A Jewish Perspective on Reparations

Most of the homeless people in Berlin are Jewish. Some of them wear tattered black yarmulkes, their matted beards clinging to emaciated cheeks. Their eyes are sunken and glazed as they plead with German passersby for help. It’s like this all over Germany. The street corners and slums of every major German city, from Munich to Nuremberg, are filled with Jews struggling to cope with extreme poverty, many of them addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The same is true of German prisons: almost half of all incarcerated Germans are Jewish, despite Jews making up only 12% of the German populace. Recently, controversy erupted when a German police officer shot and killed an unarmed Jewish teenager from a poor neighborhood. In an online campaign to raise money for the policeman, some of the 78,000 supporters wrote messages telling angry members of the German Jewish community not to “act like animals” and pledged over 250,000 Euros to the policeman and his family.

Of course, most of Berlin’s homeless population is not Jewish. Most German prisoners are not Jewish. The idea of a German policeman killing an unarmed Jewish teenager sounds so anachronistic as to border on 21st-century-impossible. But what if all of the above were true? Wouldn’t it be phantasmagorically obscene and unbearable? And wouldn’t its unbearableness be precisely due to context and history? Because of centuries of horror that Europe inflicted upon the Jews, culminating in a genocide that wiped out a third of the world’s Jewish population? If all of the above were true, would we hold the German government and German citizenry writ large responsible? If so, how?

The aforementioned numbers and anecdotes are fictional in the German context, and are extracted from the reality of the black community in America. There are, of course, vast differences between the two cases, which I will address later on. My intention is not to bluntly posit an equivalency between Jewish history in Germany and black history in America, or to minimize the uniqueness of either. My aim is to enter into conversation with two black American writers—James Baldwin, who wrote and lived through the time of the Holocaust and American segregation, and contemporary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic—about the profound and extant points of synthesis between our peoples’ respective stories, and what can be learned therein.

If we cannot pursue justice, who are we?

When they came to America, most of my ancestors were marginalized and denied entry to American whiteness. Today, however, I benefit as much as any other white-skinned person from the privileges and prosperities that white America reaped from the crime of slavery. I benefit from the injustices that continue to this day, including astronomical rates of incarceration in profit-driven prison systems, and bank-enforced poverty (the rate of poverty among black vs. white Americans hasn’t changed since the 1960s).

In The Fire Next Time, whose essays were first published in 1962 but damningly relevant 52 years later, James Baldwin writes that for blacks, “[American society] is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down …[as it] has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day…The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.” This brutality is not incidental but intrinsic to America and its material prosperity.

Spiritually speaking, I am—as are we all—devastated and degraded by the societal decay that cannot but result from this vicious injustice. It is untenable for us as Americans, as human beings, and as Jews.

Combining two ancient Jewish teachings, the question about our collective future becomes this: if we cannot pursue justice with the stranger and the oppressed, who are we? Put differently, the imperative to do justice—not in some hypothetical, metaphysical realm, but here and now, where we stand—must be seen not as a suggestion for altruism or charity, but rather as an opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate what is left of our rapidly fading legacy, culture and collective spirit, and to join in an effort to unburden America of the weighty, shameful yoke of its legacy of racial brutality.

In May of this past year, Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a searing article in The Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations.” In it, he detailed the history of American oppression of black people, from slavery to Jim Crow to racist housing police, and called, inter alia, for Congress to establish a “Commission to Study the Reparation Proposals for African-Americans,” as urged by Congressman John Conyers’ (D-MI) H.R. 40, a bill that’s been introduced (and ignored) multiple times.

Following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Coates reiterated the urgency of his case, clarifying that a call for reparations is not an exercise in political theory but rather a suggested praxis connecting directly to dignity, hope and, in some cases, survival. In the original essay, Coates concludes by offering a potential historical parallel: reparations paid by the German state following the Holocaust. “Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people,” writes Coates.

Nonetheless, as part of the framework of broader reparations that the Allied Powers obliged the German government to pay, it was eventually agreed that reparations would be paid to the State of Israel and the World Jewish Congress. While the economic boost to the new Israeli economy was significant, Coates argues that the greater impact wasn’t economic: “Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.”

More than money

The two cases, post-Holocaust Germany and post-slavery-and-segregation America, are, of course, not identical. The German state’s most severe crimes against the Jewish people were concentrated into a relatively short and exceedingly brutal sliver of history, after which most of the surviving Jews left Germany (and Europe). Germany, in turn, was forced by international powers to reform and repent. And pay.

America’s crimes were drawn out over centuries. And while the Civil Rights Movement forced certain improvements to be made, America has never really had to reckon with its past and dramatically change course as a result. (One need simply walk around the hallways of public schools in any major American city to interrogate the extent to which segregation has truly been abolished in that venue.)

But there are meaningful similarities. As Baldwin observed, also in The Fire Next Time, black Americans were far less surprised by the Holocaust than their white Christian counterparts:

For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can.

If Coates is right that reparations at least partially correlated with German societal and cultural reckoning, then one can see their fruits in Germany today. Last month, following a number of horrid, hateful slogans chanted at Jews (in the context of otherwise legitimate protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza), and a number of violent incidents, there was a large public vigil in Berlin to protest anti-Semitism. Among the attendees were German President Joachim Guack, members of Germany’s parliament, leaders of both of the country’s major churches, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared: “Jewish life is part of our identity and culture… Whoever discriminates and ostracizes has me, all of us, and the majority of the people in Germany against them.”

Then there’s America. Following what many have framed as the execution-style killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—an incident whose contours were tragically familiar—there were a multitude of demonstrations against racism and state-sponsored brutality, some of which were met with tactics widely acknowledged to be disproportionate and aggressive. These rallies and vigils continued for weeks, and were renewed again this month, in Ferguson and elsewhere. Through all of it, it appears that only a single U.S. congressperson attended a demonstration in Ferguson, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), who walked the length of the demonstrations along with Rev. Jesse Jackson.

After a lengthy discussion of ISIS and Iraq, President Obama spoke directly to the people of Ferguson in a televised statement: “So, to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other.” Compared to Merkel’s in-person, adversarial declaration of solidarity with Jewish Germans, President Obama’s televised call for understanding is milquetoast.

This, of course, is not a question of personal politics or individual temperaments. Angela Merkel is, to my understanding, no great radical, while Barack Obama, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in Fear of a Black President, “is not simply America’s first black president—he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” This is about national political cultures, which brings us back to the idea that reparations are not only about money: They’re about symbolic and spiritual recognition of historical and present wrongs, about transforming national culture, and about governments and citizens taking collective responsibility for collective crimes.

I hold that American Jews have a unique obligation to support reparations for African Americans. Not because we are uniquely guilty for America’s crimes against black people; and certainly not because, as some anti-semitic conspiracies would assert, we have unique control over this country’s finances and resources.

American Jews have a unique obligation to support reparations for African Americans because we, as a collective, know the meaning of vicious identity-based oppression. And because, as a collective, we have been freed from the yoke of much of our historical suffering. This is not to imply that anti-semitism has disappeared—it hasn’t—but we must appreciate the implications of elected leaders from all over Europe, the epicenter of our historical affliction, standing by our side in response to threats of anti-semitism. This may be only a sliver of the historical debt we are owed. But it is a sliver.

In America, meanwhile, when a young black man is killed at the hands of those claiming to enforce the law—whether official as in Darren Wilson’s case or self-appointed as in George Zimmerman’s—the country as a whole seems to forget that African Americans are even owed a historical debt, fatuously shuffling our collective feet, fundraising for the killers, or laughing to drown out the ghosts of American cruelty. As Jews, our historical familiarity with oppression and our current collective access to privilege ought to manifest as a responsibility to align with those most oppressed today, wherever we stand. As American Jews, we have a unique obligation to support reparations for African Americans because so much of white America, addicted as it is to the fantasy of a post-racial era, does not appear ready to do so.

And then the chasm between obligation and action. In our communal meeting centers and houses of worship, we wave the legacy of Jewish Freedom Riders like a flag, happily glossing over all of our so-called leaders who joined in to chide Dr. King for “getting ahead of his time.” We chant “Justice, Justice We Shall Pursue.” Will we, or will we continue to plod along contentedly with our newfound comforts? Can the horrors of the history of the Nazi Holocaust and the relative depth of German reckoning in its wake teach us something about how to be and what to do in this country? Could reparations be a major part of this? At the very least, increased efforts, awareness and activism could lead to what Baldwin called for in another breathtaking, complicated essay from 1967, Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White: “A genuinely candid confrontation between American Negroes and American Jews.”

Isn’t now the time for communal awakening? Shouldn’t we look for leadership from the recent initiative of Jews pledging support for cooperatives in the South as part of a campaign to commemorate 50 years since the Mississippi Freedom Summer? And from the 30 American Rabbis who went to march in Ferguson right after the high holidays this year? And from the activists working tirelessly in groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice? And particularly from those in the black community who are leading this struggle, in Ferguson, in Ohio, in New York, in Jackson?

The first step: For those who have not yet read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations, do so now. And then my call, to my community and outwards is this: let’s make our grandparents and grandchildren proud, and commit now to doing what we can do—and much more than we have been doing—to support the black-led struggle for freedom, democracy and justice for all people living in this broken country.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    To whom would the reparations be paid? There are no living former-slaves.

    My grandmother, mother, and aunt were all in Bergen-Belsen (her father had been murdered by the Arrow Cross, in Hungary). All three received reparations, in the form of monthly checks. But I, as one of their descendents, do not.

    Seems to me that this ship has already sailed. It also strikes me as a distraction from more realistic, more substantial civil rights reforms, for it offers the opponents of those reforms the opportunity to paint them all with the reparations brush and thereby dismiss them.

    Impractical and symbolic. Exactly what we *don’t* need right now.

  • Ben Breedlove

    I strongly suggest that you read the Ta-Nehisi Coates article the author implored you to read several times. It addresses your concerns quite specifically, and in a much more eloquent, kind, and more devastating way than can be done in the comment section under an article.

    Here in the comment section, all you’re going to get is people who *have* read the Ta-Nehisi Coates article telling you you’re a cowardly dope, and that’s not helpful.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I have read the article, twice. I don’t see any real reply to the points I have made. I mean, obviously, he doesn’t think they are impractical and symbolic, but that doesn’t change the fact that the prospect of giving reparations to the descendents of people who were wronged, in some cases hundreds of years ago, is a much more impractical proposition than that of reparating one or two generations of a relatively compact group of people who were recently wronged.

    As for your last paragraph, all I can say is “Oh, well.” Being called names by anonymous people on the internet, whom I will never meet, doesn’t have much force does it? And at the end of the day, it won’t make a shred of difference with respect to the probabilities of the US instilling a reparations regime, which are all of zero.

  • NickHudson

    As Coates somehow apparently failed to make clear in the article despite focusing on how modern policies, especially with regard to housing, harmed blacks: slavery is not really the issue. Coates believes that reparations are needed for how blacks have been and continue to be wronged since the end of slavery. That is why he focuses on people like Clyde Ross who are living victims of racist policies. That is why he writes elsewhere (and this is just one instance out of many):

    “Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing “impractical” about this.””

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Thanks for excerpting that for me. It’s a long article and I either missed this or skimmed it.

    If we are now talking about giving reparations to the “victims of racist policies,” we are talking about an awful lot of people. How would such victimhood be established? What evidence would one have to bring to bear, in order to qualify. Presumably, Oprah won’t get reparations, but between Oprah and the homeless guy in the Bronx, there are an awful lot of gradations.

    In short, good luck with that. Never gonna’ happen. Not in a million years.

    This is why I think the focus on reparations is a mistake. Not so much on the merits, but rather, on the politics. Reparations simply are not going to happen. Ever. But there are a hell of a lot of other things that we might do to lessen the impact of discrimination. The trouble is, everytime this gets trotted out, it gives racists a perfect excuse to reject civil rights altogether. The reasonable ideas get swallowed up in the reparations argument and then, quietly are dropped.

  • Rev. Rich

    I’ve long pondered this issue, specifically a formula for reparations. I would suggest an income tax “holiday” of say 5 years for every American who can prove they have at least one ancestor who was brought to this country on a slave ship and forced to live as a slave for at least an earlier part of their life.
    Economically this would provide an immediate infusion of monies into not only the African-American communities but the larger one as persons of a majority non-African background seek to discover their “black roots”.
    Socially this will encourage “whites” to fully confront their full ethnic heritage. When they do they then have to re-consider/consider their total human heritage/identity.
    Politically this recognition would have a huge impact.
    Just a thought.

  • Diggitt

    Coates’ article is brilliant. I am white and in my late 60s, and for the first time, I GOT IT. It is a hard, hard article to read. I had no idea, absolutely none, about the ways black Americans had been systematically discriminated against.

    And I HATED the idea of reparations. My family didn’t own slaves! No slaves are around today! But slavery went far deeper into the system than injuries to individuals. Even after emancipation, slavery created a class below all classes, a grounding on which all white people–even the poorest immigrants–could build their lives. As soon as the poorest white immigrant stepped onto American soil, he or she was automatically higher up the social ladder than before, and with more hope of rising in the world. None of us are exempt. Lots of people in this world come from tragedy, but the United States has offered unique opportunities to escape those conditions–and every last white immigrant was buoyed on the black people at the very bottom.

    Until you sit down and work at it, you cannot see how whiteness protects you. I have come to understand that an “invisible protective shield” has been around me all my life. My expectations of personal safety are higher than any black woman’s–and by and large, I *have* been safer. Even my poorest and least-gifted white cousins have been more protected, from birth, than any black child.

  • Diggitt

    You read the aticle TWICE and you STILL don’t get the very important point that reparations is NOT a matter of taking money out of your pocket and putting it in the pocket of other individuals? Coates is VERY specific about how reparations is conceived by those who have been working on the issue for a generation or more. Just as oppression of America’s black people has been systemic, so do reparations need to be systemic. Go back and read the article again and try to open your mind this time. It’s very painful, I know. But this problem is not going away if we keep our heads in the sand.

  • Diggitt

    Yes. We are talking about millions of people. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. What can be more foolish than seeing that something has not worked, but continuing to do it because….it’s always been that way? Other plans are so HARD?

    Your family came to this country, fleeing oppression and certain murder, and found a haven here….built on the blood and bones of millions of black Americans. All of us whose immigrant ancestors found freedom, health, and prosperity here–as well as a safe future for their children and grandchildren–benefited from that layer at the bottom. There really is no answer other than reparations. Think about what’s been tried and hasn’t worked. And yes, racists in American society will do their damnedest to make sure it’s done in a half-assed way. Does that mean that people of goodwill should give up?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    No, it means that efforts to help require realism and pragmatism in one’s outlook. The Democrats just got thumped at the polls. The Republicans control both houses of congress. Obama is a lame duck.

    I would actually like to see some meaningful civil rights legislation. But this ain’t it. And it’s chances of passing in the current environment are exactly zero.

    What’s foolish is ignoring reality, in favor of one’s own utopianism. What you are doing is sacrificing the good at the expense of the perfect.

    We simply don’t agree on strategy is all.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    My head is not in the sand. Yours is in the clouds.

    As for your reading instructions, twice was more than enough, thanks. We simply disagree on what is the best policy and political strategy to achieve progress in the civil rights arena.

  • jaunita

    Not to take away from or diminish this article, which is brilliant, but i could not help but also be reminded of what is transpiring today to the Palestinian people, at the hands of the Israeli government. Guess my point is if we cannot even acknowledge (and do something about) the injustices which are taking place “right now” in Israel/Gaza, how can we hope to ever make up for the injustices which were perpetrated against those of color in America in the past (and which continue today?)

    The author asks: If we cannot pursue justice, who are we?

    That is a very good question. One which demands to be answered. But sadly a question most people are all to willing to ignore.

  • Jim Reed

    We don’t treat people that way here in the comments section on RD, do we?

  • Jim Reed

    I think you are right this time. So what could we spend money on.

    – quality public education for all instead of for wealthy areas.
    – open planned parenthood locations to help with family health issues
    – a non-privatized prison system that wouldn’t have to concentrate on making a profit on crime and punishment.
    – go back to a system of taxes that doesn’t depend on poor people buying lottery tickets.

    I guess there are a few things that could help.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I agree with every one of these things.

    I would also add elimination of the Drug War to the list.

  • joni50

    I agree the article is long and not easy reading. But here’s the gist: The system has stolen Black people’s inheritance, and this is a huge pain to people of color and shame to our country as a whole. Reparations is the right thing to do, but how to go about it is very complicated. Congressman John Conyers has sponsored a bill to study reparations proposals, and this woud be a good start. The “Commission to Study the Reparation Proposals for African-Americans,” as
    urged by Congressman John Conyers’ (D-MI) H.R. 40, a bill that’s been
    introduced (and ignored) multiple times.

    My take on it is that racism is systemic, so the reparations must also be systemic. Taking money out of poor white folks pockets and putting it in poor black folks pockets won’t cut it. Instead, we need top-down changes in how things are done. Many of the reforms suggested a few posts up could be incorporated into reparations acts. In addition, since the non-indictment of Officer Wilson, there has been a call to study and reform systemic racism in the areas of justice, law enforcement, and the penal system. This would also be a good move, and could come under the heading of reparations.

  • joni50

    That’s a good first-draft idea. I can see a few problems with it but that’s not the point. The point is that there are many good ideas out there. John Conyer’s bill would consider these ideas and develop a plan to restore justice and honor to our society.