Why Atheists and Other Non-Christians Should Support the Ground Zero Cross

A rabbi supporting the Ground Zero Cross?  Yes, and proud to do so because in doing so I, and all others who do so, support freedom of expression, inclusiveness and the importance of remembering the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, as fully and as accurately as possible.

The fused steel cross at the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York City was a crucial part of thousands of people’s experience in the weeks and months following the horror of that bright September morning.  The fact that people seek to exclude that cross from any public display, demonstrates a dangerous lack of understanding about what it means to maintain a truly inclusive society, and also a fundamental misunderstanding about challenge of preserving memory.

Atheist groups, who are fighting the hardest to exclude the cross, are actually, if unwittingly, fighting for the opposite of the religious and intellectual freedom for which they claim to stand.  By fighting against the inclusion of the cross, they turn the important and ongoing fight for their own legitimacy and inclusion into a fight for precisely the kind of exclusion and lack of recognition to which they themselves are regularly subjected in many situations.

A truly inclusive, respectful and pluralist society is not achieved by fighting to exclude, as some atheists and others are doing.  It is achieved by creating ever-greater opportunity for ever-greater expression.  Somehow, this case has become one in which people who have struggled to have their own presence acknowledged are now leading a fight to have the presence of others erased.   How ironic and how wrong-headed.

Memory doesn’t just happen, it is created.  Memory is an aggressive act -- “aggressive” in the sense that it takes effort to create and maintain.

I mention this because I appreciate the potential power of the decisions that are made in constructing the Ground Zero memorial and museum, and appreciate that as in all such situations, it is not simply about preserving “everything” because that is an obvious impossibility.  So, the argument that the cross was at “the pit” is not sufficient reason to include it, as some have argued.

The cross deserves to be included because of its importance to thousands of people connected to 9/11 – victims, their families, first responders, etc.  The cross embodies a crucial piece of the 9/11 story, and to exclude that story simply because it is not part of the story which many of us tell, not only insults the experience of others, it proves how much we have to learn about the difference between preserving our own intellectual and/or spiritual traditions, and eliminating those of others.

The inclusion of the Ground Zero cross needs to be done with care and with sensitivity.  It needs to be done not as an act of religious triumphalism, but as an act of respect for history.  It needs to be done out of regard for those to whom it was, and still remains, an important part of the story of how people and a people struggled through one of the worst moments in our nation’s history.

Gandhi challenged his followers to be the change which they desired to see in the world. 

I hope that those opposed to the Ground Zero Cross can internalize that challenge.  Hillel taught that if one is not for themselves who will be for them, but if they are only for themselves, what are they?

I hope that those fighting against the cross can live both halves of his sage wisdom.  He concludes his teaching by asking, “and if not now, when?”  Indeed.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.