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Justice Department Recognizes Jewish American Heritage Month

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, an apt occasion to celebrate the contributions of Jewish Americans to the struggle for civil rights in this nation. Jewish people for many years have faced both overt and more subtle antisemitism here in the United States and a long history of murderous persecution in Europe. Many American Jews have thus identified with the struggles of Black Americans against Jim Crow and racial injustice and embraced the Civil Rights Movement as part of a broader fight for justice and equality. As Dr. Martin Luther King told the American Jewish Congress in 1958:

"My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility."

Reflecting that common ground, some Jewish Americans played significant roles in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Jack Greenberg, whose parents fled antisemitic pogroms in Europe, succeeded Thurgood Marshall as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, serving for 23 years. Greenberg argued Brown v. Board of Education as Marshall’s co-counsel, as well as many other landmark Supreme Court cases challenging segregation, employment discrimination, and the death penalty.

Jewish Americans also provided important support at key junctures in the Civil Rights Movement. Fully half of the young people who flooded into Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were Jewish. Among them were Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered along with African American activist James Chaney because of their efforts to register Black voters. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel served as an advisor to Dr. King and marched with him from Montgomery to Selma in 1964. That year, 17 rabbis were arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations.

Major Jewish organizations have continued the fight. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women, interfaith groups like the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, and many similar organizations have joined with other civil rights organizations to advocate for legislative changes, litigate in favor of reform, conduct community outreach and education, and steadfastly oppose the forces of hatred and bigotry. In these efforts, they stood side-by-side with the Department of Justice.

Our celebration of these contributions, though, also reminds us of the abiding need for vigilance, as antisemitism and white supremacy are rising sharply in the United States. Violence motivated by bias against Jews, Black people or any other protected group has no place in our society.  The Justice Department has a long record of prosecuting such cases, and we will not let up. In April, we obtained a guilty plea to hate crime and arson charges from a Texas man who intentionally set fire to a synagogue in Austin. In February, we charged a California man with hate crimes for targeting and shooting two Jewish men on consecutive days as they departed religious services outside two different Los Angeles-area synagogues. Those victims survived, but eleven people tragically died in the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 simply because of who they were and how they worshipped. Our trial of the defendant for those crimes is under way.

Last year, we obtained a lengthy sentence against a leader of the Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division. The defendant and others used an encrypted online chat to identify journalists and advocates to threaten retaliation for their work exposing antisemitism. We also obtained a guilty plea from a New Jersey man for conspiring with members of a white Supremacist group to vandalize properties of Jewish and Black Americans. Antisemitism and racial hatred go hand-in-hand.

We recognize, however, that we cannot prosecute our way to an end of antisemitic violence and other hate crimes.  That is why the Justice Department is also hard at work addressing non-criminal acts of bias in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. In addition, we are seeking to prevent hate crimes through education and awareness. DOJ – led by the Civil Rights Division – developed the United Against Hate community outreach program. Headed by each U.S. Attorney in their district, this program improves reporting of hate crimes by teaching community members how to identify, report, and prevent acts of hate. The program unites community groups, community leaders and law enforcement at every level to build trust, strengthen coordination and combat unlawful acts of hate. This multi-part strategy is critical to eliminating hate, root and branch.

The Civil Rights Division is also engaged in other critical work to safeguard the rights of people to practice their religion free from discrimination. Last year, the department settled a case under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, against the township of Jackson, New Jersey, alleging that the town had passed zoning ordinances intentionally targeting the Orthodox Jewish community by prohibiting religious schools and dormitories. In addition, we settled a case against the Toms River township in New Jersey, because the town’s zoning code had unlawfully restricted the locations available for places of worship, which particularly affected the town’s Orthodox Jewish community.

The diversity of our great nation has enriched our lives immeasurably. This month provides an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of Jewish Americans and to rededicate ourselves to the battle against antisemitism and every other form of hate based on identity.

The Jewish faith recognizes the shared obligation of “tikkun olam,” healing a broken world. In celebrating our diversity and cherishing our common ties, we advance that effort and fulfill that obligation.

Updated May 25, 2023

Civil Rights