Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Ohio Holocaust Memorial: Approving the Slightest Breach

In 1947 Justice Hugo Black, writing for Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education, famously argued,
The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.
These are strong words but in truth, we as a people have not always lived up to these ideals, because we are too often ready to compromise when it comes to religious symbols on publicly owned land. What harm, goes the argument, is there in allowing a Christian Cross on public land if the cross is not primarily there as a Christian symbol but there as a symbol honoring soldiers who sacrificed their lives on foreign battlefields?

According to Fox News, the Ohio Statehouse bears an inscription that reads, "With God, all things are possible." According to the Fox News report, "The American Civil Liberties Union had previously sued over that inscription and lost." This was considered by many people at the time to be a slight breach and the words only historical in context, metaphorical in meaning and no big deal.

Now that "slightest breach" has been pried open a little more, as a planned Ohio Holocaust Memorial is to feature a prominent Star of David in its design. The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter opposing the design of the memorial, but in a rare example of restraint, expressed no plans to sue. David Silverman, the outspoken leader of the American Atheists, has also publicly opposed the planned monument.

In a letter the FFRF pointed out that in deciding on the final design, two other designs that did not feature a large and prominent Star of David, and therefore would not represent a breach in the wall of separation, were rejected. The letter pointed out that not only Jews were targeted by the Nazis, but millions of others as well, including homosexuals, the handicapped and ethnic and religious minorities. These are reasonable objections, but the reaction, as fomented by Fox news, has been predictably outrageous.

"Atheists versus Jews" is the way Fox News want the story to be understood, which is of course ridiculous, but mileage will be gained from this line of attack, putting many atheists on the defensive: Are you an anti-Semitic atheist or someone who values religious freedom and human rights? This false dichotomy has been echoed in the atheist blogosphere as several prominent atheists have quickly taken the high and easy road of throwing the FFRF under the bus saying, "Don't look at me, man. I'm not that kind of atheist."

Fox News has basically painted this story as Godwin's Law writ large. Nazis would oppose this memorial. If you oppose this memorial, you are like a Nazi. Case closed. Of course, instead of countering that the secular (not atheist) position on this monument is nuanced and based on a long history of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and separation of church and state many are folding like a cheap card table, ceding the argument and ceding publicly owned land to even further and more intrusive breaches.

Yes, this is a hard and nuanced position to defend, but it is certainly defensible without resorting to race hatred and Nazism. In what way is this different from the case taken by the ACLU when they defended the Skokie Nazis' rights to public demonstration? The ACLU faced similar criticisms or worse, but their cause was just, and now all groups have more, not less, rights to public demonstration. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement benefited from the resulting Supreme Court ruling.

On another level entirely, the Ohio memorial is simply an exercise in design. An alternative design could be in every way as informative, beautiful and important as the one proposed, but not include the Star of David in such a prominent way. The Holocaust Museum in our nation's capitol is not so emblazoned but no one would claim that the museum does not convey every ounce of meaning and remembrance required by such an institution. In a sense, the large Star of David in the proposed Ohio Memorial represents a laziness of design and one in which all the criteria that needed to be met for a large public memorial were not satisfied. For instance, large public pieces of art need to be secular, not religious.

Let's also keep in mind that the Star of David is a primarily religious symbol. Certainly arguments could be made that the Star of David represents the Jews as an ethnic group, but non-ethnic Jews use the symbol to represent themselves even as many Orthodox Jews reject the symbol because of its unsavory association with magic. Like the Christian cross, which was rejected by early American protestants as idolatry, the Star of David has a long history of use and disuse, but to claim these symbols are not primarily religious symbols is disingenuous.

In selecting the final design two other proposed designs that did not feature a prominent Star of David were rejected. Having not seen the other two deigns I can not say with certainty anything about their relative artistic merits, but according to reports, these designs were both more appropriately secular. Certainly secularity should be an important factor in determining the propriety of erecting any sort of public monument, memorial or building.

Lastly, let's be clear about the differences between atheism and secularism. An atheist does not believe in God, but could conceivably have no problem with the use of religious symbols on publicly owned land. Dan Finke, in his repudiation of the FFRF's objections to the proposed memorial, falls into this camp. A secularist, on the other hand, could hold a deep commitment to any number of religious beliefs, and be avowedly against any use of public lands and money to promote or legitimize religion no matter how slight, recognizing the importance of keeping church and state separate. Roger Williams, the deeply religious founder of the State of Rhode Island, and many members of the American Baptist Church fall into this camp. The website of the American Baptist Church reads, "By 1833 all of the U.S. states had, in their constitutions, affirmed the principle of separation of church and state with full religious liberty."

This is not an atheist versus Jews issue. This is a secularism versus theocracy issue. In the case of the Ohio Holocaust Memorial, perhaps the breach is slight, but committed secularists could not, in good faith, approve it.


  1. To claim the Star of David doesn't also feature primarily into a certain State's flag is problematic. By most accounting, the Nazi holocaust was not numerically biased towards Western European Jews, a great degree of slaughter was perpetrated against the Sinti (gypsy) peoples, as well as Slavic people, including Eastern European Jews living in formerly Soviet-controlled territories. Dr. Norman Finkelstein has made a pretty clear distinction between that and the Holocaust Industry, which is utilized as a media bias induction device whenever the issue of the Palestinians and their human rights is raised. Without getting into the obscenity of Israel-death hooting, I would only emphasize the added degree of relevance given that the Gaza and West Bank have always had their fate decided by the public opinion of the Holocaust, and this false-fire Faux News moment comes on the heels of John Kerry trying another round of negotiations.

  2. I think the fact that there exists proof by way of European census data from 1933 to 1948 of the Jewish population did not change and that brings the six million number into question that this museaum should not be allowed and it infringes on the constitutional rights of other Americans. There is no cross allowed on government property and the nativity was removed at the White House but a Menorah put up. First class discrimination against Christians and non Jewish Americans. Not to mention all the Russian Americans of the Bolshevik revolution holocaust who are not honored or the Palestinians who have been holocausted by Israel. Yeah, John Kasich has sold Ohioans out to allow this.