of intermarriage. It’s time for everyone to stop giving Jews a free pass due to Holocaust sympathy, because they will take full advantage of it.

    • 3lemenope

      Thank you for sharing your experiences in the Jewish community.

      For my part, I completely understand a diasporadic people both having strong pride in their culture and wanting to maintain its distinctiveness, and certainly fearing losing that distinction to the influence of surrounding cultures. I tend to think the world becomes diminished when it is more homogenized.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      since the religion at issue consistently has no interest whatsoever in using the levers of power to spread or encroach on others

      I wouldn’t go quite that far. Israel can be problematically theocratic. And so can Brooklyn.

    • 3lemenope

      Accommodations for religious practices, especially those that facially violate key tenants of the surrounding secular law and culture, are certainly another thing entirely. I have little tolerance for attempts to evade common work duties or impose practical restrictions just to make one particular people among many a little more comfortable. But that’s more the secular powers-that-be being wusses and falling down on the job of preserving neutral regulations and access to services than it is the fault of any one group asking for special privileges. Shortly, I see little harm in their asking but a lot of harm in our answering yes.

      I would say that Israel is a bizarre case because the religious and ethnic identities are bound up with the exigencies of being a nation-state, and a constantly embattled one at that. They have what amounts to a state religion, it is true, but that is their prerogative, because it is their state. Facially neutral regulations and day-to-day practices are going to reflect the cultural notes of the dominant religion (such as Saturdays commonly being days off in Israel much like Sunday usually is here), so I don’t see that alone as theocracy as such. More troubling would be official discrimination on the basis of religion (or official toleration of private discrimination on the same basis), and Israel has to its credit struggled very hard not to indulge in that among its minority-religious citizens. (Less true among the residents of occupied territories, to be sure). If they tried to get an office of Head Rabbi installed in the secular government of the US or one of its subdivisions, that would be another thing entirely.

    • Michael

      Religion is highly entangled with Israeli laws. For instance, the immigration laws discriminate against Messianic Jews (i.e. those who believe Jesus is the Messiah) while religious courts have jurisdiction in personal matters such as divorce, applying religious law to people based on background and regardless of their personal beliefs (such as atheist Jews).

    • 3lemenope

      This is primarily a consequence of Israel deciding to maintain the Ottoman system for dealing with religious freedom/issues (each religious group is essentially a self-governing autonomous enclave for the purposes of religious questions). Given the nature of the state this has the practical effect of increasing religious freedom for the vast majority, while incidentally screwing atheists and people who otherwise profess no religion.

    • Michael

      Yes, that makes sense. I’m aware of the millet system. There are better ways to have religious freedom though, which of course necessarily includes freedom from religion too. Of course, given the practical reality of Israel’s makeup, I realize this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Not only there, but in the rest of the Middle East. More is the pity too.

  • PA_Year_of_the_Bible

    I am an atheist of Jewish heritage (i.e. my mother and father were nominally practicing Jews) and if I wanted to display my ETHNICITY, I sure as hell wouldn’t put a Star of David around my neck. Instead, maybe I’d hang a small silver bagel, or gefilte fish (although they look–and many people think that they taste–like turds). Jews have played Holocaust sympathy to the hilt. Enough already. It’s been almost 70 years now, and it’s time to treat them like any others who think they deserve special treatment, whether they be Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists or anyone, and whether it is based on their religion and/or ethnicity. I support FFRF and AA’s stance on this. Either add symbols representing ALL victims, or remove all symbols. And why aren’t there cries for memorials for the countless other genocides: Darfur and Cambodia, to name two? I know the answer, it’s obvious.

  • rg57

    I think we need to look into why Ohio feels the need to memorialize something that happened before most of us were ever born, and indeed before many of our parents were even born, and that didn’t even happen in Ohio.

    It smacks of pandering.

  • Mike

    A display like the one at issue violates the 1st amendment only if it has no secular purpose, endorses or disapproves of religion, or creates excessive government entanglement with religion. The memorial here does not violate the establishment clause. The purpose of the memorial is, as Dan explains, to commemorate a group persecuted on the basis of its ethnicity. The Star of David is the unifying symbol of this group and has strong historical significance. The purpose of the memorial is not to advance Judaism but to remember the victims of an atrocity. The Star certainly has religious significance, but in this context I can’t imagine a reasonable observer, fully aware of the history behind the atrocity, concluding that Ohio is advancing Judaism over other religions or religion in general. Finally, while I completely agree that scarce resources should be spent elsewhere, the memorial is not likely going to entangle Ohio’s government with Judaism. As a member of FFRF, I fear this fight, should it progress, will impede legitimate future church state issues (for which there is no shortage) and risk causing as Dan said a “cataclysmic PR disaster[s].”