Jewish American Heritage Month: The Irony of a Well-Meaning Commemoration

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Written by Joshua Stanton, one of America's most dynamic Jewish authors and an Odyssey Networks voice.

 

On May 2, 2012, President Barack Obama declared:

…by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2012 as Jewish American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to visit www.JewishHeritageMonth.gov to learn more about the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans and to observe this month with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies.

While it seems fitting to have a month commemorating Jewish contributions to the United States (much as we should have one to honor all groups that have contributed significantly to the country and its advancement), one element immediately stands out from the proclamation: in honor of the People of the Book, all Americans are asked to “visit www.JewishHeritageMonth.gov.”

To be fair, the website is also complemented with a set of brief videos and a list of lectures planned for the month. Yet it seems clear that the website itself is at the center of the effort to highlight the role that Jews have played in American life.

But what does it mean that a heritage month of any kind is commemorated online? What does it mean that the Jewish Heritage Month is commemorated online?

To answer the latter question, I can only speculate.

In answer to the former, I might infer (optimistically) that it means an enduring commitment -- one that will last into the future and be accessible in areas of the country that might not have large representation from that particular population for in-person gatherings. Documentation and study of the past can serve to enlighten the future and bring light to the impact that groups have had upon it.

Yet if such is the case, there is a notable irony in studying Jewish American history as part of a formal month of commemoration. As a minority religious community, we have historically thrived where religion and state were kept separate, even in matters of symbolic recognition. Though I do at times marvel that Judaism is a dual religious and cultural community and am proud of the contributions that the Jewish community has made to American society, I am uncertain that the precedent of publicly (and by way of government) commemorating religious communities is one that I feel entirely comfortable with -- or one that will ultimately benefit the Jewish community itself.

This feeling of uncertainty seems to point to a larger question: why should a religious community be commemorated alongside other ethnic, cultural, and gender groups?

In his proclamation, President Obama shares,

Their history of unbroken perseverance and their belief in tomorrow's promise offers a lesson not only to Jewish Americans, but to all Americans. Generations of Jewish Americans have brought to bear some of our country's greatest achievements and forever enriched our national life. As a product of heritage and faith, they have helped open our eyes to injustice, to people in need, and to the simple idea that we might recognize ourselves in the struggles of our fellow men and women. These principles led Jewish advocates to fight for women's equality and workers' rights, and to preach against racism from the bimah; they inspired many to lead congregants on marches to stop segregation, help forge unbreakable bonds with the State of Israel, and uphold the ideal of "tikkun olam" -- our obligation to repair the world. Jewish Americans have served heroically in battle and inspired us to pursue peace, and today, they stand as leaders in communities across our Nation.

While I agree in good measure with President Obama’s statement and feel that our community is honored to have a heritage month of its own, I fear that such a month may reduce the religion-state separation that enabled the Jewish community to thrive in the first place and remain such an enduring contributor to America.

That Jewish American Heritage Month is now primarily observed online is curious. One of its core lessons is the centrality of religion-state separation in American Judaism’s efflorescence. Such a lesson may well indicate the need to avoid heritage months dedicated to religious communities, including one held in honor of the Jewish American community itself.

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