In October 2015, then-Vice President Biden awarded $12 million in “assistance” to Holocaust survivors. The money was given to help the “quarter of whom live below the poverty line.”
This gift was a continuation of Germany’s efforts to pay Jews reparations from 1952. Then, Germany awarded over a billion dollars primarily to the government of Israel, which had resettled many Holocaust survivors. This money genuinely helped a community who had lost everything – family members, friends, homes, clothing, jewelry, their livelihoods. It helped people who had lost everything and had to rebuild with nothing.
Reparations helped these people put their lives back on track. Much of the original reparations payment in 1952 went to building Israeli infrastructure, and look at how powerful and strong Israel is today.
Reparations helped these people put their lives back on track.
As a Jew, when I read about the Holocaust, it boiled my blood and made me sick. I remember as a young girl, I was obsessed with Hitler and World War II and learning about every circumstance that led to this enormous event in the history of my people. On my father’s side, we lost many family members to the Holocaust. It wasn’t just reading about history.
It was personal.
When I learned about the reparations that were paid by the German government, I was pleased. No, it did not bring back my lost family members, and it didn’t reverse the blow dealt to thousands of my people, but it was comforting to know that at least survivors weren’t being sent home empty-handed. At the very least, it ensured a roof over the heads of the victims.
No, it wasn’t everything, but it was at least something.
Yet I will never forget the night when I was driving home with a family friend and we were arguing about many things: the election, the state of our economy, etc. We had been clashing over our opposing socio-political views for some time, but she really shocked me when we started talking about our views on racism in the United States.
For over three hundred years, Black people suffered extreme hardships under slavery.
I mentioned something off-hand about reparations for the Black descendants of slaves in our country, and she turned to me, the Manhattan skyline behind her. The lights in Manhattan glimmered, hearkening passersby to a world of diversity, the first stop for immigrants – but none of that mattered at that moment.
My friend exploded in anger. “Oh, come ON! Slavery was 150 years ago! They need to get over it! Just stop already!”
“Why?” I retorted. “Why not? What, us Jews can holler ‘Remember the Holocaust’ until our throats are sore, but Black people have to forget their history?”
“Come on Liz, it’s not the same, and you know it.” The conversation was over for her, but not for me.
Why? Why isn’t it the same?
Consider this. A government paid billions of dollars to a group of people its former leader tortured for a period of twelve years. Twelve years.
Amidst this – a quick note: this conversation is not meant to derail those classic arguments that some posit: our people have suffered because of anti-Semitism for thousands of years, so reparations were obviously owed.
I am focusing on the fact that Jews suffered extreme hardships (bodies enslaved, children torn from their mothers, over 6 million dead, business destroyed, homes ransacked, wealth stolen) from one government in particular for just twelve years, and that government paid the survivors billions of dollars.
Now, take the issue of reparations for Black people in this country – those descended from slaves, which is estimated to be approximately 85-90% of the Black population.
For over three hundred years, Black people suffered extreme hardships under slavery – bodies enslaved, children torn from their mothers, hundreds of thousands of innocents dead, wealth stolen.
True, many of these atrocities were committed by “regular” white people, but the U.S. government often sponsored and supported their actions, going so far as to enact the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which bound law enforcement to return runaway slaves to their master.
Even if the slave was in a free state. Even if that “free” state no longer believed in slavery.
Even after slavery was outlawed, Black people still suffered extreme hardships, sponsored and protected by the U.S. government. They were lynched, had their businesses destroyed, homes ransacked, wealth stolen – just like Jews.
The only difference? The Black community suffered at the hands of the state-sponsored violence for much longer than twelve years.
Between slavery, Jim Crow, and the contemporary school to prison pipeline, the suffering lasted (and continues to) for over four hundred years.
The Black community suffered at the hands of the state-sponsored violence for more than twelve years.
So why is it ridiculous for Black Americans to ask the U.S. government for reparations? After all, our administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has now set aside millions to Holocaust survivors, to be distributed through the Jewish Federations of North America.
Critics of Black reparations say that reparations to Holocaust survivors are just that: payments to survivors, not the descendants of survivors. They argue that paying reparations to people who never “did the time” is foolish and not useful.
However, I would argue for reparations for descendants of survivors if the original survivors did not receive any benefits to their hardships.
Why? When wealth is stolen, it is not easily replaced.
After slavery ended in the United States, slaves were supposed to receive reparations of 40 acres and a mule. This sentiment was not enforced, and so Black people were sent out in the world with nothing. Even when something was built and a moderate amount of wealth was created, like in the town of Durham, North Carolina, threatened Whites would burn businesses to the ground.
Why? When wealth is stolen, it is not easily replaced.
A quick Google of “black wealth vs. white wealth” brings forth an abundance of articles that all state the same thing: Black wealth is significantly lagging in comparison to white wealth.
One article even says that it will take Black families over 200 years to amass the wealth that white people have today. How can one confidently say that billions of dollars given to former slaves, especially at the time that slavery ended, would not have narrowed this gap?
As a Jewish woman, who has family living in Israel, I wholeheartedly support reparations for the thousands of Black descendants of slaves. I can only think back to when I learned about German reparations to Jews, and the thought that crossed my mind: “…at least that. It’s not everything, but AT LEAST THAT.”
I cannot imagine reading about the atrocities of the damage that was inflicted on my people, only to learn that nothing was done in an attempt to help remediate that damage.
It’s time for all Jews to stand up and support the Black community when it comes to requests for reparations. Even if symbolic.
It’s simple: if the United States found it in its heart (and budget) to help Holocaust survivors, then it can certainly help slavery survivors.