(I delivered this text as a speech in front of the steps of the US Supreme Court on February 27, 2019.)
I’m Jeremy Kridel. I’m the rabbi at Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and I’m here representing the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
A friend of mine told me that when she first came to Maryland, nearly forty years ago, she saw the Bladensburg Peace Cross. And she thought, “Wow, these folks must be really religious around here.”
That says an awful lot about this case, doesn’t it?
The Peace Cross sits on public land, looming forty feet tall, in the middle of the road. Its backers claim that it’s just a generic symbol, neutral, non-religious.
As secular humanistic Jews, we beg to differ.
When we see a forty-foot cross standing in the center of town, as secular Jews, we know from our ancestors’ lives what that cross means. It sends a crystal-clear message: we are Christians here. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be a Christian, too.
Does that sound inclusive to you?
But we are just supposed to forget all of that. Otherwise, they’ll call us names. Only last Friday, George Will called us “cranky, persnickety, hair-splitting secularists.”
We think our government should support memorials that truly stand for all who gave their lives. Is that persnickety? Hair-splitting?
For Jews, a cross has often meant, “You’re not one of us, and we’re coming for you.” That’s what it meant in Eastern Europe, and when the KKK lit it on fire.
Is that persnickety? Is that hair-splitting?
How can a cross represent all war dead equally? More than two thousand Jewish soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only a few miles away. Were they buried under crosses, or Stars of David?
A cross erases the bravery and sacrifice of any soldier who isn’t or wasn’t a Christian.
And the Bladensburg Peace Cross is worse. It erases non-Christian soldiers’ bravery not only symbolically, but actually. It lists 49 soldiers. It left off three who happen to be Jewish. Let’s remember the ones the Bladensburg Cross kept off — the ones the government would still leave off by leaving the cross in place.
Let’s remember Sgt. Isaac Morris, Lt. Merrill Rosenfeld, and Pvt. Zadoc Morton Katz, Jewish soldiers who died for our country and were left off the Bladensburg Peace Cross.
The Peace Cross is not an inclusive, neutral monument. It’s a monument to Christian memory. No Jews need have applied.
And so, my deepest of non-apologies to you, George Will. There’s no hairsplitting here.
A cross on public land cannot represent every soldier. That is a betrayal.
The cross is a betrayal of the memories and the sacrifices of every soldier who went to war not because of the cross, but despite it.
A cross in the middle of the road is a betrayal what they fought for: true freedom of belief.
To truly honor our soldiers’ memories, we need a symbol that speaks for them all, and that excludes none of them.
Say it so the Justices can hear it: Honor. Them. All.