For some community members, it’s exactly what Jews have always wanted and needed. In 2006, following up on a resolution passed by Congress, President George W. Bush was the first to declare May to be Jewish American Heritage Month. His successors have happily done the same.
President Joe Biden’s proclamation is full of the same fulsome praise for the role that Jews have played in the history of this republic, similar to Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and, like theirs, is peppered with self-referential language seeking to position himself as a true friend of the community. As has become the custom and much like the way other declarations of other months, weeks or days dedicated to various ethnic, racial and religious groups, as well as a never-ending list of philanthropic causes and efforts to combat various diseases and maladies, the states have also chimed in with their own proclamations about the commemoration of American Jewish heritage.
The fuss made over Jewish American Heritage Month may not equal that accorded celebrations such as those for Black History (February), Hispanic Heritage (September), Women’s History (March) or LGBTQ+ Pride (June), and it does have to share May with Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage. But it is gaining a lot more attention with each passing year. And a lot of serious people, including those who are advocates in the battle against antisemitism like former U.S. State Department envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Elan Carr, think it ought to be made an even bigger deal than it is now.
This pleases some in the Jewish community who have long thought that Jewish history deserved to be singled out in the way that all those other heritages have been. To an older generation of Jews that remember a time when Jewish participation in mainstream culture was noteworthy and a source of great pride to a community largely made up of immigrants struggling for acceptance, any amount of hoopla made over Jewish Heritage Month is especially satisfying.
But there’s more to this than a group ego trip. Many in the community believe that promoting interest in Jewish life and history among the general population can also play a role in combating antisemitism.
Carr agrees with Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, that May ought to be a time when schools teach their students about American Jewish history, and the ADL and other organizations post links to curricula along those lines. The general consensus among mainstream entities is that such efforts can promote awareness of antisemitism. They believe that teaching kids about the way Jews have played an important role in U.S. history and achieved distinction in just about every field imaginable can help undermine the surge of antisemitic hate.
They think that all the recognition given to Jews in this manner will, in Greenblatt’s words, “help us build understanding and allyship.”
One can only hope they’re right, though those who are committed to this idea ought to give a thought to the way that the far greater focus on Holocaust education has largely failed to achieve a similar goal.
Still, there’s nothing wrong about Jews celebrating their often-influential role in the story of America. But the impulse for Jews to get their own “month” alongside that of other minorities is part of something that goes beyond the natural desire to see our ancestors celebrated. And Greenblatt’s use of the word “allyship”—a term that is part of the new woke lexicon that must be understood to navigate the intersectional mindset that dominates our leftist-dominated culture these days—is an indication of an aspect of this effort that ought to give sensible people pause.
Seeking victim status
At the heart of all these “months” is a desire to get in on the same intersectional victim racket that is doing such damage to the country. While a laudable pride in Jewish identity is clearly something the promoters of this idea want to support, Jews don’t need congressional or presidential proclamations, or an official Google Doodle caricature about this commemoration (the absence of which has led to some complaints) to do that. Nor, I might add, do all the other communities eager to promote their special months need any of this either.
Much like the effort to include Jewish history in ethnic-studies courses, the insistence on breaking down American identity in this way is related to critical race theory and its insistence that we define ourselves solely as members of groups rather than as individuals. I understand why Jewish groups scrambled to be included in the mix of ethnic, racial and religious narratives that should be taught in California, where such studies were mandated by the state. However, the campaign to make sure Jews are in the mix alongside other minority groups is part of a mindset in which a preoccupation with group identity serves only to further racialize society and not liberate it from bias.
We are right to want to draw attention to antisemitism. But in the intersectional playing field in which “allyship” to those who are labeled as oppressed minorities (which in practice generally means to admit guilt for sins of the past even if you or your group had nothing to do with those sins), Jews are always going to be considered as not as oppressed as other groups, no matter how much we speak about past discrimination or contemporary prejudice. In the current context, curricula about specific groups inevitably become a competition for victimhood where groups labeled as oppressed in the intersectional dialectic—a status that is denied Jews, who are labeled as “white” and therefore implicitly in the wrong—will always prevail.
Carving up American history
Americans need to re-emphasize the study of their history, which, sadly, has been downgraded in recent decades. Increasingly fewer students are taught facts about our past that it was once taken for granted that anyone with even a minimal education ought to know.
If we were really serious about creating an atmosphere of public discourse in which antisemitism could be marginalized and eradicated, Jews would not be joining the line of those seeking to carve out pieces of American history to be apportioned among the groups with their own months. In fact, it is via the process by which the general narrative of this country has been changed from one that centers on the American nation and its leaders as a whole into one that instead focuses on minorities of various kinds or other demographic subsets where we have lost the thread of our history. In the name of diversity, we assume that people only feel good if they can identify with others exactly like them.
The founders of this republic may not have been as diverse as contemporary America, but men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton belong to all of us today, which is something that composer Lin Manuel Miranda made plain in his hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” when he cast them all as non-white minorities.
In that same way, later generations who were considered great in various fields of endeavor—be they jurists like Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or composers like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein—similarly belong to all Americans, and not just their fellow Jews, without it being labeled “cultural appropriation.”
The venerated African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the greatest thinkers and writers in the history of Western civilization were as much his as those of European descent.
“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not,” Du Bois wrote in his book of essays The Souls of Black Folk. “Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
Sadly, we have forgotten what Du Bois, who lived in an era of brutal discrimination against people of color, intuitively understood.
The diversity obsession
Though to say it is to fly against the fashionable yet mad desire to remake society in the image of the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), in addition to the belief that all who are not “people of color” are privileged and inherently racist, what we need today is fewer special months and an emphasis on diversity. This racialization of society has helped create an atmosphere where groups like Jews are more easily singled out for opprobrium. What we need is more unity and Americans of all colors, creeds and backgrounds joining together to embrace a shared identity in which we are all individuals and not merely members of racial and ethnic tribes whose boundaries are immutable.
Jews don’t need a presidential proclamation to have a sense of peoplehood. They can get it from their own sacred texts and history.
To move away from this tribalism that manifests itself as an obsession with diversity is not to rain on the parade of those who wish to celebrate the heritage of American Jews or any other group, large or small, that desires to be recognized. But it might do more to create an atmosphere where prejudice like antisemitism wouldn’t thrive in the way it has in this age of faux anti-racism that actually does more to promote hate than to extinguish it.
If the American Jewish community wants to throw a party and promote more knowledge of a heritage they justly take pride in, that’s fine. Yet the more Jews seek to get their share of the intersectional minority victimhood scam, they are doing far more harm than good for themselves and their country.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.