Jewish American Heritage Month and antisemitism

By Daniel S. Mariaschin

(JNS) On display at the White House for a 2012 reception marking Jewish American Heritage Month was a letter to President Abraham Lincoln from the Missouri Lodge of my organization, B’nai B’rith, dated Jan. 5, 1863. It was sent in protest of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11, issued just weeks before. This order expelled Jews from the Tennessee Department, a region of the southern Confederacy conquered by the Union in the Civil War.

Along with other protests, the letter called on Lincoln to rescind the order, which he did. The letter now sits in the National Archives.

Jewish American Heritage Month, which was officially proclaimed in 2006, recognizes the important contributions American Jews have made to this country over the course of the 370 years of American Jewish life.

Looking back at the protest against Grant’s order, one could say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We are being buffeted on all sides at this moment in history: Bogus charges of genocide against Israel and its supporters advanced by everyone from members of Congress to media personalities; authors and actors canceled for speaking up as Jews; demonstrations on college campuses that single out, intimidate and bully Jewish students; Jews beaten on the streets of New York because of their religious garb; and parents reminding their children to hide their Magen Davids or pocket their kippot when they leave the house.

Some of this is new, like the social media assault on Jews and Israel led by influencers and haters. Some of it is old-style antisemitism in new bottles, like Rep. Ilhan Omar’s “It’s all about the Benjamins” comment several years ago.

A short time ago, we thought we were making progress. Jewish enrollment at elite universities, long bound by restrictive quotas — written and unwritten — was at its highest level. Jewish actors ditched the old habit of adopting anglicized stage names. Corporate suites continued to open in industries and fields in which we had been denied entry or limited to token representation. Movies, TV programs and documentaries about the Holocaust and Jewish life in America became more and more common. Jews were moving to neighborhoods previously off limits. Israelis in America were opening successful restaurants, receiving rave reviews for their nouvelle hummus and falafel.

When my parents arrived in America as children, one in 1903 and the other in 1913, they were part of that great wave of Jewish immigration that brought with it the seeds of many important contributions to their adopted land, which continue to this day. Antisemitism and discrimination lurked around many corners, but our community persisted. We worked hard in sweatshops and studied hard at night. We believed in the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and fought for those rights, as evidenced in the B’nai B’rith letter to Lincoln.

We set out to fight restrictions in employment, college admissions offices, housing and a host of other indignities with resolve and the belief we could prevail. It was not easy: Well into the early 1960s, colleges were checking applicants’ religion and requiring applicants to affix a photo to their application. B’nai B’rith’s archives include letters from hotels, resorts and private schools refusing requests for reservations or admissions because the inquiries were from those with Jewish-sounding names.

Still, with each successive generation, we were able to climb a few rungs up the societal or “acceptance” ladder. Much of the table talk in our house focused on taking pride in Jews who were prominent in public life, from comedians and actors to political figures and leading cultural icons. For me, the greatest source of pride was Sandy Koufax and his decision not to play on Yom Kippur, even though it was the opening game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. Our community’s pride in that simple act was palpable everywhere.

Baseball and sports, science and technology, medicine, jurisprudence, motion pictures, broadcasting and entertainment, culture and the arts. So many achievements in relatively little time. Not to mention our foundational efforts to advance civil rights and the labor movement.

In that context, I recall another proud moment in my life: As a first grader, I stood in line in public school to get my polio vaccination. As a result of those table talks at home, I was aware that Jonas Salk, who developed the first widely administered polio vaccine, was Jewish. Perhaps that gave me the extra courage to take the jab.

My mother was something of a guide to American Jewish pride. I knew very early on that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” And not only that: When CBS covered the Adolf Eichmann trial, the reporter assigned to the story was Martin Agronsky, a favorite of my mother’s. So was senior NBC correspondent Herb Kaplow. They were both Jewish.

As I got older, I became aware that more and more Jews who held public office were increasingly open about their Jewishness. A 1974 book by the journalist Stephen Isaacs, “Jews and American Politics,” noted the very few Jews who held high office in the U.S. One interviewee said that Jews, instead of becoming candidates for office, preferred to work behind the scenes as media advisers, donors and fundraisers for candidates. At the time, there were a dozen Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives and only three members of the Senate, one of whom was filling a vacancy.

Less than 20 years later, the picture changed as a new generation of Jewish candidates vied for office not only in states with large Jewish populations, but some with relatively few like New Hampshire and Kansas. Today, there are nine Jews in the U.S. Senate and 26 in the House of Representatives. And let’s not forget the historic nomination of the late Sen. Joe Lieberman for vice president in the 2000 presidential election, a source of pride to our entire community.

Fast forward to the recrudescence of antisemitism in America. The anti-Israel/anti-Zionist variant is not new. The United Nations adopted its “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975 (rescinded in 1991). Some American companies bowed to the Arab economic boycott of Israel until federal law prohibited such compliance in 1979.

There were always a few Congressional outliers who were antagonistic toward Israel, including Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.), Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) or Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), but there was nothing quite like today’s “Squad,” with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who draped herself in a Palestinian flag when sworn into office. Nor were there hundreds of faculty-indoctrinated college students, egged on by hired agitators, prohibiting entry to “Zionists,” cheering on and defending Hamas, denying the grotesque atrocities the terrorists carried out on Oct. 7 and rampaging through one campus quad after another charging Israel with genocide.

Has our progress in overcoming social obstacles now hit a stone wall? Jewish college students in Berlin and elsewhere in 1930s Europe were forced to sit at the back of the class, faced rigid admissions quotas and were taunted and demeaned. Today, Jewish students are jostled, taunted and bullied for wearing a kippah or holding an Israeli flag. Do the similarities end there or is there more to come?

There is one difference between then and now: Today we have good, prominent friends and allies outside our community. They are out there every day pushing back and speaking out. I’m thinking of people like the journalist Douglas Murray, the editorial boards of a (very) few newspapers and magazines like The Wall Street Journal, some influential TV anchors and pundits and a number of members of Congress.

In addition, there are legions of everyday Americans who are lined up behind us. After Oct. 7, I received several notes from my grade school classmates in New Hampshire expressing revulsion at what happened that day and hoping that better days lie ahead for Israel and our community.

In the maelstrom of hate we are encountering, does it make sense to remind and teach a new generation of Americans what the Jewish community has contributed to American civilization over more than 300 years? Will that help turn back the rising tsunami of antisemitism?

For those who are committed to devaluing the American Jewish experience — and there is a growing number of them — or see us as “colonizers” or worse, it will make little difference. But there are millions of Americans who are open, fair-minded and favorably inclined. They are new to the subject and we should turn our attention to them. We have a great story to tell.

Jewish American Heritage Month lasts just 31 days, but our story here covers hundreds of years. As we battle those who seek to demean and marginalize us, let’s be confident in the knowledge that we stand on the firm ground of communal accomplishment in building “a more perfect union.”

Daniel S. Mariaschin is the international CEO of B’nai B’rith.

Leave a Reply