I didn’t know very much about Ohio’s history until just last week. When I learned that some atheists were protesting the Ohio Holocaust Memorial because it featured a Star of David, I remembered enough of my history to think that was pretty strange. In the context of the Holocaust, the Star of David wasn’t used as a religious designation, alone, it was an ethnic label. When we refer to most things as Jewish, we often have to clarify, because we might be referring to a culture, an ethnic background or a religion. With the Star of David, the same is true. It appeared to be the case that some of my atheist peers were unfamiliar with this problem, but their lack of knowledge didn’t end there.
The commentaries around this issue seem to reflect this idea that Ohio is a strange place to put a Holocaust Memorial. At least, that seems to be the case for people outside of Ohio. Within Ohio, the memorial makes sense. In the three main cities, in Ohio – Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, there are 126,000 Jewish people out of 1,487,463 people. That’s nearly 9% of the population. There is enough of a Jewish influence in Ohio that it was considered a possible demographic that could change the 2012 presidential elections. As a cultural influence, in Ohio, the Jewish people are pretty important. Their history in Ohio is over a century and a half old! Even within this historical context, the Jewish people weren’t only a religious influence, they were also an ethnic/socio-cultural influence, as well. Their presence in Ohio was responsible for some of the earliest schools there, including secular schools. Most of their participation in the development of Ohio reads like many other settlements across the United States, with them simply being another culture settling in. Their livelihood focused on skilled trade and they were founders of various charities in the region, even before the first World War. New immigrants who came to Ohio in order to escape persecution would later be met with helpful organizations founded by the Jewish people who were already settled there. This turned Ohio into one of the many safe havens that refugees could turn to in order to escape as well as become used to American culture. That makes Ohio pretty important in terms of the history of Holocaust survivors in the United States.
Of course, that summary doesn’t really do their history justice, so I do hope that readers will follow the links and learn some interesting things.
Most of the debate over the memorial focuses on the Star of David. While the historic significance of the Star of David is that it is a religious symbol, that all changed when the Star became the label for any kind of Jewish person who was persecuted in the events leading up to and during the Holocaust. Much like the swastika went from a general religious symbol to a symbol of a political affiliation and what we now understand as a sinister institution, the Star of David was sent in the other direction, going from a religious and often cultural symbol to a symbol of the victims of these horrific crimes. To some, the Star of David is a symbol, also, of the survivors and a symbol of those who perished. The Star of David is, itself, used as a remembrance of one of the saddest moments in human history. The Star of David is a kind of homonym. Sure, sometimes it is a religious symbol, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes the star is a reference to a culture or a history or a ethnicity. The Star of David is not only about religion, and that is where The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Atheists have gone wrong.
Another argument against the memorial is that other groups suffered during the Holocaust. This point is not untrue, but it is also misleading. The holocaust targeted the Jewish people more so than any other demographic and, in fact, if the successful persecution of the Jews had not happened, those other social groups would not have been likely to have been placed in the concentration camps with the Jewish people. It is one thing to acknowledged that other people suffered, and it is a whole other problem to point out that other people suffered and use that fact to minimize the suffering of the people who are being discussed. As pointed out by Orac, the proposed inscriptions are inclusive.
From the memorial website:
Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and survivors who made Ohio their home.
If you save one life, it is as if you saved the World.
In remembrance of the six million Jews who perished in the holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled and political dissidents who suffered under Nazi Germany.
“Every human being who chooses to remember this chapter of history and to infuse it with meaning is thereby choosing to struggle for the preservation of the bedrock moral values that alone make possible the existence of a well-ordered society. This is a commitment to uphold human rights, above all, freedom and the sanctity of life, and the opportunity for people to live side by side in harmony.”
There is also an inscription that tells a story about two survivors of the holocaust.
Yes, it is important to maintain a separation of church and state, even when it comes to topics such as what should be present on public land. But, when history is the topic, sometimes religious imagery is necessary. We can’t use the argument of separating church and state to rip apart our history books, why would we use it to tear apart an acknowledgement of the suffering of masses of people?
I also heavily encourage you to hop over to Orac’s posts on the matter, as he says a lot of things far better than I ever could.