My fellow Jewish Americans, Happy Rodney Dangerfield Month | Opinion …

Posted By on June 2, 2022

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy Jewish American Heritage Month. The month is almost over. Nevertheless, Reader, I know I am the first to greet you.

Proclaimed by President George W. Bush in 2006, after energetic advocacy by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Jewish American Heritage Month recognizes the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. At any rate, thats what its supposed to do.

Although recognized by President Joe Biden and the Library of Congress, JAMH has become the Rodney Dangerfield of commemorative occasions. It gets no respect.

The U.S. Department of State, for example, honors nine history and heritage months on its public website. These months recognize women, LGBTQ, Asian, Hispanic, Caribbean, Arab and African Americans, among others. Jewish Americans, however, are forgotten. This is surprising, since our Secretary of State is a Jew.

Other great institutions offer Jews the same slight. Harvard, for example, has chosen this year to honor eight heritage months and seven identity recognition days. None are for the children of Israel.

The most extraordinary recognizer of commemorative days, weeks, and months might be the U.S. Census Bureau. Our census-takers offer Stats for Stories with helpful data to assist the media in story mining and producing content on dozens of observances. Spoiler alert: Jewish American Heritage Month doesnt make the cut.

In fairness to the Bureau, it is understandable that they rank some commemorations higher than ours. Take Mothers Day or National Police Week. No one wants to piss off either of those groups.

National Poultry Day is harder to swallow. How do we rank lower than chickens? Or consider this: The Census Bureau has stats for Doughnut Day but not for bagels. Or for the people who gave bagels to the world.

Other commemorations are more mysterious. Single people get both a month and a week. February 15 was Singles Awareness Day. Unmarried and Single Americans Week will stretch from September 19-25. Are single people supposed to appreciate themselves? Or are married people supposed to appreciate them? And who thinks that will end well?

Why should we care? Presidential proclamations establishing Jewish American Heritage Month do not have the force of law and are entirely symbolic. Nevertheless, symbols matter.

It is important to recognize the contributions the Jewish people have made to this country, from Leonard Bernstein in music to Albert Einstein in science to my own organizations namesake in law.

As importantly, such celebrations can provided needed relief in a time of record-setting antisemitism. We need positive messaging after an onslaught of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda.

Elan Carr, the former Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism, argues that celebrations of Jewish heritage can strike a blow against Jew-hatred. He reasons that the opposite of antisemitism is philosemitism. By this, he means appreciation, respect and affection for the Jewish people.

Some disagree. The current academic consensus is that antisemitism and philosemitism are not opposites. Rather, both involve stereotypes and generalizations. Some academics even joke, What is a philosemite? An antisemite who likes Jews.

Yale scholar Maurice Samuels says this doesnt mean that philosemites are all antisemites in disguise. Rather, both groups treat Jews as others, projecting fantasies of the Jew that they use to form their own sense of identity.

Samuels and Carr can both be right. It may be true, as Samuels argues, that philosemitism has dangers. Nevertheless, it is surely also true that hate and bias of all kinds, including antisemitism, can be reduced when people develop mutual admiration and respect.

This is especially true today, when Jewish identity is increasingly undermined by the rise of a new erasive antisemitism, which negates the right of Jews to define our own identity and experience.

We see this frequently among college students and instructors who come to the Brandeis Center for help. They may work at institutions like Stanford University, where Jewish staff have been pushed to join a whiteness accountability affinity group, created for staff who hold privilege via white identity.

They may study at places like Brooklyn College, where Jewish students are told that they are white, privileged, systemic racists. One student said, Im a Hispanic person of color, and yet even I was told by faculty and administrators in the program that because I am Jewish, I enjoy the privileges of whiteness and that my skin color would not save me.

These sorts of diversity programs often omit Jewish heritage from their commemorative occasions for the same reason that they forget Jews everywhere else. They do not understand antisemitism or grasp why they must address it. Worse, they may be spreading Jew-hatred rather than combating it.

Jewish American Heritage Month is no panacea. Nevertheless, it is an excellent first step for institutions that seem to have forgotten the Jewish experience. At a time when antisemitism is rising, a simple step that any institution can take is to celebrate Jewish American heritage, just as we do with the other heritages that make our nation strong.

In the meantime, may you have a happy Jewish American Heritage Month. And a joyous Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month as well.

Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and author of The Definition of Anti-Semitism. He served as the 11th Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights.

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