Why Jewish Leaders Help Reform HR 40, the Federal Reparations Act
(RNS) – Although Congress and President Joe Biden recently declared June 10 a federal holiday, the United States is still struggling to commemorate a jubilant, if complicated, moment of freedom from slavery. As a nation, we still have to grapple with the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.
The commemoration of happy and tragic events is woven into the fabric of Jewish faith and tradition. Our Jewish calendar is full of holidays, both joyful (the miracle oil, which lasted eight nights, commemorates every Hanukkah) and tragic events (the destruction of the ancient holy temples, which is being remembered on Tisha B’Av just this month ) to mark.
The account of the enslavement and exodus of our ancestors from Egypt is not only retold at the annual Passover Seder, but also inspires the most frequently repeated commandment of the Torah to treat the stranger in our midst as one of ours, for we too were once upon a time Strangers. Our story is not relegated to the past, but remains present in our daily life and in our rituals and inspires a vision of justice.
These traditions are a lesson for our nation: To build a truly liberated society, we must harness the power of collective memory to learn, reflect, and confront our 400 year history of slavery and systemic racism.
If we are to redeem the soul of America, our efforts at serious truth clarification must lead to equally serious attempts to make amends for past and ongoing harm. For this reason, as the leader of the Reform Jewish Movement, we urge Congress to pass HR 40, the Law to Investigate and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
CONNECTED: The reparations law is gaining momentum as an interreligious cause
HR 40 would set up a federally funded commission to investigate the history and devastating effects of slavery and systemic racism, including the role of federal and state governments, and recommend appropriate remedial action for this past and ongoing harm.
Jewish tradition also reminds us that mere memory of the past is not enough to create a future free from oppression. The Exodus narrative relates that when the Israelites left Egypt, “they asked the Egyptians for silver and gold objects and clothing. And God gave favor to the people before the Egyptians, so that they gave them what they asked; so they drove out the Egyptians. ”- Exodus 12: 35-36.
In other words, when the Israelites were freed from slavery, they received part of the wealth that their slave labor had created. In this way, Jewish tradition recognizes that material reparation for the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites was a necessary step towards their ultimate liberation.
This principle is not limited to the Exodus narrative. The book of Deuteronomy commands: “If you release them (contract servants), do not let them go empty-handed. Equip them. ”- Deuteronomy 15: 13-14.
Central to our vision of liberation is the principle that responding justly to oppression requires redress.
While Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of making amends for past damage, recent history affirms these ancient values. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and some of their direct descendants continue to receive reparations from Germany. Likewise, Japanese Americans have received reparations from the United States government for the damage caused by their internment during World War II.
Much of the wealth of the United States, both south and north, is based on the legacy of slavery and the ongoing systemic racial oppression of African Americans. Every American, regardless of race, origin, or how long we or our families have lived in this country, is affected by this nefarious legacy.
However, because of institutionalized systemic racism throughout society, black Americans have paid and continue to pay a higher price for every socioeconomic measure from maternal mortality to educational outcomes to lifetime income. Put simply, black Americans are disproportionately poorer than white Americans. Black Americans also live, on average, nearly six years less than their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CONNECTED: Loyal black descendants hope that reparation after the Florida massacre will set an example
As a multiracial Jewish community, we believe that HR 40 is in our best interests. There is certainly a guilt for Black Jews. And for all of us who have benefited from the legacy of slavery, the time has come to undo the damage that slavery and ongoing systemic racism have caused.
Our Jewish tradition reminds us every day that only through hard fortune-telling and reparation can the long-festering wounds of historical experiences be addressed. The same is true of our collective American experience of 400 years of slavery and systemic racism. We need redress now. We can not wait anymore.
(Deitra Reiser is the owner of Transform for Equity, an anti-racist repair group. Rabbi Hannah Goldstein is associate rabbi at Temple Sinai, Washington, DC Rabbi Sarah Bassin is associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, California. The views included in this commentary on the Expressions are not necessarily those of the Religion News Service.