Daily Kos Celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month, May 2023

Jewish American Heritage Month: Our Equity Commitment at Daily Kos

“At Daily Kos, the Equity Council works to build a better organization and community by focusing on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Kos Media. The Equity Council issues this statement as a commitment to these ideals, and to encourage Daily Kos to take action internally and externally to support the movement.”

Our work in May 2023, the month to celebrate Jewish American Heritage, remains no less urgent today than it was in the summer of 2020 when we launched this series of observances. The onset of the COVID-19 epidemic that year coincided with dramatic and alarming increases in right-wing extremism, a trend abetted by the endorsement of white Christian nationalism by the 45th president of the United States, his political party, and their most fervent supporters.

A rise in white supremacist ideology is typically amplified by antisemitic rhetoric and actions. While Jewish Americans have a long history of indispensable contributions to U.S. society and culture, they have also been victims of nativist bigotry, hatred, and violence. No matter how their stories began, whether as natural-born citizens, refugees, or immigrants, Jewish Americans share their fight for acceptance with many other marginalized groups, along with the experience of othering and mistrust placed upon them by extremist white Christian ideology.

Jewish Americans today live as a minority in an asymmetric relationship to the larger society that privileges Christian events, whether celebratory or mundane. As such, they share similar struggles to other minority groups and similar tensions within and across those groups. At the same time, Jewish Americans have also made unsurpassed contributions to the arts, sciences, literature, law, business, sports, politics, and every other significant component of culture for the common good of the country. This month is but one way to acknowledge and celebrate these contributions making our country more diverse, unique, and united, in fulfillment of one of the oldest national mottos, E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One.”

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Ian Reifowitz
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Elders of Zion


History of Jewish American Communities


The first Jewish settlement in colonial America was established in 1664 by Jews who had been forced to leave their relatively safe haven in Dutch-ruled colonies based in Brazil when their previous persecutors, the Portuguese, gained control there. While many American colonies were not welcoming to adherents of other Protestant faiths, let alone to those who were not Christian, the Dutch had created a more tolerant regime, at least on religious grounds, in New Amsterdam. Even after the British gained control in 1664 and renamed the town New York, its comparative openness continued as it grew to become a significant center of trade and culture.

Other small Jewish congregations came into existence during the colonial era and the early days of U.S. independence, but the total representation of Jews in the U.S. remained very small until the mid-1800s. The political unrest of 1848 that destabilized northern and central Europe prompted many to emigrate to America in hopes of greater security, and German-speaking Jews were well represented among that wave of new immigrants. But the biggest increase in Jewish immigration to the U.S. did not begin until the last decades of the 19th century.

In the century spanning the years 1820 through 1924, an increasingly steady flow of Jews made their way to America, culminating in a massive surge of immigrants towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Impelled by economic hardship, persecution, and the great social and political upheavals of the nineteenth century—industrialization, overpopulation, and urbanization—millions of Europe’s Jews left their towns and villages and embarked on the arduous journey to the “Golden Land” of America.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants came mostly, though not exclusively, from Central Europe. In addition to settling in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, groups of German-speaking Jews made their way to Cincinnati, Albany, Cleveland, Louisville, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco, and dozens of small towns across the United States. During this period there was an almost hundred-fold increase in America’s Jewish population from some 3,000 in 1820 to as many as 300,000 in 1880.

Between 1881 and 1924, the migration shifted from Central Europe eastward, with over two-andone-half million East European Jews propelled from their native lands by persecution and the lack of economic opportunity. Most of those who arrived as part of this huge influx settled in cities where they clustered in districts close to downtowns, joined the working class, spoke Yiddish, and built strong networks of cultural, spiritual, voluntary, and social organizations.
“Introduction, From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America–A Century of Immigration, 1820-1924”

With such a vibrant and dynamic history of Jewish immigrants interwoven into the fabric of the United States, it is fitting that the poem “The New Colossus”—inscribed into the base of the Statue of Liberty—was written by Emma Lazarus, one of the first prominent Jewish American authors. Lazarus lifted up Lady Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles” and the symbol of the U.S. as a welcome land of opportunity to immigrants.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The promise that Emma Lazarus and others celebrated during the heyday of late-19th century immigration has never been adequately fulfilled. People newly landed in the U.S. might have initially experienced exuberance and relief, but those reactions were often quickly replaced by disappointment and frustration. In tandem with the growth of Jewish American communities in the late 19th-early 20th century, xenophobia and explicit antisemitism made it difficult for American Jews to live peacefully with full access to public goods. Restrictive housing covenants and quotas on admission to elite universities and professional licensing persisted even after nativist hostility to immigrants, particularly Jewish ones from central and eastern Europe, led to the imposition of major restrictions on immigration in the early 1920s and sharply curtailed the arrival of additional Jewish immigrants.

Nativist hostility to Jewish immigrants arose primarily from outright antisemitism, that is, bias against Jews on the basis of their religious beliefs and identification. But it was also true that many Jewish immigrants saw fit to challenge the political and economic status quo as well, bringing and advancing allegedly subversive ideas about organized labor and other means of restricting the power of the plutocratic class. This inclination to collective action created another pretext for elites to consider them “unamerican” then and later.

American antisemitism and the urgency of combating the “oldest hatred”

The struggle against homegrown antisemitism has been long and arduous in the U.S., waged over generations. We can take some satisfaction in the tangible gains of the past 50 years. But progress is far from guaranteed; regression always remains a real possibility.

For one illustration of the ongoing need for vigilance, consider the track record of U.S. presidents in the past 100 years. From Wilson to Nixon, presidents routinely demonstrated a baseline mistrust of Jewish citizens and hostility toward Jewish culture and communities.

As damaging as their bigotry was, considering the power they wielded, the impact of their bias was perhaps less immediate and consequential than the failure by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to intervene more forcefully on behalf of Jewish refugees during the early days of the Nazi regime. Desperate Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany seeking sanctuary in the U.S. encountered numerous roadblocks to their entry, so much so that the number of people granted asylum even fell short of meeting the extremely low quotas that had been implemented in the 1920s. Frequently revealing a genteel bigotry often found among the political elites, FDR did not exert himself on behalf of Jewish refugees despite the pleading and exhortations of many of his closest advisors (including his wife).

Fortunately, some of the more recent occupants of the White House have been far more open-minded and positive toward Jewish Americans. In 2006, George W. Bush became the first U.S. President to proclaim the month of May as Jewish-American Heritage Month, to “celebrate the rich history of the Jewish people in America and honor the great contributions they have made to our country.”

The transformative potential of the Obama presidency (2009-2017) was first suggested in 2009 when the president and first lady hosted the first-ever Passover Seder at the White House. Three Jewish staffers working for then-candidate Obama had inspired the tradition when they hosted a small, intimate seder during the height of the 2008 primary campaign season. During that seder, Obama modified the traditional salutation, “Next year in Jerusalem” to assert “Next year in the White House, if I win”—and then followed through, hosting a seder every Passover while in office.

The Obama administration also sponsored three high-profile White House receptions, beginning in 2010 with the first ever White House reception for Jewish American Heritage Month, which was repeated in 2011 and then followed by a presidential address in 2015 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. On that occasion, President Obama remarked:

From Einstein to Brandeis, from Jonas Salk to Betty Friedan, American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect. And as a community, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect. The story of Exodus inspired oppressed people around the world in their own struggles for civil rights. From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights, Jews took to heart the Biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.

The 45th president not only failed to reinforce these new traditions of comity but contributed significantly to a deadly resurgence of antisemitism. This hostility has been expressed in a dramatic and alarming increase in the number and severity of acts of violence. In March 2023, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents increased by 32% from 2021 to 2022, “the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. This is the third time in the past five years that the year-end total has been the highest number ever recorded.” Synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Jewish schools have all been targeted, clearly singled out for their religious and community significance.

The five-year period covered in the ADL report started in 2017, the year of the so-called Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where overtly antisemitic chants were centered in the protest and where counterprotestor Heather Heyer was murdered. Rather than quickly and thoroughly condemning the perpetrators outright, Trump called them “very fine people.” A year later, the mass murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018—the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history—confirmed the extent of the horror and the danger.

With the success of the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020, Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, became not only the first man to be the spouse of a vice president, but also the first Jew in that spousal role. Emhoff and his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, celebrated their first Passover in office over Zoom, since it occurred in the early days of COVID-19 vaccine availability. In September 2022, the White House hosted the first-ever High Holidays reception, where Mr. Emhoff delivered remarks.

The second gentleman clearly takes pride in being Jewish and has become an important leader in the Biden administration’s efforts to combat antisemitism at home and abroad. In early December 2022, Emhoff chaired a roundtable on antisemitism, attended by leaders of multiple Jewish organizations in the U.S. The timing of the meeting appeared to have been motivated in part by the offensive, antisemitic statements made shortly before by a number of prominent pop culture figures—and then circulated widely via social media. Then, these bigoted attitudes were implicitly endorsed by former president Trump when he invited several of the most overt antisemites to a dinner at his Florida estate.

At the White House roundtable, Emhoff asserted, “Right now, there is an epidemic of hate facing our country,”. Testimony from Jewish community leaders in attendance buttressed this claim, as they described a distressing increase in attacks on Jewish college students and on the visibly Orthodox, among others. The threat has prompted synagogues and other clearly Jewish centers across the country to take precautions that would have been considered extraordinary not long ago.

Immediately after this roundtable, the Biden administration created an interagency task force to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. And mere weeks after that, in late January 2023, Emhoff traveled to Poland and Germany as part of a delegation led by Ambassdor Deborah Lipstadt, a distinguished historian of the Holocaust and now the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. In an interview with Stephanie Ruhle on April 26, 2023, Ambassador Lipstadt said,

No one saw this [rise in antisemitism] coming. Twenty, twenty-five years ago, even less than that, if you talked with an American about antisemitism they’d say it’s a problem overseas. But now we can’t say that anymore…. It’s here at home and it’s overseas. It’s very debilitating, because it’s not just a threat to the welfare of Jews – and if it was just a threat to the welfare of Jews… that’s sufficient for a government and a public [to act]… It starts with Jews. It never ends with Jews. Equally important… it’s a threat to democracy…. The person who is an antisemite believes in a conspiracy theory…. If you believe one group controls everything, then you believe democracy is a sham, democracy is kaput. … [Under the Biden Administration] there is an effort to come up with a national plan, what can government do to try to address this. But even the most spectacular plan won’t be sufficient unless the public steps up to the plate and says, “This is unacceptable.”… When you hear someone making a crack… you gotta call them on it….It’s gotta start in the kitchen. …There will always be haters, but we have to put a cordon around them so they can’t spread their hate. … NOW is the time to take this very seriously.

Jewish American Heritage Month Origins

Jewish American Heritage month grew out of the May 2004 Commission for Commemorating 350 years of American Jewish history. Much of that groundwork came from the Jacob Rader March Center of American Jewish Activities, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives and Records Administration. Following its success, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced resolutions, which passed unanimously in subsequent years.

In April, 2006, during the so-called War on Terror, President George W. Bush’s initial proclamation of Jewish American Heritage Month emphasized Jewish Americans’ steadfast belief in the Almighty and their willingness to fight for freedom via the armed forces.

Reflecting our current political moment, President Biden’s 2022 proclamation noted the present day rise of white supremacy and antisemitic violence. Emphasizing the immigrant story of the first 23 Jewish refugees who came ashore in 1654 fleeing persecution, President Biden noted that their plight inspired George Washington to pledge in 1790 “that our Government will ‘give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’” Biden also noted that the struggle for democracy is an ongoing one to which Jewish Americans are equally committed. Quoting First Century scholar Rabbi Tarfron, Biden wrote, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM)–Resources and Observations in 2023

JAHM 2023

General resources


Museums, Cultural Centers, and Archives

  • American Jewish Historical Society
    “Established in 1892, the American Jewish History Society provides access to more than 30 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, art and artifacts that reflect the history of the Jewish presence in the United States from 1654 to the present.”

  • Center for Jewish History
    “Home to five distinguished partner organizations. The largest and most comprehensive archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel.
    Center for Jewish History and partner collections span five thousand years, with tens of millions of archival documents (in dozens of languages and alphabet systems), more than 500,000 volumes, as well as thousands of artworks, textiles, ritual objects, recordings, films, and photographs. The Center’s experts are leaders in unlocking archival material for a wide audience through the latest practices in digitization, library science, and public education. As one of the world’s foremost research institutions, the Center offers academic fellowships, symposia, conferences and lectures as well as a wide array of cultural, educational and genealogy programs for the public.”

  • The Jewish Museum
    The Jewish Museum was the first institution of its kind in the United States and is one of the oldest Jewish museums in the world. The Museum maintains a unique collection of nearly 30,000 works of art, ceremonial objects, and media reflecting the global Jewish experience over more than 4,000 years. Located on New York City’s Museum Mile, in the landmarked Warburg mansion, the Jewish Museum is a welcoming home to an ever-changing and dynamic range of opportunities for exploring multiple facets of the global Jewish experience.”

  • The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
    The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is New York’s contribution to the global responsibility to never forget. The Museum is committed to the crucial mission of educating diverse visitors about Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust.”

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum enables visitors to learn about the Holocaust, to remember survivors and victims, and to confront antisemitism and genocide.

  • The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History
    “The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, presents educational programs and experiences that preserve, explore, and celebrate the history of Jews in America. Its purpose is to connect Jews more closely to their heritage and to inspire in people of all backgrounds a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American Jewish experience and the freedoms to which Americans aspire.”