How we are giving Jewish Heritage Month the attention it deserves

Most Americans would be surprised to hear that presidents have honored Jewish heritage 43 previous times.

President Joe Biden poses for a selfie during the celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House, May 16, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(RNS) — In late April, President Joe Biden proclaimed May 2023 Jewish American Heritage Month, proposing that we Americans “celebrate the enduring heritage of Jewish Americans, whose values, culture, and contributions have shaped our character as a Nation.”  

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that this was the 43rd such proclamation by a U.S. president. Authorized by bipartisan acts of Congress, presidents have declared a period of time each year a time to honor Jewish heritage and its contribution to the United States. 

But unlike other commemorative months for other ethnic groups, the months dedicated to Jewish heritage have passed with little fanfare or notice. This is finally changing, but as Jewish American Heritage Month 2023 draws to a close, we are realizing that our work is just beginning.

This year federal, state and local leaders have made unprecedented commitments to give Jewish American Heritage Month a significant place on the calendar. Last week, the White House hosted a reception, and, in an extraordinary joint statement, all 26 Republican governors unanimously recognized the month and “call[ed] for observance to celebrate the historical, economic, and cultural impact” of the Jewish community.

Governors of both parties, meanwhile, are issuing proclamations to declare the occasion for their own states, in some cases at public events in state capitals. No fewer than 135 U.S. mayors have publicly recognized the month, with most issuing proclamations or hosting events. Corporations are beginning to join the movement: The Wegmans supermarket chain, for example, is marking the occasion with displays in its stores and on its website

With antisemitism rising on both the far right and radical left, such celebrations have taken on new urgency. Most of the measures we employ to combat Jew hatred are inherently defensive: guards at synagogues and Jewish community centers, for instance, and training for law enforcement on the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. We have pushed for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance standard definition of antisemitism; and enforced Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect Jewish students facing discrimination on campus.

These and other such actions are essential, but wars are not won without also mounting an offense. The best strategic, proactive weapon against antisemitism is philosemitism — an affirmative appreciation of the remarkable story of the Jewish people and the values of Judaism that have helped to shape civilization.

Rather than dwelling on those who hate Jews, we need to celebrate how Jewish history and values were vital sources of inspiration for the founding of the United States, the Civil Rights Movement, Americans’ commitment to social justice, and our country’s legal system.

We should explore how core Jewish beliefs, such as the creation of man in the image of God, the gift of a weekly Sabbath and the importance of education in the lives of children, have helped to define America’s character and values. We should rejoice in the miraculous restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the Jewish homeland and in the deep and unique friendship between the United States and the state of Israel. 

By promoting greater understanding and celebration of Jewish heritage, we can put the hateful bigots on the defensive. And we can reconnect with the values of our own country at a time when Americans’ appreciation of our own heritage is sadly dissipating. 

Making Jewish American Heritage Month the impactful occasion it should be is one of the core initiatives of the Combat Antisemitism Movement, on whose advisory board we serve. In collaboration with the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, our work has yielded encouraging results. CAM recently hosted a bipartisan congressional breakfast at the U.S. Capitol at which Democrat and Republican senators, representatives and community leaders spoke about the importance of the month.

At our global conference of mayors, convened earlier this year in Greece, municipal proclamations for Jewish American Heritage Month were a central topic for the U.S. delegation. We have been working closely with governors and mayors across the country who wish to embrace the occasion for their states and cities.

We are grateful that this positive movement is gaining momentum, but far more must be done. Educational institutions should publicize the month for their students, an appropriate curriculum must be crafted and offered to schools throughout the country, and companies and community institutions should organize commemorative events.

Finally, with university and workplace diversity, equity and inclusion programs proliferating and producing ever more courses of training, we must ensure that these programs make it a priority both to celebrate and to protect America’s great Jewish heritage. 

(Elan S. Carr served as U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. The Rev. Johnnie Moore was twice appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Both serve on the advisory board of the Combat Antisemitism Movement. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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