Excerpt from The Torah Case for Reparations by Aryeh Bernstein, March 2018
"In this Congressional session, as in every one for over twenty-five years, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives a bill (H.R. 40), the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, with aim “[t]o address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
In all these years, this bill, which is this year co-sponsored by 32 Representatives, has never been brought to the House floor. This reflects the status of reparations in broad, American discourse: they’re seen as a joke. The Torah covenant tells us differently: it is not that reparations are a joke, but that they are so serious and of such massive implication as to cause national vertigo. As Coates put it, “The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter” (We Were Eight Years in Power, 202).
As Jews, if we are to take seriously our Torah, our covenant, our faith, our bris ceremonies and Passover seders, our Kiddush blessings and every time we invoke the “memory of the exodus from Egypt” — זכר ליציאת מצרים — then we cannot participate in that fear or engage in that laughter. Without the justice of reparations, we have no liberation story. Although Rep. Conyers rightfully resigned from Congress recently for his misconduct, the bill must be championed and advanced. It should be a core issue of Jewish American politics to demand that H.R. 40 be brought to the House floor and passed, that reparations be studied by a Congressional Commission. We know that liberation from slavery without reparations is a woefully incomplete liberation. Whenever as Jews we recall the liberation, whenever we read about the Mishkan, and whenever we reflect back on the United States, we must echo Coates’s poignant words: “The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt… a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”