“This month, we celebrate the enduring heritage of Jewish Americans, whose values, culture and contributions have shaped our character as a nation. For generations, the story of the Jewish people—one of resilience, faith and hope in the face of adversity, prejudice and persecution—has been woven into the fabric of our nation’s story.”
— U.S. President Joe Biden
American Jews are an integral part of U.S. history and culture. Since before the nation’s founding, Jewish immigrants contributed their blood, sweat, toil and tears to build the American Dream. Many, with only pennies in their pockets, came to America with the hope of building a better life for their future generations. They believed that they had a shared responsibility in building and protecting a nation in its infancy. These were the early roots of Jewish American patriotism.
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, recognizing the enduring contributions and innovations Jews make to American culture, education, science and technology. The month-long celebration was first officially recognized in 2006, when President George W. Bush issued a formal proclamation honoring America’s Jews. This year, all 26 Republican governors hailed the “impact of the American Jewish people” on the nation.
The patriotism of American Jews was proven on the battlefields of the American Revolution, the Civil War and in all foreign conflicts. There are 2,500 Jews buried at Arlington National Cemetery, providing silent testimony. Legendary author Mark Twain questioned Jewish patriotism until he was presented with statistics showing Jewish participation throughout American military history. Twain acknowledged that “I was ignorant” and that Jews served at a higher rate than Christians. Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard praised his Jewish officers as being “of the bravest and best,” and “intrinsically there are no more patriotic men to be found in the country than those who claim to be of Hebrew descent.”
Jews marched arm-in-arm with African-American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and gave their lives in support of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. Decades before, Sears department store pioneer Julius Rosenwald teamed up with civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to fund schools for African American children in the South. The eponymous Rosenwald School project built more than 5,000 schools, vocational centers and teacher homes in the early 1900s. His philanthropic work provided educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of African-American children.
American Jews have made important cultural contributions throughout history. Composer Israel “Irving” Berlin wrote “God Bless America” while serving in the army during World War I and later the classic “White Christmas.” Upon his passing, President George H. W. Bush hailed him as “a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation.”
There are many notable entertainers who have captured the attention of Americans: legendary escape artist Harry Houdini; “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; singers Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan; Jeopardy! host Mayim Bialik; and “Star Trek” actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Inspired by an aspect of Jewish High Holiday services, Nimoy created the universally recognizable “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute.
Polio is no longer a threat to American children because of the contributions of Jewish doctors, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Businesswoman Estée Lauder co-founded the cosmetics brand bearing her name. Baseball hall-of-famer Sandy Koufax garnered national attention when he observed Yom Kippur rather than pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series.
But today’s Jews face rising antisemitism and even deadly attacks. Unfortunately, as President Biden proclaimed: “We have witnessed violent attacks on synagogues, bricks thrown through windows of Jewish businesses, swastikas defacing cars and cemeteries, Jewish students harassed on college campuses and Jews wearing religious attire beaten and shot on streets. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are rampant online, and celebrities are spouting antisemitic hate.”
Violent attacks against Jewish community centers date back to at least 1957 with the discovery of a bomb before it exploded in an Alabama synagogue. Swastikas continue to be painted on synagogues and a Las Vegas high school student recently carved a swastika into the back of a Jewish autistic classmate. Many Jewish students feel unsafe at universities and Orthodox Jews were the main target of anti-Jewish assaults in 2022. Jew-hating bigots continue to spread hateful content online and celebrities, including Kanye “Ye” West and Kyrie Irving, helped mainstream anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
Jews, like many other immigrants, fled persecution, foreign wars and famines for a fresh start in a new land. They now must fight for their right to exist in the land they helped build and defend. Jewish American Heritage Month aims to promote greater understanding and appreciation of Jewish history and culture, as well as to recognize the many challenges that American Jews have faced and overcome.
In a letter to the nation’s first synagogue, President George Washington wrote: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Points to consider:
- Jews are an essential part of American history.
Just as Americans of other ethnic and religious groups have laid the foundation for today’s America, Jews also contributed their share—from before the Revolutionary War to today. While there are famous Jews who are household names, many everyday Jews also contribute to American success. There are Jewish teachers and construction workers who contributed to educating future generations of Americans and built the nation’s skyscrapers. U.S. Jews served proudly for the Union in the Civil War, founded businesses and entertained America on stage, on screen and in concert halls. Jews are one of the many ethnic groups that helped build America—pursuing and protecting the American dream. They should be celebrated like all other ethnicities—not persecuted.
- Heritage is central to Jewish identity.
Jewish heritage encompasses a rich and diverse history, culture, and religion that spans over 3,000 years. From their ancient origins in the land of Israel to today, the Jewish people have maintained deep ties to their heritage—connecting with their roots to build a sense of belonging and community. This has played a significant role in shaping their beliefs, values and way of life. At the heart of the Jewish religion is the belief in a single, omnipotent G-d who created the universe and made a covenant with the Jewish people. Cultural elements of Jewish heritage include speaking Hebrew, lighting the menorah on Chanukah and dressing up in costumes for Purim. Jewish heritage also encompasses a long history of persecution and resilience. Despite centuries of exile, oppression and genocide, Jews have fought to preserve their cultural and religious traditions. The Jewish people have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity.
- Jewish identity is complex and eternally tied to the Jewish state.
Many incorrectly assume that Jews are only a religious group because Jewish identity predates Western categories. Jews are not only a religion, but also an ethnic group descended from ancient Hebrews—a people, nation, culture and heritage. American Jews have been patriots and leaders in many fields. Like many other immigrant communities, Jews also maintain their cultural identity and connection to their ancestral homeland, Israel, and its capital Jerusalem. Israel and Jerusalem are mentioned numerous times in Jewish religious texts and traditions; “Next year in Jerusalem” is an annual phrase delivered at the Passover seder and the end of Yom Kippur services. Secular Zionists, like the founder of modern Zionism Theodore Herzl, also understood the significance of Israel to the Jewish people. Despite attempts by anti-Zionists to undo the “centrality of Israel and peoplehood to Jewish identity,” Zionism remains a core component of Jewish identity.
- Erasive antisemitism seeks to eliminate Jewish identity.
There are Jew-hating bigots who not only deny or distort the Holocaust; they also deny and distort all of Jewish history and identity. They deny that Jews are a people with a unique ancestry who have shared memory, experienced oppression, were exiled from the land of Israel and have a centuries-old connection to the Jewish state. This is erasive antisemitism. Instead, these bigots accuse Jews of being oppressors. They label all Jews as “white” even though historically Jews were never considered white, most notably by Hitler who saw Jews as race polluters. Jews need the help of non-Jews to push back against this growing effort to erase the Jews’ distinct identity and create spaces where Jews feel comfortable talking about their history. Jews must be able to celebrate their heritage openly and proudly without fear of being excluded, shunned or even harmed.
- Educators must teach Jewish culture.
Condemnations of anti-Jewish hatred are just the first step in countering the false and inflammatory narratives against Jews. Hatred of Jews predated the Holocaust by millennia and was fueled by vicious libels about Jewish cultural practices; many of these persist today. Beyond just teaching tolerance and respect, factual histories, including lessons on the Jewish nation, must serve a central role in the education of children and adults. The history of the Jewish people demonstrates that hatred toward Jews can devour entire civilizations. The best approach to countering these malicious lies and erasive antisemitism is to teach and celebrate Jewish history and culture, advocate for Jewish rights and challenge discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.