America was built on the backs of slaves.
From 1620 to 1865 nearly 600,000 Africans were enslaved and shipped to America. Their population grew to over 4 million at emancipation in 1865.
As we know, blacks didn’t become fully equal citizens with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination remained legal until well into the 20thcentury.
Blacks today live with the legacy of centuries of slavery and discrimination. The median white household is ten times wealthier than the median black household. Half of all white families have a household net worth of over $171,000. Half of all black families have a household net worth of under $17,150. That’s a stunning difference. Another huge difference: only 15% of whites have a zero or negative net worth, but over a third of all blacks have nothing, or less than nothing.
We white people seem to be pretty good at ignoring the reality of the challenges African Americans face. A Pew Research Center survey found that 38% of whites agree with the statement “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights to whites.” Only 8% of blacks agree. And the whites that don’t think we’re there yet, are at least optimistic that we will get there – only 11% of whites say the country will NOT make the changes needed to give blacks equal rights. Yet 43% of blacks – nearly half of all blacks – not only don’t think we have equality now, they don’t think we’ll ever achieve racial equality in this country.
It’s not acceptable that 43% of blacks don’t think they’ll ever achieve equality in America. That’s not right. That’s not justice. We need to do better.
This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. Fifty-seven years ago this April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. King was from Atlanta; some questioned “what’s this outsider doing in Birmingham?” King’s response, in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
King felt he had to respond to the call for aid.
A call for aid is the starting point for oppressed people seeking their rights. We see the same thing in this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, when God tells Moses,
וְגַ֣ם ׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃
I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.
It’s nice to think that such a cry would be unnecessary. It’s nice to think that as mankind evolves, we wake up on our own and would grant oppressed people their rights.
It doesn’t work that way. As Dr. King said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
What if we’re not the oppressors? Do we really need to get involved in something that’s “not our fight?” To put it somewhat crassly, if it doesn’t involve Jews do we have to care?
Yes, we have to care.
This is a lesson we can learn from Moses. In last week’s parsha there were three occasions when Moses acted righteously. In the first instance, an Egyptian taskmaster was beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the taskmaster. From this we learn that we should rise to the defense of a fellow Jew being attacked by a non-Jew. The second occasion is when Moses sees two Jews fighting, and he intervenes, seeking to break it up. This shows that we need to involve ourselves in seeking peace in disputes that are strictly among Jews. And the third occasion is when Moses gets to Midian, he sees some shepherds driving off women who were watering their flock. Moses rose to their defense, and the women, including his future wife Zipporah, were able to water their flock. From this we learn that we are also charged with intervening when there is an injustice among non-Jews. The biblical charge “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “justice, justice, you shall pursue” means we must pursue justice anywhere we see an injustice, whether we’re personally involved or not, whether the injustice involves Jews or not. As Dr. King pointed out in his letter, we’re all interrelated:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Abraham provides another model for the need to speak up for others. When God tells Abraham that he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they’re so wicked, Abraham argues with God in one of the most chutzpadik passages in the Torah:
Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?
Dr. King wrote about how we’re all interrelated, and that’s a very Jewish teaching. It’s a message often repeated in the Jewish tradition.
The point is made with the very creation of people. The Torah says that mankind was created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the divine image. All of mankind – not just Jews, or white people or brown people or any one group of people. We’re all created in the divine image. Not only that we’re all family – we all share common ancestors, Adam and Eve. And science confirms that we all have both a common male ancestor and common female ancestor.
All too often when there’s injustice, many of us just ignore it. Fail to pay attention to it. Dr. King addressed that “silent majority” when he wrote,
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The starting point for change is when the oppressed cry out. But, of course, crying out alone isn’t enough. Someone has to listen. Those of us in positions of power or privilege are charged with listening to the cries of the oppressed. And doing something about it.
But what should we do?
There has been a call for reparations – the idea that white Americans should pay black Americans as compensation for the fact that their ancestors were enslaved.
Reparations are now getting serious consideration. Last summer the House of Representatives held a hearing on a bill that would establish a commission to study the possibility of reparations. Cory Booker, a black senator who recently suspended his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Other candidates in the Democratic primaries have also taken positions on reparations. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julian Castro have said the issue is important and that there is historical support for reparations. Other candidates said the issue needs further study.
There are Jewish sources that would seem to support calls for reparations to African Americans. In next week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses there’s going to be one more final plague, and Moses should “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.”
Many rabbinic commentators say the “gifts” that the Egyptians gave our ancestors when they left were reparations for the years the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt. There’s a midrash that makes it even clearer: the Egyptians went to Alexander the Great after his conquest of the Middle East and said, “The Jews’ Torah says that God gave the Israelites favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, so they lent them silver and gold. Tell the Jews to give us our stuff back!” The rabbi responded, “fine, give us the payment for 600,000 workers who were enslaved for 430 years.” The Egyptians left empty-handed.
There is, of course, a modern example of the Jewish people receiving reparations. Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations for what happened during the Holocaust. Surely if we take money from the Germans, the argument goes, we should support African Americans who are seeking reparations for their time as slaves.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles shares a teaching from the Talmud that Hillel and Shammai argued about what kind of restitution is appropriate when a house has been built with a stolen beam – but they agree that restitution is necessary. She says, “our country was built on a stolen beam” in her call for reparations.
But I believe my rabbinic colleagues calling for reparations are missing an important difference between the Holocaust and slavery. The Holocaust reparations are being paid by the guilty party, the German government, and the money is going to the victims or immediate families of victims – not distant relatives or far off descendants.
The original call for reparations was made by James Forman, a leader in the Black Panthers in his “Black Manifesto.” Forman called for the payment of $500 million from Christian white churches and Jewish synagogues. But what do churches or synagogues have to do with reparations for slavery? My ancestors came to America from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, more than 20 years after the Emancipation. Not only was I never a slave owner, none of my ancestors were either.
There is a principle in Jewish law that we don’t punish someone for the sins of their parents or for the sins of their children. Everyone is responsible for their own sins.
There’s also a teaching in the Talmud that fortune is like a water wheel, sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. Despite the legacy of slavery and ongoing discrimination, America has four black billionaires. It doesn’t make sense to have a poor white American paying a black millionaire for things that happened 150 years ago.
This is an issue that blacks and whites see very differently; only 6% of white Americans support reparations, yet 99% of black Americans support it. That’s probably because the blacks are much more aware of, and are living with, the ongoing legacy of the years of slavery and oppression.
Stuart Eizenstat, who served as a special advisor on Holocaust issues to President Clinton and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, said,
Slavery is a profound historical wrong—one whose brutal legacy permeates American life today. People of color continue to suffer endemic discrimination in employment, housing and new forms of voter suppression. As a result, by every socioeconomic measure—health, education, income, wealth, homeownership and employment levels—they remain far behind white Americans. We must do more to acknowledge, confront and end institutional racial discrimination.
But reparations in the form of cash payments for descendants of slaves are not the way to right this grievous wrong.
Eizenstat says the era of slavery is so far in the past, it would be logistically impossible to figure out appropriate reparations. The common thread in reparations programs – including US government reparations to Americans of Japanese descent who were put in camps during WWII, or to victims of awful experiments at Tuskegee University that denied treatment for syphilis to hundreds of black patients, as well as German reparations from the Holocaust – is that the payment goes directly from the perpetrators to the victims. That’s not possible in the case of reparations for slavery.
If we pay reparations for things that happened over 150 years ago, where do we draw the line? What about 300 years ago? 400 years ago? Should Spain pay descendants of Sephardic Jews reparations because they were kicked out of Spain in 1492? Should Italians pay reparations because Rome destroyed the Temple? I believe the rabbis would say if you try and go back 150 years, ein sof l’dvar, there’s no end to the matter.
Justice – and healing the national soul for the centuries of injustice – is best served by a national commitment to reduce income inequality, to increase employment levels and home ownership in black communities. Black men should not fear getting pulled over for “driving while black.” We must stop redlining, the practice of denying loans or insurance to people who live in certain neighborhoods. Banks or insurance companies that have engaged in redlining or other discriminatory practices should be forced to compensate their victims, as has happened in lawsuits against Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
Most (but not all!) of the changes we as a society need to make to correct past injustices don’t have to specifically target different groups based on the color of their skin. Universal health care and universal higher education, both strongly supported by Jewish values, will disproportionately benefit African Americans because they have less access to health care and higher education than white Americans because of the persistent poverty in their communities. Those two things would go a long way toward reducing the wealth gap between black Americans and their white compatriots. Giving a token payment to the descendants of slaves won’t fix the problems. That money is better spent on reducing institutional racism in the form of unequal access to education and health care.
We not only need to improve education for black children, we need to pay attention to education for white Americans. Our children need to learn about the history of slavery and discrimination in this country, and they need to be aware of the injustices that continue today – they need to be taught that racial equality is not yet here, we still have work to do. Unfortunately, we can’t count on our children learning this at home, and we can’t rely on extracurricular programs, such as the Masa trip to the south our teens are going on next month. We need to make sure this is taught in our public and private schools.
It’s only by listening to the cries of the disadvantaged that we’ll be able to live up to the ethical ideals of the Jewish tradition – and follow the example set for us by Abraham and Moses.
I close with the words Dr. King used to close his letter from that Birmingham jail cell:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.