Jewish Views on Reparations

by Clare Kinberg

May 19th, Erev Shavuot, was an evening of study, cheesecake and blintzes for AARC. There were four study sessions; I hope to do a blog post on each one:

  • Jonas Higbee: “Building a Community Response to Fascism: Lessons from Richard Spencer’s Visit to MSU”
  • Clare Kinberg: “Shavuot4BlackLives: Jewish Views on Reparations”
  • Etta King Heisler: “Belonging in America:  What is Belonging and How Does it Broaden, Limit, Deepen, or Otherwise Define Our Community?”
  • Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner:  “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and…Challah?”

First up, my session on “Jewish Views on Reparations.” My impetus for the session was “Shilumim,” the shavuot4blacklives study guide put together by Graie Barasch-Hagans, Koach Baruch Frasier and Mackenzie Zev Reynolds and distributed by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ).

Shilumim is the Hebrew word meaning ‘reparations;’ ‘Leshalem’ is ‘to pay’ from the same root as ‘shalem,’ to make whole. The concept of the study guide is to extend the theme of Shavuot, which Jews begin to count down to on the second night of Passover, the beginning of our liberation, and which traditionally ends with the revelation at Mt Sinai, the receiving of the Torah seven weeks later. Graie, KB and Mackenzie suggest we extend this trajectory another several weeks to end on Juneteenth (June 19) with a focus on what is needed to fulfill liberation. That is, reparations.

Shavuot4blacklives introduces the study by reminding us when the Vision For Black Lives Platform was released in 2016, many members of the Jewish community had strong reactions to the way that Israel was characterized in the document, particularly the use of the word “genocide” in connection to the Palestinian people. At the same time, “Jews of Color in our community called on all of us to remain committed to the Movement For Black Lives, to racial justice, and by extension, to Black Jews no matter what.” They offer this study guide on the reparations sections of the Platform as one way to do that.

The Israelites despoiling the Egyptians. Image from f. 13 of the ‘Golden Haggadah.” 1325–1349

Our discussion was framed using Aryeh Bernstein’s essay, “The Torah Case for Reparations,” in which he draws on many places in Torah to conclude “Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation.” The Bernstein article, a long, worthwhile read (with lots of excellent links) is a specifically Jewish follow-up to Ta-Nehisi Coates 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

As Bernstein’s essay based itself on Torah, Rabbi Sharon Brous’ LA Times Opinion piece, “Why Jews Should Support Reparations for Slavery,” is based on a rabbinic dispute in the Mishna:

Gittin 55a:12

§ The mishna teaches that Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Gudgeda further testified about a stolen beam that was already built into a building and said that the injured party receives the value of the beam but not the beam itself. With regard to this, the Sages taught in a baraita (Tosefta, Bava Kamma 10:5): If one robbed another of a beam and built it into a building, Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners. And Beit Hillel say: The injured party receives only the value of the beam but not the beam itself, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent. In order to encourage repentance, the Sages were lenient and required the robber to return only the value of the beam. The mishna was taught in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel

I included in our discussion packet two pieces on Affirmative Action that have relevance to our current moment, a moment in which political concord among representatives of Black and Jewish communities is needed, yet is unfortunately characterized by significant discord.

One recent example of the discord: When Starbucks announced that they were closing for an afternoon (Tuesday, May 29) to do a company-wide training on racial bias, they initially included the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as a consultant on the training. The inclusion of the ADL was immediately met with push-back from some Black activists, which, in turn, was met by dismay from many Jews who think of the ADL as an outstanding leader of anti-bias education. Contemporary Black activists cite the ADL’s frequent coordination with law enforcement and the ADL’s support for U.S. police being trained on crowd-control and counter-terrorism in Israel.

I brought into our Shavuot  discussion my own perspective which relates back to the 1970s when, to my dismay, the ADL argued against Affirmative Action programs, then among the chief policy proposals advocated by African American organizations. The ADL had determined that Affirmative Action was not good for the Jews. Our Ann Arbor community should be interested in the history revealed in this 2003 article “Jews temper views on affirmative action”:

“In the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 decision against affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Jewish groups lined up in vocal opposition to affirmative programs. In that decision, the court banned quotas but allowed racial criteria to be used in admissions decisions. This time around [2003], their positions are more muted, as well as more diverse. Only the Anti-Defamation League, one of the then-staunchest leaders of the national fight against affirmative action, has filed a brief opposing Michigan’s program.”

I included the 2017 article “Affirmative Action as Reparations” to make the link between the current arguments for reparations and the original thinking behind Affirmative Action.

Menachem Begin protesting against the Reparations from Germany Agreement in March 1952. The sign reads: “Our honor shall not be sold for money. Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We shall wipe out the disgrace!”

Finally, I included the Yad Vashem Shoah Research Center document on “Reparations and Restitutions,” which, to the surprise of most of us at the table, begins by saying, ‘From 1953-1965, West Germany paid the State of Israel, Jewish survivors, and German refugees hundreds of millions of dollars in a symbolic attempt to make up for the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.” The early growth if Israel’s economy was made possible by this money, yet it caused deep division among Jews.

There is a lot of information in this blog, and I hope much food for thought. The comments are open below for any who want to continue this discussion here.

 

Comments

  1. This was a great discussion, Clare, thanks for leading it. Following up on the Juneteenth angle, JFREJ held their Juneteenth seder on the 14th in New York. Sounds like a cool event.

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