The Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose highly selective quotation of America’s Founding Fathers was exposed in a previous post of mine, is at it again: they’re threatening to sue over the display of a Star of David on a proposed Holocaust memorial outside the Ohio Statehouse. Readers can view the design here. When I first read about this, in a post by David Klinghoffer over at Evolution News (see here for an earlier one by Bruce Chapman), my reaction was one of incredulity. “Surely they can’t be serious,” I said to myself. But they are.
The state of Ohio will be contributing $300,000 for the preparation of the memorial site, in addition to $2,000,000 in private donations, which will cover most of the cost of the actual monument itself.
The basis of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint is that the proposed Holocaust memorial includes a Star of David, which (they allege) is a religious symbol. I think their complaint is wrong on two counts.
First, there’s no physical Star of David in the memorial itself. There’s just a star-shaped hole. This was pointed out by the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, in a very fair-minded article on the memorial, who describes it as “two giant tablets… with a Star of David in the negative space between them.” So the state of Ohio could argue (justly) that its funds aren’t going towards the construction of a Star of David as such – just two tablets which leave a star-shaped gap between them, when they’re placed adjacent to one another.
Second, the Star of David isn’t a religious symbol. According to an article by Ariela Pelaia, a professional Jewish educator with masters degrees in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education, titled, Does the Star of David Have Religious Significance in Judaism?”, the Star of David has no religious significance whatsoever:
The Star of David is a six-pointed star made up of two triangles superimposed over each other. In Judaism it is often called the Magen David, which means the “shield of David” in Hebrew. It doesn’t have any religious significance in Judaism but it is one of the symbols most commonly associated with the Jewish people…
The origins of the Star of David are unclear. We do know that the symbol hasn’t always been associated exclusively with Judaism, but was used by Christians and Muslims at various points in history…
The Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today, but it is actually a relatively new Jewish symbol. It is supposed to represent the shape of King David’s shield (or perhaps the emblem on it), but there is really no support for that claim in any early rabbinic literature. In fact, the symbol is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early works.
Scholars such as Franz Rosenzweig have attributed deep theological significance to the symbol. For example, some note that the top triangle strives upward, toward G-d, while the lower triangle strives downward, toward the real world. Some note that the intertwining makes the triangles inseparable, like the Jewish people. Some say that the three sides represent the three types of Jews: Kohanim, Levites and Israel. While these theories are theologically interesting, they have little basis in historical fact.…
The Magen David gained popularity as a symbol of Judaism when it was adopted as the emblem of the Zionist movement in 1897, but the symbol continued to be controversial for many years afterward. When the modern state of Israel was founded, there was much debate over whether this symbol should be used on the flag.
Today, the Magen David is a universally recognized symbol of Jewry. It appears on the flag of the state of Israel, and the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross is known as the Magen David Adom.
I was intrigued by Tracey Rich’s mention of the Zionist movement’s adoption of the Star of David in her article, so I did a little follow-up research. Theodor Herzl’s original design for the flag of Israel is described here. The flag of the First Zionist Congress, held in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897, looked like this:
The current design for the flag of Israel, which features two blue stripes and a large blue Star of David in the center, was accepted as the official Zionist flag at the Second Zionist Congress, which was held in Basle, Switzerland, in 1898.
The point I want to make is that both the First Zionist Congress, which adopted the original design in 1897, and the Second Zionist Congress, which adopted the current design in 1898, were convened and chaired by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, who was – wait for it – an atheist, according to Amos Elon’s 1975 biography, Herzl, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ISBN 978-0-03-013126-4, p. 23). So much for the absurd claim that the Star of David is a religious symbol.
Here’s a question for the Freedom From Religion Foundation: if the Holocaust memorial which is planned to be built outside the Ohio Statehouse had featured an Israeli flag and not just the Star of David, would they have opposed it? One wonders.
The FFRF might argue that the Star of David was given a religious meaning by Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) in the Middle Ages. But that doesn’t suffice to make it a religious symbol. To prove that the Star of David is a religious symbol, one would have to show that the Star was originally a religious symbol (which is doubtful, given that its historical origins are murky) and that it has continued to be used as such, right down to the present day, or that at some point it came to acquire a religious significance, to such a degree that a particular religion (in this case, Judaism) came to own the symbol (which it clearly doesn’t).
Think of it this way: suppose you saw an atheist wearing a cross around their neck. This might (reasonably) strike you as a contradiction of their professed lack of belief in a Deity. Now suppose that the atheist were wearing a Star of David instead. Is there a contradiction here? I think not.
In its a letter to State Senator Richard Finan, the Freedom From Religion Foundation states that “Numerous federal courts have indicated an understanding that the Star of David is in fact a sectarian, sacred religious symbol.” It them proceeds to list several relevant cases. I’m no lawyer, but the question I would ask is: have they actually ruled on the matter? If so, what was the basis of their doing so? If not, then aren’t they open to challenge on this point?
I might add that the proposed Holocaust memorial at the Ohio Statehouse was designed by none other than Daniel Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors and the master architect behind the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. Libeskind also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, whose shape is reminiscent of a warped Star of David (Betsky, Aaron, 1990, “Berlin’s new cutting edge: architect Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum rediscovers the city’s lost soul,”
in Metropolitan Home, December 12, 1990, pp. 60-61). Would the Freedom From Religion Foundation object to this too?
Or what about the Holocaust Memorial in Athens, Greece, which is made of yellow marble blocks depicting a broken up Star of David? Would the Freedom From Religion Foundation find this objectionable as well?
For that matter, how about the Zanis Lipke monument in Riga, Latvia. The prophet Isaiah’s words are carved on the left side of the monument: “… I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (56:5).
Or what about the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, Hungary, which includes an actual synagogue?
Compared with these, the proposed Holocaust memorial outside the Ohio Statehouse looks tame indeed.
A search of the Internet revealed that the use of the Star of David is very common, in Holocaust Memorials around the world.
And there’s the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, France with a very large Star of David over the front entrance.
In Canada, there’s the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, a non-profit organization incorporated under federal jurisdiction since 1991. The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre is a museum, dedicated to Holocaust education and awareness. Here’s the monument in front of the Museum, courtesy of Jean Gagnon and Wikipedia:
Notice the Star of David?
And here’s the Holocaust memorial in Klooga, Estonia, courtesy of Sander Sade and Wikipedia:
Finally, here’s the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, courtesy of Raso and Wikipedia:
I have to ask: if having the Star of David in a Holocaust Memorial is good enough for these countries, why does the Freedom From Religion Foundation think it isn’t good enough for the United States of America?
The Freedom From Religion Foundation didn’t stop there. They wrote a letter to State Senator Richard Finan, alleging that the proposed Holocaust memorial ignored non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust:
Even if the symbol is viewed in the context of a memorial honoring victims of an atrocious genocide, it ignores the fact that there were other victims of the Holocaust. Thus, it gives the impression that only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are being honored by the state… There were five million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, resisters to the Nazi regime, Catholic priests and Christian pastors, homosexuals, the disabled, and Africans who were brought to Germany following World War I.…
What this overlooks is that the wording on the proposed Holocaust memorial is set to say, “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.” So much for lack of inclusiveness.
The Friendly Atheist notes that “Yad Vashem, the ‘world center for Holocaust research,’ doesn’t have precise numbers but their estimate of non-Jewish victims is significantly smaller than the 5,000,000 cited by FFRF.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in its bid to block the construction of the proposed Holocaust Memorial outside the Ohio Statehouse, has taken silliness and pettiness to a new level. It is to be hoped that the people of Ohio will fight back, with every legal means at their disposal.