Every year at Passover, Jews around the world sing songs, break unleavened bread and chant from the Torah to remember that their descendants were once slaves in Egypt. It’s a story of survival considered the origin story of the Israelites.
In a more recent survival story, Israel and individual Holocaust survivors around the world have received about $70 billion in reparations from Germany since 1953. But Jews seem divided on reparations for African American descendants of slaves.
“A groundswell of backing in the Jewish community for reparations to slaves’ descendants appears not to have developed,” wrote Steve Lipman for Jewish Week. “And leaders of the current reparations campaign do not appear to have called on persons familiar with the German Wiedergutmachung (literally, making good again) payments for advice.”
The first congressional hearing in more than 10 years on reparations was held on Juneteenth, which commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor/activist Danny Glover were among those who testified in an emotional hearing.
Coates’ groundbreaking article, “The Case for Reparations,” is considered influential in moving the discussion forward. He said that in 250 years of slavery in the U.S., “virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African-American community.”
The hearing presents a “historic opportunity to break the silence, to speak to the ugly past and talking constructively about how we will move this nation forward,” Booker said.
Several prominent rabbis have supported reparations for African American descendants of slaves in sermons and essays, Jewish Week reported. On the other hand, several large organizations have taken a different stance.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a recent statement that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events.” The Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany (aka The Claims Conference) — a lead negotiator for reparation payments — said in a statement that “While this is an important and timely discussion, it falls outside the scope of the Claims Conference.” The Anti-Defamation League has taken no official position on reparations.
“It’s unfortunate that large organizations are taking a pass,” said Rabbi Sandra Lawson, an African American educator and chaplain at Elon University in Elon, N.C. “We should find way to (recognize) our original sin.”
Like most Black people, Lawson said she is in favor of reparations to erase the national legacy of slavery. She said Elon University has appointed a commission to study the role that slavery played in its history.
Is there a chance that Jewish reluctance to fully support reparations to African-Americans will harm relations between the two communities?
“That ship has sailed,” said Thane Rosenbaum, an attorney, author and son of Holocaust survivors who received reparations.
Black-Jewish relations have become increasingly frayed since the high point of wide Jewish support for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Lipman reported.
Despite their vocal support for the African American struggle during the civil rights era, most Jews were not risking their livelihoods for Black freedom in any real way, Rachel Cohen wrote in October 2018 in Jewish Currents.
During the civil rights era, Southern Jews embraced Dixie and were overwhelmingly silent on civil rights, according to Marc Dollinger, an author and historian in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University. Dollinger wrote the book, “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s” (2018). Northern Jews took pride in their support for justice, but “most experienced that movement from the safety and comfort of their living rooms, where they read about direct-action protests in the newspaper or watched it on TV,” according to Dollinger.
In 1951, Israeli authorities negotiated with the four powers occupying post-war Germany for compensation and reimbursement. Israel had absorbed and resettled 500,000 Holocaust survivors. They calculated that cost at $1.5 billion dollars ($14.5 billion in today’s dollars). They also figured that the Nazis stole $6 billion dollars worth of Jewish property.
The German government has paid out some $70 billion in compensation, according to the Claims Conference, a nonprofit that helps survivors get compensation. Claims Conference was founded in 1951 by representatives of international Jewish organizations and distributes funds it receives from Germany to survivors and their welfare groups, Times of Israel reported.
“Jews owned slaves at the beginning of the Colonial era right up to the ‘Civil War’,” Barmandana At-Tikari wrote in the comments section of Jewish Week. “They financed the making of slave ships as well as insuring them etc. The thing that has always been quite bizarre to me is the fact that Jews are getting paid from the U.S gov seeing that their crime was committed on a foreign soil by non-Americans. So why is America paying European Jews in the first place???”