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.
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