Should A Public Holocaust Memorial Have a Jewish Star?

That’s the question many atheists are asking. The state of Ohio is intending to build a Holocaust Memorial at the Ohio Statehouse that prominently features a Jewish star. It will be on public land, and 300,000 of the 2,300,000 dollars used to build it will be public money. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent the State of Ohio a letter claiming that the star violates the separation of Church and State, but do not currently have plans to mount a lawsuit.

The model of the proposed memorial

This spread around the atheist blogsophere fairly quickly, and there have been excellent pieces written from several perspectives. Dan Fincke was the first to bring this to broader attention, and criticized the FFRF’s position extensively. James Croft wrote about the difference between secular law and secular culture, Hemant Mehta defends the strategy, and Adam Lee called for a defense of the constitution. To try to sort out the many issues by dialogue, a varied group of atheists – lawyers, bloggers, activists, people with opinions – participated in a public Google Hangout/an online panel to discuss the morality, legality and reasonableness of the memorial and the star. I was very pleased to be invited to join, and it’s now available on youtube! Watch at your leisure:

The Questions We Discussed

  • Is the memorial legal?
  • Is it advisable to fight it?
  • Could the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) win a lawsuit against it?
  • Is it an unethical use of public land?
  • What vision or version of secularism do we want to see America move towards?
  • Does the memorial endorse religion? Does it privilege religion over nonreligion?
  • Is the Jewish star a primarily or solely religious symbol?
  • And others!

Things I wish we’d had time to discuss (or discuss in more detail):

  • Ohio’s goal in building the memorial. Is it as powerful and uplifting as Ohio Jewish Communities has it,

    To create a memorial that would help legislators and visitors to The Statehouse understand not just the history of the Holocaust, but the fact that today we must stand against evil. To construct something that can teach people about man’s inhumanity to man. To create a monument to remember the victims of the Holocaust, Ohio survivors and liberators; inspiring people to think and act differently in the face of hatred, anti-Semitism and genocide.

Is it, as some of the more cynical on the panel had it, to court Jewish votes to the Republican party or to win the approval of the Jewish or Jewish sympathetic public? Is it another part of the ongoing attempt to harness the influence of Jewishness to make the case for right wing causes? Is it because the last survivors are about to die? Or perhaps, is it something we can actually take at face value, that Ohio is doing this It would have been interesting to investigate.

  • The relevance of the first line of the intended inscription: “Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and survivors who made Ohio your home.” How did this not come up? How did no one (myself included) know about it? How does this not make it absolutely relevant to the American context? And this ties it in so beautifully to one of the other lines of the inscription, the Jewish proverb, “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”
  • What a truly inclusive memorial would look like, and what we would like to see in it
  • Hopes for memorials to the Romany, to the Jehovah’s witnesses, to the gay people and so on.

In my opinion, the best arguments against the memorial:

  • It would be relatively easy to remove the star or make it not the only symbol present on the monument, so the cost of making everyone happy is low
  • We don’t want to allow a precedent of religious symbols on public land
  • We must fight the contrived Judeo-Christian alliance based on Dominionist, theocratic values that may have been the basis for the decision to build the monument

In my opinion, the best arguments in favor:

  • The Jews were central to the Holocaust, the Jewish star is the best symbol to represent Jews, and thus a prominent Jewish star is entirely reasonable on a Holocaust memorial
  • The Jewish star is a symbol of culture and ethnicity as well as religion, and it represents Secular Jews as well as religious, and both were killed in the Holocaust
  • The memorial and the star serve legitimate secular purposes and do not exist as a result of favoritism of Jews over others or religious people over the nonreligious
  • This does not advance the causes of atheist acceptance or religious liberty
  • The proposed inscription is beautifully inclusive, paying homage to 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 were suffered under Nazi Germany

Also, keep an eye on this google plus link for an upcoming public discussion from me and Miri Mogilevsky about Jewish atheism, which I imagine would be relevant to this broader conversation.

I’d love to hear more thoughts about the Holocaust memorial in comments! What would you like to have seen in the discussion?

More links on the topic here:

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You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It

Last Sunday, I laid out what I thought a proper space for “politically incorrect” questions and opinions would look like, because such a space can go drastically, cruelly, wrong. Now, I’ve decided to make one. I’m making a subreddit where those questions and opinions can get answers.

There are many reasons people might have a question about race, sex, disability, or related issues they’re afraid to ask their friends, family or teachers. They may not know how to phrase it respectfully. They may have a question that they know will offend but that they’re desperate to know the answer to. They may actually be bigots who are looking to make people mad. For whatever reason, I think there should be a space where, if they abide by principles of respect, civility and good faith, they should get their questions answered. The subreddit I intend to create will be an educational and discussion-based place. Questions will be answered without judgement. Answers will explain how and why some actions or word are appropriate or not, and place questions of bigotry or prejudice in their proper academic, sociological, political, economic and historical context. They will inform and educate while minimizing harm to the relevant marginalized groups. They will include concrete tips, approaches and scripts, so as to really help people move forward in the world. They will be respectful, civil and charitable, perhaps far more charitable than what is deserved. After all, charity can be totally badass activism.

This will be its own space, with its own rules. I do not think these rules make sense elsewhere, nor should people have to abide by them elsewhere. But I like the idea of a place where everyone agrees to be just ridiculously civil and respectful, to use their emotional energy or their privilege or their desire to educate to great effect. This is not the only form of education and activism. There are many others, which are crucial and vital and must exist as well. But this is a form that I think there isn’t enough of. Tumblr upon tumblr will tell people that it is their job to educate themselves about social justice issues. That may be right. So this is one place they can do it.

Some of the rules:

  • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
  • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
  • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and give users suggestions on how to be more respectful or helpful.

You can find more of the rules here and at the actual subreddit when it goes live.

If you think this is important and useful, if you agree largely with what I’ve written here, and you want to get involved, look out for the link when the subreddit goes live! And if you want to be even more involved, I want you to be a moderator for the subreddit. Just answer a few questions here, and if you have the same vision I do, you’re in!

I think this could do some real good. Here’s hoping!

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P.S. If anyone is wondering why I think this is so important, here’s something I wrote in a blog post about Social Justice education some time ago:

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

If you want to know more about my take on activism, social justice, better arguing and charity, check out these links:

Atheism is fun, but that’s not why we do it

One of the problems with being an atheist is that your very existence is offensive.
One of the other problems with being an atheist is that everyone knows that your very existence is offensive, so they expect you to be exciting and radical, even when you’re not.
Catch-22, anyone?
Greta Christina’s been talking about Catch-22’s lately (catches-22?), and I wanted to add one to the mix. Being an atheist is a statement that you believe a claim about the world that is relatively uncommon, and so that identity is a message to most of the people around you that they are wrong. That’s a difficult barrier to overcome. There’s something about believing “there is no god” that is more combative to theists than “I believe in a different god” is to a fellow theist of a different religion. Given that, many atheists refrain from making their atheism known when it’s not absolutely necessary. Or, when the context is one of tolerance and diversity, we might tone down our rhetoric.

On the other hand, atheism is becoming better known. Atheist books are bestsellers, atheist blogs get thousands and millions of hits, secular groups are growing and increasing in number. Unsurprisingly, this has led to more and more awareness, and thus more and more intellectual and political conflict. Articles in newspapers, debates, scandals all point to a massively exciting culture war, which can completely erase the fact that day-to-day lives of atheists are generally calm and normal. As Greta Christina says, “it’s not like we walk around angry all the time.” But sometimes, people are itching for a fight, and we’re supposed to provide one, because as is well known, when an atheist and a theist walk into the same room, hijinks always ensue. And that can really detract from one of the main thrusts of our cause, which is that atheists are normal people. Some of us are activists, of course. Many more of us are very angry. But that doesn’t erase the fact that what we’re asking for is simply common sense: separation of church and state, no discrimination against atheists, and evidence based politics.


This all came to mind during the University of Chicago’s Multifaith Celebration, which was intended to showcase the diversity of practices and beliefs on this campus. Various religious groups said invocations and sang songs, while the Secular Alliance read from Carl Sagan’s brilliant essay, the Pale Blue Dot. Before we were set to present, someone came over and asked what we were going to present. Upon reading our print-out, he complained that it wasn’t particularly atheistic, nor was it very radical. He was certainly wrong on the first point; Sagan makes it clear that he feels that belief in god is nothing more than superstitious mysticism. But taken together, this points to a subset of the American population which is not surprised by secularism and atheism, but rather excited by the prospect of conflict. While my friend Mike would say that progress only comes through conflict, I think that to see atheism as a spectacle is to undermine its power. Atheism is not a sport; it is an idea, and a powerful one. Secular politics may be unpopular in this country, but it is the very opposite of radical. Those who want atheism and secularism to thrive should indeed encourage unapologetic displays of nonfaith, but, please not for the sake of entertainment.

The Ground-Zero Mosque, Islamophobia and General Bigotry

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?pagewanted=1

And so the controversy rages on. The problem? Muslims. Or traffic. It’s unclear.

What is clear is that there is a growing group of people opposed to any obvious or growing Muslim presence in their communities. It began, of course, with the “Ground-Zero Mosque” which is anything but. It’s not a mosque, but rather an Islamic cultural center, and it’s two blocks away from Ground Zero, where a 12 story building will hardly be seen. Not that any of that should matter in the least. What are the arguments here? That a mosque will be a signal of triumph for the Islamic world over the Western world?

Well, I suppose that makes sense. Except that Islam is no more a monolithic religion than any other, and has given rise to many sects and denominations over its millennium and a half existence. There are liberal Muslims and moderate Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims and Sunnis and Shias and Iranian Muslims and Afghan Muslims and Egyptian Muslims and Arab Muslims and many many more. And in case this isn’t stunningly obvious, while many current terrorist organizations appear to be influenced by a violent strain of Islam, the people they’re fighting are often also influenced and living in the name of Islam. Or isn’t it understood that Muslims fight Muslims, and that mosques are blown up on a regular basis, or that the radical Sunni elements in places like Iraq are fighting back against marginalization executed by American forces, which have placed only Shias in power and oppressed Sunnis, who feel that they have no voice in their government. I’m sorry, is that too complex? I know, political theory and history actually take thought to understand.

It would also be just delightful if it were understood that 9/11 was hardly a triumph for Islam. It was a superficially successful endeavor undertaken for political reasons in order to throw off a foreign invader. In case this wasn’t noticed, the campaign generally failed. We still have troops in Saudi Arabia, whose presence likely began the resentment Al-Qaeda used and grew out of, and now we are killing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly Yemen and/or Iran next. Ignoring for the moment that these are separate nations with distinct histories and relationships with Islam, it doesn’t look like much of a success. I’m sure all those dead civilians are just thrilled that 9/11 “worked.” For whom, exactly? Certainly the military-industrial complex, the Defense Department, the CIA, Blackwater, other mercenary groups and plenty morally bankrupt organizations, but we won’t go there right now. Not for Afghanis, not for Iraqis. And not even for al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

You know who it certainly didn’t work for? American Muslims. Yeah, they’re celebrating the tremendous triumph of being blamed, mistrusted, marginalized and discriminated against for going on a full decade for things they did not do. I’m sure the peaceful Muslims who want to build a cultural center and are being widely opposed by a rapidly formed and well-organized set of organizations, including from groups like the Anti Defamation League who should be on their side, are just giddy with glee at their ‘triumph.’ Get real, people.

So given that the arguments are pure bullshit, what is left? A metric fuckton of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, ignorance, right-wing paranoia and dangerous idiocy, being fed and encouraged both by the entire right-wing in this country and enabled by the centrist bias in the media.

Let’s start with the first part. How do we know that these influences are at work? Well, it’s blindingly clear that their supposed arguments are absolutely worthless, which would seem to imply some sort of antipathy towards Muslims. But that’s silly, because it’s just about the symbolism of Ground Zero. Oh, wait. No it’s not. Tennessee, California, Wisconsin, California again. People are turning out in droves to opposed Muslim groups building places of worship or Islamic culture anywhere in their community. Sometimes they hide it in the transparently idiotic argument of traffic, and sometimes they don’t bother.

“Shelton was among several hundred demonstrators recently who wore “Vote for Jesus” T-shirts and carried signs that said: “No Sharia law for USA!,” referring to the Islamic code of law.”

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Opponents worry it [a 25,000 square foot mosque] will turn the town into haven for Islamic extremists.

Temecula, California

Anyone see something wrong with the first one? Vote for Jesus sounds a lot like a political message rather than a religious one, which is exactly what they’re accusing the Muslim groups of. Sometimes the Muslim centers are just bigger versions of those that were already there. A haven for Islamic extremists? What blatant idiocy and fear-mongering. And everything else I said before.

Here’s what’s up. Right-wingers feed into the paranoia and ignorance of their base in order to create issues where none exist. And that’s how we get the brilliant framing of the ‘Ground-Zero mosque” that drives the right into such a frenzy that they become incoherent. (Not that she wasn’t already). This is evil, disgusting and immoral, for the Muslims, for the possibly well-meaning protestors who are being pushed by groupthink further right/insane, and certainly for America at large.

Then the centrist bias comes in and says that this is a legitimate issue, that there actually is a debate here. “These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.” NO! No they do not! There is no debate here! We have a first amendment! We place value on acceptance and tolerance. We do not demonize and marginalize politically less powerful groups. Islam is not all the same. It is a religion that is not fundamentally at odds with American values or the Constitution. Most Muslims, like most Christians, most Jews and most atheists are entirely peaceful citizens. Quote-mining the Koran leaves open the very distinct possibility of opening the gates to a demonstration of all the horribly shameful and violent parts of the Torah and the Bible and any other holy book you want. And this is just the principled stuff. Empirically, most Muslims have committed no act of violence. They have been a part of American culture for decades. And also, mosques stop terrorism. So suck on that, idiots.

There is no debate. None whatsoever. This is blatant bigotry in its worst form, and should be fought at every turn. Muslims, like all other religious groups, are welcome to believe and practice as they wish. Those are the freedoms they hate us for, right? And as a constitutional right, no amount of popular opposition can undermine that. By the way, too, further marginalizing this population is a viciously unsuccessful way of breaking down the fear and resentment towards Muslims that have been present since 9/11.

Let’s get our heads on straight and fight for real American values (that happen to be basic human values), shall we?