Reconstructing Judaism, The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and 26 other Jewish organizations have signed on to a letter sent to President Biden, urging his administration to establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans through executive order before Juneteenth.
This call to action renews the request of 2022, when racial justice and human rights groups gathered on the lawn of the White House to advocate for a federal reparations commission. In response to a year of inaction from the White House, and Congress’ 30+ year failure to establish a reparations commission, nearly two dozen Jewish organizations are renewing the call for reparations to not only be studied but implemented in our lifetime.
READ THE LETTER BELOW:
June 9, 2023
Dear President Biden,
The undersigned 28 Jewish organizations write to strongly urge you to issue an executive order to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans based on the framework proposed by bills H.R. 40 and S. 40. We are renewing the call to action of 2022, requesting that you act quickly to establish this commission by Juneteenth (June 19, 2023) to show your unwavering commitment to ensuring the essential work to remedy years of injustice experienced by the Black community begins before the end of your term.
The faith community has been an outspoken voice in support of reparations for Black Americans for years. Paired with our historic involvement during the Civil Rights Movement, and ongoing partnerships and relationships with Black community members within and outside of our movement, our Jewish communities express our strong support for such a commission. With the failure of Congress to pass this bill in the over 30 years of introduction, we turn our attention to the White House.
Jewish tradition teaches us that no person can say “my ancestor is greater than yours” (Sanhedrin 37a), and we believe that every person was made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This sacred tenet of equity and equality between all people is violated by the vestiges of enslavement and ongoing wounds of institutional, systemic, and structural racial oppression that persist today. Our tradition is also clear about the concept of teshuvah, repenting for wrongs committed. Maimonides, a prominent Jewish scholar, outlines the four steps of repentance as recognition, confession, regret, and perhaps the most important, resolve. To fully repent for specific circumstances, he states that teshuvah is only complete when it accompanies financial commitment (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1.1).
Leaders within our tradition debate this concept further as they answer what should happen if the foundation of a building is built using a stolen beam (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55). The House of Shammai says the building should be destroyed, and the beam returned. The House of Hillel states that the injured party should be given the value of the beam. But even with the difference of opinion over what is owed, the conclusion is clear – our scholars understand that repair and restoration must be given. Indeed, many of our interfaith partners share these same values as demonstrated by the 200+ faith leaders that signed a letter urging your office to establish a commission in March 2023.
Our Judaism informs our perspectives not only through rabbinical teachings, but also through experience. Germany, the country that was responsible for the capture, murder, and decimation of over six million Jews, agreed to provide reparations to Jewish families and their descendants who were harmed by the Holocaust. Germany demonstrated the courage to admit and repent for their egregious actions by repaying and supporting the Jewish people, particularly survivors. This also included an official apology and recognition of their involvement; changes to institutions, laws, and practices to educate the public; and investment to the state of Israel as a safe place for Jews. Even though nothing could ever repay the lives lost, Germany understood the meaning in reparative justice.
Inside the U.S., some institutions have begun to embark on the road to reparations without federal guidance. Denominations, houses of worship, and people of faith across the country are beginning to investigate their involvement with enslavement and explore the ways in which their congregations benefit from a society that maintains systems of anti-Black racism. In California and Illinois, reparations efforts have also begun at the local level. At the federal level, the U.S. has given reparations in the past as well, such as in 1988 when the federal government agreed to compensate victims and families affected by the Japanese internment camps during World War II through the Civil Liberties Act.
With the few examples of reparations listed, and the other forms that reparations have taken in the past, we call on the White House to take further action at the federal level. It is past time that this nation mends the injustices that continue to threaten the lives of our Black community members on a daily basis. We must learn from our past – from when the first Africans were sold into enslavement, to the times of segregation and the Jim Crow Era, to the years of violence and injustice that spurred the Civil Rights Movement, to our modern-Jim Crow Era akin to the 1960s – that the time is now to pass reparations. The U.S. was built on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” and we call on President Biden to ensure we transform our society into one that is racially just and equitable by establishing via executive order a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans by Juneteenth 2023. This is the only way we will truly begin to heal our country.
Agudas Achim Congregation
American Conference of Cantors
Bend the Arc: Jewish Action
Boston Workers Circle
Carolina Jews for Justice
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Jewish Community Action
Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Keeping It Sacred
Men of Reform Judaism
National Council of Jewish Women
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
San Francisco Black & Jewish Unity Coalition
The Kirva Institute
The Workers Circle
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism