(December 26, 2019 / JNS) At the Reform Biennial conference held earlier this month, the movement to grant reparations to African-Americans scored a signal victory when the largest Jewish denomination endorsed the idea. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, set the tone for the effort with a Chicago Tribune op-ed that didn’t merely embrace this cause as a matter of historic justice. He also declared that it was time for Jews to “reckon with our nation’s bigoted history,” as well as to confront “racism in our country, our synagogues and our hearts.”
In doing so, he didn’t merely implicate American Jewry—the vast majority of whom are descendants of immigrants who arrived long after slavery ended, and who suffered discrimination as Jews and economic hardship as new immigrants—as having benefited from “white privilege, and therefore also responsible for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow racism. He also put forward the notion that compensation for slavery was comparable for the reparations both individual Jews and the State of Israel received from Germany as part of that nation’s effort to atone for the crimes committed by the Nazis.
Pesner is right to consider slavery and racism as the original sins of American history. But he is wrong about both the justification for and the utility of reparations in this context. He’s even more wrong to attempt to shame Jews to support such a scheme not least because the enactment of such a law—and the creation of a new federal bureaucracy that would cause American society to become even more race-conscious than before—would not undo past wrongs while likely making the country a more dangerous place for all minorities.
When last seen opining on the national stage about relations between African-Americans and Jews, Pesner and the RAC was granting absolution to veteran race-baiter Al Sharpton for his history of anti-Semitism and incitement against Jews. This came at a time of an upsurge of violence directed at Chassidic Jews from a minority of the African-American community about which Sharpton has been far from vocal. The Reform leader was clearly more interested in prioritizing alliances aimed at bolstering the “resistance” to President Donald Trump than in addressing anti-Semitism that emanates from groups that could not be credibly tied to political opponents.
Pesner is right to argue that slavery and a century of Jim Crow persecution is a stain on America’s conscience. The legacy of these outrages still impacts the rates of poverty in the African-American community. Yet that doesn’t mean that reparations would alleviate that problem; nor is it possible to justify reparations as a legal or moral principle in this case.
Reparations work as a legal solution when compensation is granted to those who suffered or their immediate heirs. That’s why Pesner’s comparison of his proposal to Holocaust reparations doesn’t fly.
The Germany that began paying reparations to Jews in the 1950s was the same country that had murdered 6 million Jews and stolen the property of countless others only a few years earlier. While some, notably future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, were bitterly opposed to reparations because they considered it blood money that gave an unearned absolution to the murderers, the effort did require Germans to disgorge the profits of genocide to the actual victims and entities like Israel that had provided refuge for the survivors.
But righting the wrongs of the distant past is a lot more complicated and bringing the Holocaust—a different sort of tragedy than the atrocity of American slavery—into the conversation, confuses the debate more than it enlightens it.
Part of the reason for that has to do with economics. Though the wealth of the antebellum South was largely the product of the capital accrued from slave labor, those profits were largely consumed by the slave owners with little passed down to their heirs; what remained was destroyed by the devastation of the Civil War. Almost none of it survived to the 20th century, let alone to our own day. What reparations advocates also forget or never learned is that Jim Crow laws hurt the economy of the pre-civil rights-era South rather than helping it.
Reparations advocates claim that America’s status as an economic superpower was built by slavery. But it is actually the result of the inventions, innovations and creative energy of entrepreneurs (both white and black), as well as the hard work of immigrants and other Americans—not an obsolete and largely unproductive economic model that was thankfully discarded more than 150 years ago.
The question of reparations also obscures the role that Americans of all races played in the movement to abolish slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives in the Civil War to accomplish liberation. And a century later, people of goodwill (including many Jews) worked to complete the work of that conflict by fighting for civil rights for all citizens.
Just as important is that writing checks to those who can be certified as descendants of slaves will have a minimal impact on black poverty. That requires expanding opportunity, especially for those whose children are stuck in failing public=school systems. Yet the RAC and other liberals are fighting against charter schools and school-choice proposals favored by many blacks because of politics. Creating the sort of vast bureaucracy whose primary responsibility would be to divide Americans into victims and victimizers that it would take to administer reparations will not erase racism. To the contrary, it will create resentments that will further divide the nation.
Pesner’s claim that Jews are as tainted by racism as other Americans is particularly problematic. It’s true that that a small number of Jews owned slaves and supported slavery. And contemporary Jews are no more immune to bigotry than other humans, be they black or white.
However, for the RAC to engage in the rhetoric of “white privilege” when speaking of Jews implicitly validates intersectional myths that fuel anti-Semitic libels of Israel and the Jewish people, as well as the propaganda spread by Jew-haters like Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Pesner may think that Jews are somehow obligated to atone for the sins of long dead slave owners and racists. But the RAC leader ignores the possibility that such talk could encourage those who target Jews for violence today.
Race is an issue that can never be ignored. But when groups embrace solutions that will do more to exacerbate divisions while downplaying the reality of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the ranks of their allies on the left, it only winds up hurting all Americans, including blacks and Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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