four women and one man toil in a field of dirt
Sharecroppers in Greene County, Georgia, 1941 (Photo/Jack Delano-Library of Congress)

Atonement: The Jewish case for black reparations

Gloria Hollander Lyon of San Francisco was just a teenager in 1944 when she and her family were forced from their home in Czechoslovakia, first into a ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She survived that notorious concentration camp, as well as Bergen-Belsen and five others, but she lost both parents, her two brothers and a sister to the Holocaust.

After the war, Lyon made her way to San Francisco, suffering from multiple health problems. In September 1952, West Germany and Israel signed a reparations agreement to resettle “uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees.” Lyon applied in the mid-1970s, and for the next 35 or so years, she received checks from the German government.

“It always felt like dirty money,” said Lyon, 89, admitting her feelings about the reparations are complicated. “But it helped me buy what I needed.” She initially used the funds to pay for medical expenses and get herself settled. “I think [reparations] softened the blow,” she said.

While the reparations program has been modified over the years, with the addition of Romania, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands among parties taking responsibility, Germany alone has paid out more than $70 billion to 800,000 Holocaust survivors, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the agency that handles individual payments. In addition, West Germany paid the State of Israel $7 billion (adjusted for inflation) in annual installments, jump-starting the new country’s economy. By 1956, German payments accounted for 87.5 percent of Israel’s state revenue.

Holocaust survivors arriving in Haifa, Israel, in July 1946 (Photo/National Photo Collection of Israel)
Holocaust survivors arriving in Haifa, Israel, in July 1946 (Photo/National Photo Collection of Israel)

Holocaust reparations marked an astonishing historic moment. “For the first time in the history of relations between people,” then-Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion said, “a precedent has been created by which a great state, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it.”

Today, it may be the closest model America has to reckon with one of the darkest times in its own history: 250 years of black enslavement, followed by a century of systematic housing, education and job discrimination that continues to affect people and communities today.

The Jewish experience of the Holocaust may help explain Jewish receptivity to black reparations as a way to right historical wrongs.

“Our greatest perpetrator of calamity in Jewish history could be our greatest teacher as to how we, as American Jews, deal with racism in America,” said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Hamaqom|The Place, a Berkeley-based educational institution. While the design of reparations for black Americans would have to be “very unique” to the historical circumstances and not modeled after Holocaust reparations, Wolf-Prusan said, “to not engage it legitimately would be a disaster.”

The idea of some form of reparations — whether individual payments or financial support for black institutions, or a mix of the two — has been around since the end of slavery in 1865. There is no consensus on what the reparations would look like. But the idea has gained momentum over the past few years.

In June 2014, a groundbreaking essay in the Atlantic by black cultural writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, titled “The Case for Reparations,” called for “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” The essay generated conversation and debate across the American political and cultural spectrum.

On June 19 (also known as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery), Coates and others provided testimony at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in support of H.R. 40. The bill seeks to “address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of enslavement in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865” and calls on Congress “to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.”

cory booker seated
Sen. Cory Booker testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about H.R. 40. (Photo/U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary-Democrats)

The legislation, introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. each year from 1989 until his resignation in 2017, never got past committee. It was brought to the House floor this year by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, with 118 co-sponsors, and has not yet moved forward. Several Democratic presidential candidates support the idea of reparations, including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker.

In early August, black American reparations were front and center at Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal synagogue in Berkeley. Coinciding with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holiday for communal mourning, the interfaith gathering drew about 120 people and a lineup of guests, including Benjamin Mertz, director of the Sebastopol-based Joyful Noise Gospel Singers.

Benjamin Mertz (Photo/Courtesy Benjamin Mertz)
Benjamin Mertz (Photo/Courtesy Benjamin Mertz)

“Our Jewish friends are critical allies,” said Mertz, who belted out several songs, including “Is Anybody Here,” a field holler written by the all-female black a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. “Jewish people are uniquely positioned to understand the black American experience, as fellow descendants of enslaved people,” he said.

Coming to that understanding, though, can take years. “The way that slavery was taught was, this was something that happened in the past, and it doesn’t have lasting consequences,” said Kehilla Community Synagogue’s Senior Rabbi Dev Noily, who organized the evening with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. “Ongoing harm to African American people because of the legacies of slavery and racism … those things are continuing.”

One of the harms often cited is the racial wealth gap, a major argument for proponents of reparations. According to federal data from 2017, a white family’s median wealth is 9.7 times higher than that of black families. And while black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they hold just 2.6 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to Duke University professor William A. Darity Jr., an authority on black American reparations who submitted testimony for the H.R. 40 hearings. Closing the wealth gap, Darity told Mother Jones magazine, would require funding “in the vicinity of $10 trillion to $12 trillion.”

Calculating the cost of reparations is an inexact science and figures vary dramatically, as do ideas for forms the reparations should take and who should be eligible. In his 2014 Atlantic essay, Coates cited different proposals, including one by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who supports reparations as “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.”

Holocaust reparations also take different forms. For example, children and grandchildren of German Jews who were stripped of their citizenship between 1933 and 1945 can apply for reinstatement as citizens. Similarly, for the last few years, descendants of Sephardic Jews have been able to apply for Spanish citizenship as reparations for ancestral persecution during the Inquisition (the program ended on Oct. 1); Portuguese citizenship remains available to eligible individuals for the same historical reason.

There is precedent for reparations in the U.S., too. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 on behalf of Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. The act granted $20,000 and a formal apology to each of the 100,000 survivors interned by the government.

Black reparations, however, do not have widespread support from the American public. In a July Gallup poll, 67 percent opposed cash payments, while 29 percent supported the idea. Concerns have been raised about whether it would lead to demands for the same by other oppressed groups.

Black American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment in 1919. The unit, which was also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was a segregated unit of primarily black soldiers, as well as some Puerto Rican soldiers. (Photo/U.S. National Archives)
Black American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment in 1919. The unit, which was also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was a segregated unit of primarily black soldiers, as well as some Puerto Rican soldiers. (Photo/U.S. National Archives)

Holocaust reparations faced similar opposition by West Germans, with only 29 percent in support. “A majority of West Germans were against reparations,” said Susan Neiman, a Jewish American philosopher. “The argument that [granting reparations to black Americans] is politically controversial … So was paying reparations for the Holocaust.”

Susan Neiman
Susan Neiman (Photo/Courtesy Susan Neiman)

It wasn’t just West Germans who opposed reparations, but also many Israelis, on both the right and the left. Some argued that it was letting Germany off too easily. In 1952, then-Knesset member Menachem Begin, a staunch political opponent of Ben-Gurion’s, “led a demonstration that ended with broken windows in the Knesset, where the [reparations] matter was being debated,” Neiman writes in “Learning from the Germans,” her new book chronicling how Germany reckoned with its Nazi history.

While Jewish support for black reparations often stems from an intimacy with the Holocaust’s devastating aftermath, few people draw direct lines between the two groups. But there are some points of comparison. One is that Holocaust reparations were given directly to the survivors shortly after the war. Opponents of black reparations say that too much time has passed since slavery.

“There is a truth to it,” said German-born global studies professor Bernd Reiter from University of South Florida. “But I think that this is an argument that neglects historical legacies. If you have a group of folks benefiting for 300 years exclusively for access to everything, purchasing power, land … and on the other side, you have a group that for 300 years was structurally excluded from having access to education, land … it’s not fair to compare and say, well, yesterday you worked for me as a slave and today we’re all in the free market, let’s compete and hope that somehow this goes away.”

In the New York Times’ “1619 Project” about the arc of American slavery, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that black people were enslaved in this country longer than they have been free. Putting it in numerical terms, “1619” contributor and Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond writes: “Nearly two average American lifetimes (79 years) have passed since the end of slavery, only two.”

Two prominent Jewish writers have had a change of heart over reparations. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in March that he is a “slow convert to the cause” and that “sin travels down society through centuries.” In a June article in the Forward, “How I Changed My Mind About Reparations,” then-editor Jane Eisner wrote that after visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., she better understood how integral slavery was to the development of the American and global economy. “As much as I think I’m educated, well-read, I didn’t really appreciate how compelling the argument is,” Eisner said in an interview.

Eisner isn’t totally convinced that monetary payments are the right answer but supports the passage of H.R. 40. “We ought to have a conversation about this,” she said.

“We ought to be willing, as Jews, to talk about addressing another injustice.”

San Francisco State Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger, whose book “Black Power, Jewish Politics” came out last year, said that for white Ashkenazi Jews, the conversation about reparations is complex. On one hand, the group has enjoyed certain wealth and privilege within the country, “yet we’re not totally embraced by white America,” he said about persistent anti-Semitism. “Because of that, we can be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of communities of color. It forces us to look at the racial dynamics of what it means to be a Jew.”

a middle aged black man sitting in an audio recording booth
Robin Washington (Photo/Courtesy Robin Washington)

Robin Washington, a black Jewish journalist who writes and educates about racial dynamics, supports reparations partly because of his own family’s experience with discrimination. His father was black, an instructor in the famous Tuskegee pilot group during World War II, and his mother was Jewish, white and involved in civil rights. The GI Bill offered veterans home loans with no down payment — a crucial entrance into the American middle class and accumulation of wealth — but black veterans were excluded. The couple had to put 20 percent down while also avoiding areas with restrictive covenants barring sales to black Americans or Jews.

“That means they had to work a little harder. Or a lot harder,” Washington said in an interview.

The restrictive covenant Robin Washington’s parents signed for the purchase of their home in February 1953 (Photo/Courtesy Robin Washington)
The restrictive covenant Robin Washington’s parents signed for the purchase of their home in February 1953 (Photo/Courtesy Robin Washington)

Washington, 63, is on the Boston Globe’s editorial board and splits his time between Boston and Minnesota. He started the Alliance of Black Jews (now defunct) in 1995 and has been involved with Be’chol Lashon, a Bay Area-based organization that promotes diversity and inclusion within the Jewish community.

“This [discrimination] is in my generation’s lifetime. This is not ancient history. There was an injustice done,” he said.

“So, the whole question is, what are you going to do about it?”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.