On the Ohio Holocaust Memorial Debate

There’s a debate happening around the atheist blogosphere about the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) letter regarding the design of a Holocaust memorial to be built on the grounds of Ohio’s statehouse. The letter expresses concern over a potential breach of the US Constitution due to the inclusion of the “Star of David,” a symbol with sectarian religious connotations. The concern arises because the memorial is partially funded by the public and will sit on public land.

The debate within the atheosphere is whether or not FFRF should be expressing concern over the memorial. Those in agreement with FFRF tend to point out that the chosen design seems to focus on only one group targeted during the Holocaust (Jews) to the exclusion of other groups (Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc). Also, they have a question about whether or not the inclusion of the Star of David, as the sole religious symbol, constitutes a breach of the US Constitution. Their principle concern isn’t with the Holocaust memorial but with the design chosen for the memorial.

Those who do not agree with FFRF tend to point out that the Star of David has a secular, ethnic connotation along with a religious connotation. Likewise, they tend to argue that highlighting the tragedy suffered upon Jews by the Nazis does not constitute and cannot reasonably be considered a promotion of Judaism. Their principle concern is that the FFRF is overly focused on legal literalism to the detriment of human experience.

To see some of the debate in action, you can check out these posts:

Agree with FFRF:

Hemant Mehta: here and here.
Adam Lee: here.

Disagree with FFRF:

Daniel Fincke: here and here.
James Croft: here.

Personally, I tend to fall with those who disagree with the FFRF. I am sympathetic to the argument that the design could be broader in scope. For example, the Holocaust memorial in Portland, Oregon does a great job of eliciting powerful emotions without expressly Jewish symbols (or, at least, I don’t remember any expressly Jewish symbols). However, the concern about how well the design of the memorial represents the victims of the Holocaust is a concern for Ohioans. I am similarly sympathetic to a Holocaust memorial that puts an emphasis on the experiences of Jews for the obvious reasons.

Likewise, I am sympathetic to sticking to principle and defending secularism against potentially tricky breaches (like using the Holocaust as a means of getting the state to promote Judaism). But nothing of the sort is happening with the Ohio Holocaust memorial. No one seeing the design of the memorial would take it to be a promotion of Judaism. It makes complete sense that a Holocaust memorial would include Jewish symbols because Jews were the principle target of the Holocaust. The victims of the Holocaust are a group we, as fellow humans, have cause to memorialize. As such, I see no reason for the FFRF to be involved.

This is an interesting case. I have pared this post down quite a bit, so I recommend reading the various views out there.




  1. tmso · July 31, 2013

    I haven’t read the articles you have referenced, but based on the information given in your post, well, I’m tempted to simply do a substitution exercise. If this memorial was for another religious/ethnic minority (say Chinese Christians) in some other war, would you be okay with a symbol that expressed that ethnic minority’s religion (in this case, the Christian cross)?

    My answer would be: no, I would not be comfortable with that.

    I would look at it from another point of view. From the viewpoint of a child say 50 years from now or even 100 years from now. Would they see the star of David as a representation of a group of people or of a religion? How about the Christian cross?

    Memorials are tough, but there are plenty of examples of non-religious memorials out there that I don’t see why they *have* to include the star of David.

    • thecaveatlector · August 1, 2013

      Thank you for the comment.

      On your final point, about whether or not a Holocaust memorial requires a Star of David (or some other Jewish symbol), I completely agree with you. It is far from necessary. Neither is it out of place. It seems to me this point, alone, is a matter of taste (e.g., what should the design be?) and does not fall within the mission or concern of groups like the FFRF or American Atheists.

      With your example of Chinese Christians, if public funding were to help build a memorial to recognize the victims of communist China’s oppression of its Christian community (for example), then the presence of Christian imagery would not be out of place. It would be relevant to the identity of those being memorialized. I see no reason to oppose such a memorial. If our children, 50 to 100 years from now, cannot understand why religious symbols appear on a memorial dedicated to victims of religious oppression, that is a failure on our part to educate our children.

      One can raise the question of whether or not the public should be funding such a memorial. However, the mere fact that the victims were of a religious group or that the memorial’s design makes this religious affiliation clear does not automatically make it an establishment of religion. I don’t see why a secular public wouldn’t derive value or interest in recognizing the victims of religious oppression.

      It seems to me there is a clear and obvious association between the victims of the Holocaust and Jews. As such, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust containing Jewish symbols is perfectly reasonable. Is the symbol necessary? Certainly not. Should there be symbols for other groups targeted by the Nazis? Quite possibly. But again, the first question is a matter of taste (e.g., what should be the design of the memorial?). The second question is a matter of defining the Holocaust (e.g., does the Holocaust solely encompass the Nazi extermination of Jews or does it include all targeted groups?). Neither question is concerned with the melding of church and state. Neither question implies any sort of endorsement of a particular religion or religion generally. As such, I don’t see why the FFRF or American Atheists should be involved.

      • tmso · August 1, 2013

        Yeah, I guess I see your point, but it just seems…wrong. Maybe I am just hyper-sensitive to any religious symbology in a public setting or funded with public monies.

  2. Pingback: On the Past Month | The Caveat Lector

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