In October of last year, President Obama awarded $12 million dollars in “assistance” to Holocaust survivors. The money was given to help these deserving survivors 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.
As a Jew, when I read about the Holocaust, it boils my blood and makes 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 that was dealt to an entire generation of my people, but it was comforting to know that at least they weren’t being sent home empty-handed. At the very least, it ensured a roof over the heads of these victims.
No, it wasn’t everything, but it was at least something.
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.
I mention something off-hand about reparations for the Black communities in our country who have descended from slavery, and she turns to me the skyline of Manhattan gleaming in the background behind her, a place that represents diversity, a place that accepted her as an immigrant, and she explodes.
“Oh, come ON! Slavery was 150 years ago! They need to get over it! Just stop already!”
“Why?”, I retort. “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.”
But why? Why isn’t it the same?
Consider that. A government paid billions of dollars to a group of people its former leader tortured for a period of 12 years. Twelve years. This conversation is not meant to derail those classic arguments that some Jews posit: that their people have suffered because of anti-Semitism for thousands of years, so reparations were owed to them.
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 dead, wealth stolen. True, many of these atrocities were committed by regular White people…but the U.S. government often sponsored and supported the actions of these regular people, going as 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 was against it.
Even after slavery was outlawed, Black people still suffered extreme hardships, sponsored and protected by the U.S. government. They were lynched, had business destroyed, homes ransacked, and wealth stolen, just like Jews. The only difference is that 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, I would say the suffering lasted (and continues to) for over four hundred years.
So why is it ridiculous for Black Americans to ask the U.S. government for reparations? After all, the U.S. just paid 12 million dollars to Holocaust survivors.
Critics say that reparations to Holocaust survivors are just that: payments to survivors, not 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.
A quick Google search 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 Black slave-descendant community. I can only think back to when I learned about German reparations to Jews: “…at least that. It’s not everything, but AT LEAST”. I cannot imagine reading about the atrocities of the damage that was inflicted on my people, and then 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, if the United States can find it in its heart (and budget) to help Holocaust survivors, then it can help slavery survivors.