Remembering the Holocaust, Respecting the Constitution

In Ohio, the state legislature recently approved a plan to build a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the statehouse, with public money to be contributed towards the cost of construction. The winning design incorporates two tall structures of stainless steel, engraved with the testimony of an Auschwitz survivor, that are shaped so as to create a prominent negative space in the shape of a Star of David. You can see an image of the design above, to get a sense of it for yourself.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter of objection, saying it was improper for a state government, however well-intentioned, to create a memorial that includes the symbol of only one religion. Suffice to say, this move attracted the ire of some atheists. My Patheos collegue Dan Fincke wrote a post calling it “the very worst of the atheist movement” – an absurdly intemperate charge, in my opinion. James Croft wrote a post along similar lines.

Let’s be clear about one thing at the outset: The Nazis murdered millions of Jewish people, but Jews weren’t the only group they targeted. Gay people, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, Slavs, Poles, and others who were considered inferior were also rounded up, expelled, interned in concentration camps or exterminated. According to the FFRF’s letter, the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust account for as many as five million people in total. That’s an enormous toll, and I hope there’s no disagreement that these people, no less than the Jewish dead, deserve to be remembered in any memorial of the Nazi evil. On those grounds alone, I think, a Holocaust memorial that neglects them is aesthetically and historically inappropriate.

But there’s a church-state concern here as well. The Star of David is inarguably a symbol of Jewish people as an ethnic group. But equally inarguably, it’s also a symbol of Judaism as a religion. This dual identity makes the case slightly different than if the government was contemplating a monument that used a purely religious symbol like a cross, but the ethnic connotations of the symbol don’t erase the religious connotations. The legal principle is the same either way: an arm of the government shouldn’t act in a way that appears to give official preference to any religious belief. The current design for the memorial clearly does do that.

It’s important to note – because people will inevitably spread falsehoods on this point – that no atheist group is against the idea of a Holocaust memorial in general, whether publicly or privately funded. Preserving the memory of the Third Reich’s horror, and memorializing its innocent victims, is a legitimate and important governmental purpose. But we question the validity and appropriateness of a memorial on public property that recognizes only one group of victims, and that, moreover, uses an inherently religious symbol to do so. The Star of David or other Jewish iconography would be just fine as part of a Holocaust memorial if it were placed in context with symbolism relevant to other groups targeted by the Nazis. And indeed, as the FFRF’s letter points out, the two other proposed designs did that splendidly. Either of them would have been perfectly fine.

Just the same way, we have no objection to war memorials dedicated to American soldiers and veterans. But we don’t believe that such a monument should contain only a cross or other Christian iconography; it should represent all veterans, including those who aren’t Christian. Atheist groups have filed lawsuits in cases like this before, as in the longstanding Mt. Soledad case, where a gigantic freestanding cross was claimed to be a war memorial. This case is a straightforward extension of that same principle.

Now, I’ll concede the critics’ objections on one point: personally, I don’t think this case is particularly good PR for the atheist movement. The topic is an inherently sensitive one, and the nature of our objections lends itself to misrepresentation. It’s easy to cast us as the bad guys here; all the patient rebuttals in the world won’t head off the inevitable distortions of “atheists must be Holocaust deniers because they’re against a memorial!”

But being activists means sometimes putting principle above public relations. We should do the right thing even when it’s not the popular thing. As Daniel Dennett has said, many religious groups have succeeded in organizing society so that it’s impossible to criticize them without being thought of as rude. If we let that daunt us, we’ll never be able to accomplish anything of significance. For example, if we back down on this case, I can guarantee there’ll be a rash of right-wing state governments putting up public monuments prominently containing Christian symbols that they’d dedicate as a pretext to some historical massacre or other (the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman empire, say). The church-state barrier has to be defended vigilantly, because any chink in it will soon be pried wide open.

Image via Daniel Libeskind

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  • yulaffin

    It’s a nice idea but why do these things always seem to be erected on or in govt properties, using taxpayer dollars? Why don’t private enterprises/individuals pony up for the cost and donate their own land for this purpose?

  • Jack Skwat

    We’re great at erecting memorials, but terrible at preventing the causations of events that engender the memorials in the first place.

  • Michael

    Collective action problems.

  • Jason Wexler

    When can we let the Nazi Holocaust go? Isn’t it at least a little probable that continually referring back to old atrocities keeps animosities alive? We don’t commemorate the Irish potato famine or the British oppression of India or any of hundreds of other historical atrocities. Let’s let the wounds finally heal, I have very strong doubts that we need to be continually reminded of previous bad behavior and its consequences in order to prevent it from happening again.

  • Lagerbaer

    It depends on what precisely it is that we remember. If it is just a vague idea of “Germany did this horrible thing once”, that’s not terribly useful. More important to remember is with what ease Hitler and the Nazis gained power: An economic crisis here, a good dose of nationalism there, and a fake terrorist attack on a government building…

  • Jason Wexler

    Don’t we run the risk of moving from the specific to the vague the more we continue to focus on an event that is historically distant though? How does a Holocaust memorial remind us that “a crisis here, a does of nationalism there etc…” leads to bad outcomes, especially in light of the fact that eventually we will hear people refer to the memorial as “Germany did this horrible thing once”. Whats worse is the German people have learned from that mistake but, the sense of “Germany did this horrible thing once” has the potential to turn into “…so we shouldn’t like or trust Germans”. Let us not forget that each modern European war started out as vengeance for the loss of the previous one. Europe seems to have learned that the best way to end the cycle of violence is to stop fixating on the past wrongs. I am convinced that this is a lesson we need in America as well.

  • Steve Bowen

    I have to say Dan’s usually sound reasoning seems to have deserted him on this one (I’ve tried commenting on his blog but it’s having Disqus issues).However you’ve said everything that I would have.
    Whilst it is possible to make subtle distinctions about whether the Davidic star is a partly cultural or exclusively religious symbol, I can’t see those nuances being respected by anyone using this monument to justify more overtly religious ones in the future.

  • Alejandro

    “Europe seems to have learned that the best way to end the cycle of violence is to stop fixating on the past wrongs.”

    What do you mean exactly? I live in Germany myself and I can tell you there are Holocaust related memorials ALL over the place. And I really mean everywhere. How is having memorials “fixing on past wrongs”?

  • Jason Koskey

    Sure, forgetting history is the best way to avoid repeating it.

  • Jason Wexler

    Well contrary to popular myth remembering it doesn’t seem a very effective way of preventing repeating it.

  • J_JamesM

    Damn, people, don’t you think that RECENCY matters? The Holocaust is still in living memory for millions of people. It simply wasn’t that long ago! And doesn’t Ghandi’s status as a public icon count towards memorializing the British oppression of the Indians?

  • J_JamesM

    Hold the phone, there, bucko. You seem to be implying that a certain modern terrorist attack was faked.

  • Jason Wexler

    Does anyone out of curiosity know how long we remembered the Maine? How long before we normalized relations with Britain after the Revolution? Have we fully reconciled with the south yet and if so when? Europe achieved peace because it forgave after the second world war. Previously they had an endless cycle of violence perpetuated by nursing old wounds. Yes there are people alive who remember the Holocaust, but we are almost 4 generations removed from it.

  • Jason Wexler

    He clearly is, but probably not the one you are thinking of. I don’t know which one but the September 11 attacks probably aren’t the one since the World Trade Center wasn’t government.

  • J_JamesM

    Um, the Pentagon is a government building…

  • J_JamesM

    I remember the Maine, and so do public school textbooks. It’s a vital cautionary tale against yellow journalism and starting wars under false pretenses (good thing we learned our lesson with the Maine, and never hastily started a conflict before the forensic analysis was completed and hard evidence was compiled!). And besides, there’s a huge difference between memorializing something and holding a grudge over it.

  • TurelieTelcontar

    Actually, the fake attack on a government building he mentioned was the arson attack on the Reichstag. It’s still debated whether it was communists, or if Hitler was behind it. What is not debated, is that it was very useful to him, as he used it as a prerequisite to get emergency powers and with them ban the Communist party, who were blamed for the fire. With being able to imprison communist and socialist members of parliament, he got the “Enabling Act” passed, giving Hitler absolute power. At the elections before the fire, his party got 33% of the vote, at the elctions after the fire the NSDAP got 44% of the votes, but went into a coalition to rule. Only with the emergency laws that allowed him to suspend most civil liberties, and imprison members of parliament, was Hitler able to get absolute power.

  • Lagerbaer

    Nope, not talking about a modern terrorist attack being faked. But certain parallels are still there. TurelieTelcontar has it right. The true origin of the Reichstag arson attack is unclear, but it still helped Hitler go ahead and enact sweeping undemocratic legislation. And remember how a scarily high proportion of Americans used to believe and sometimes even still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11?