May is Jewish-American Heritage Month. And unless you’re a major Jewish political donor, a sports fan, or a student in a school district that officially acknowledges this and similar heritage months, you likely hadn’t noticed. But taking a closer look at the meaning of this month reveals some of the bizarre consequences of American multiculturalism, particularly the hollowness behind the notion of a shared heritage.
In May 2013, Vice-President Joe Biden, infamous for not hedging his words quite enough, gave a speech to a Jewish group according credit to American Jews for: the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and most recently, gay rights. Reminiscent of Patricia Arquette’s recent Oscar acceptance speech that seemingly segregated women from people of color and gays, Biden was castigated for separating Jews from other Americans. When he proclaimed of American Jews, “we owe you,” Biden drew a pretty clear line between Jews and Americans. That line is the hyphen that defines many in multiculturalist America today: African-, Hispanic-, Asian, etc. Mostly, Biden was criticized for minimizing black, female, and gay agency in their own (and ongoing) struggles for liberation.
His critics are not wrong in blasting Biden for lifting up Jews as progressive social heroes at the expense of other minorities. His speech was an unfortunate display of pandering that falsely (if flatteringly) equated American Jewishness with progressive causes (an equation that some critics felt was shafted in the film Selma, which did not highlight any Jewish contribution to civil rights). However, What these Biden’s detractors fail to acknowledge is the long history of Jewish alignment with other “others.”
In what Professor Naomi Seidman named “the politics of vicarious identity,” American Jews who forgo religious practice and community affiliations have allied themselves with marginalized groups in America (like those Biden cites). No longer able to declare their own victimhood—a prerequisite of multiculturalist ideology, as Seidman explains—Jews found in other oppressed groups a way to express their Jewishness. As AmericanJews move away from particularly Jewish forms of expression, their solidarity with blacks, women, and gays becomes a new form of Jewish particularism.
But does this vicarious identity still operate successfully? Seidman’s essay is almost twenty years old and predates the rightward political slide of many Jewish Americans during George W. Bush’s presidency. Celebrating Jews through their association with other minority groups stops when figures like Sheldon Adelson celebrate Jews only through Zionist politics.
No one—neither the political left nor the right—has found a way to celebrate Jews as Jews. What is Jewish-American Heritage month celebrating, then?
The vacuous outcome of the heritage month venture can be found in the fact that American Jews share the month of May with Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Apparently, there aren’t enough months in the calendar year to celebrate all of this nation’s historically beleaguered minorities. Not only do these well-intentioned commemorations erect mehitzas between “Americans” and its hyphenated peoples, but the result is necessarily reductive.
Nothing speaks to the diminishing returns of this “hyphen-nation” more than when sports teams push promotional items like t-shirts, Hasidic bobbleheads, or limited edition mezuzahs in celebration of JAHM (or whenever seems timely). On the other hand, perhaps as hyphen-nationalism successfully empties minority groups of historical or individual content, Jewish-Americans—and idealistically one day, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, Native Americans, and women—will no longer need their own months. This will be a sign not of complete melting-pot integration, but of a national acknowledgement that “American” already entails all of these hyphenated possibilities.