The month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month. This year’s formal launch was announced by President Joe Biden last Friday. In his remarks, Biden praised “Jewish Americans, whose values, culture and contributions have shaped our character as a Nation,” even as he noted the “dark side” of the American Jewish experience and “the record rise of antisemitism today.”
We can’t help but focus on that “dark side,” as rising antisemitism impacts so much of our daily lives. The statistics are chilling. The American Jewish community is estimated to number 7.5 million people — a miniscule 2% of the U.S. population — and yet, the Jewish community is the target of close to 60% of religiously motivated hate crimes in America.
Although Biden didn’t review those numbers, his remarks recognized them, and he listed steps his administration is taking to combat antisemitism and to address the disturbing culture of hate that festers beneath the antisemitism surface.
While we welcome the administration’s caring responses, we remain uncertain of the efficacy of the efforts. As we have observed before, the problem of antisemitism has nothing to do with Jews. It has everything to do with antisemites. As such, the number of Jews in America is irrelevant. What matters is the number of antisemites and what is being done to address their irrational hate.
We have been puzzled by the selection of May for the celebration of Jewish American Heritage ever since President George W. Bush inaugurated the practice in 2006 after both houses of Congress passed resolutions urging him to do so. The period around May is when we commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate the anniversary of Israel’s independence. No one seems terribly focused on American Jewish Heritage.
Perhaps as part of efforts to address antisemitism, some meaningful opportunities will be developed to discuss Jewish contributions to the rich history of America. And hopefully that discussion will go beyond the tired cliches of bagels, Jewish mothers and matzah ball soup.
In that regard, we note the impressive and expanding number of websites that seek to tell the Jewish story in America focused on substance and historical information.We applaud the Library of Congress, the National Archives and other institutions in Washington, D.C., including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington; the Weitzman Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia and the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore for offering resources to a national audience. Together, they are telling the proud story of Jewish American Heritage all year round.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the public celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, much of that substance is lost. Rather, just like St. Patrick’s Day is forever linked to the consumption of green beer, Jewish American Heritage Month will be marked by bagels and lox — the featured offering at a congressional breakfast last month to mark the coming Jewish American Heritage Month.
On balance, we appreciate the communal recognition. We just wish there was something meaningful to go along with it. ■