REPARATIONS

בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל. בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמָה שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִֽינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּֽאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹֽעַ תֵּדַע, כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ, בְּאֶֽרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: וְגַם אֶת־הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי. וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל

Blessed is he who keeps his promises to Israel, blessed be he. The Holy One, Blessed is He, calculated the time of our redemption, to fulfill the covenant with Abraham, as it says ‘God said to Abram, know that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, and they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. Then I will judge the nation that enslaved them, and they will go out with great wealth. (Genesis 15:14).

Reparations as a Human Rights Dilemma

      Implicit in the promise of human rights is the obligation of those who violate them to compensate victims for abuses. This is for two reasons. First, reparations may be necessary to enable victims to begin new lives. Second, for the abuser to take true responsibility for the injustice they’ve done, this must be accompanied by an attempt to repair the harm done.

      Reparations inevitably raise moral dilemmas. When the abuser pays reparations to help alleviate victims’ suffering, does that in some way lessen their guilt? And who has a genuine claim to reparations? How do we distinguish victims who genuinely need this help from others who haven’t been so severely harmed but still seek money? And how long after the abuse can claims for reparations still be made? Years? Decades? Generations?

Reparations in the Torah

According to the Rabbis, the Israelites were justified in taking the Egyptians’ possessions when leaving Egypt because this was a form of reparations. This is illustrated in a story from the Talmud:

The Egyptians came to dispute with Israel before Alexander the Great. They said: It says in the Torah ‘God made the Egyptians view Israel favorably, and Israel borrowed and emptied Egypt’- Give us the silver and gold you took from us! . . .Geviha ben Pesisa (one of the Rabbis) asked them: From where do you bring proof? They said: From the Torah. Geviha said: I will also bring proof from the Torah. It says, ‘The Israelites dwelled in Egypt 430 years- give us the wages of the 600,000 men that you enslaved in Egypt for that time! Alexander ordered the Egyptians to reply. They asked for three days, but still could not find a reply. . . (Sanhedrin 91a).

The Torah even commands what can be understood as reparations for slavery:

When your Hebrew brother is sold to you as a slave for six years, in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, he shall not go empty handed. Give him from your flocks, your th reshing, and your winepress. . . (Deuteronomy 15:13).

Since he has nothing. . .how will he support himself if he is not given these gifts?-Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach (Chizkuni), 13th century.

Holocaust Reparations

In 1952, West Germany agreed to pay $845 million to Israel as reparations for the holocaust. This money was critical in helping develop Israel’s fledgling economy, but many called this blood money and wanted Israel to refuse to take it lest it be seen as cleaning away some of the Nazis’ guilt. . .

Slavery Reparations in the U.S.

African Americans on average have less income and wealth than whites in the U.S. today. Some of this inequality can be traced all the way back to slavery as well as the many types of legal discrimination they’ve faced since. Does the United States have an obligation to pay reparations? Or does the time that’s gone by and the practical difficulties in making such payments mean that’s no longer required?

Human Rights Haggadah Blog

Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea

In The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, Vannak Prum tells how he was taken from Cambodia and enslaved for years on a Thai fishing boat. His story shows how easily even today people can still be taken as slaves.

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