I was pleased to see that the Central Conference of American Rabbis led a rabbinic mission to Montgomery, Alabama. A little more than a year ago, I, too, went on a pilgrimage to the deep South with members of my congregation. Our trip changed me. As we enter our most sacred season and prepare to make teshuvah, for the wrongdoings of our past, the lessons from my pilgrimage stay with me still. I believe as a nation, the United States must make teshuvah, atoning for our legacy of slavery by making reparations to African Americans.
As we traveled by bus through the region, I recalled how in the Hebrew Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and God, horrified, exclaimed: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the earth!” All these generations later, here on American soil, nothing has changed. Blood also cries to us from the earth, the blood of millions of individuals kidnapped in chains, tortured, beaten, brutalized, lynched, incarcerated and senselessly shot down. This is why the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, where we commemorate the thousands of victims of lynching, is hallowed ground.
Teshuvah, atonement, is recognizing our sin and repairing the damage it has caused. Sometimes, when shame blinds us, we cannot see our wrongdoing clearly. Our nation has suppressed our shame over slavery and its consequences for far too long. Many of us who benefit from systemic racism—that is, those of us who are white—often suppress our shame because we are repelled by the agony that has been wrought to our advantage. We avert our eyes from the terror that’s been inflicted on millions of African Americans; we’re sickened to realize that we’re safe by virtue of our skin pigmentation. For some of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we resist the truth because to accept it means we’ll need to shift the status quo and make substantial sacrifices. And many other white people are paralyzed by the knowledge that the full damage caused by slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, will never be rectified. Whatever the reasons, when white people sublimate our shame over slavery, our moral standing as a nation is diminished, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
I believe our shame as a nation has kept us from doing the right thing: We must make reparations to the African American community. I do not know exactly what a reparation package looks like, but I do know that there are economists, lawmakers, and scholars who have given this issue deep consideration. I know that Congress has rejected HR 40, a bill that seeks to develop reparation proposals. I know that The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has reported that “the transatlantic trade in Africans and enslavement…were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism…Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.” I also know that truth and reconciliation commissions have helped other nations begin to heal from heinous crimes against humanity that occurred on their native soil.
We in the Jewish community have a unique perspective on this issue. The shadow of the Holocaust still looms large; we will never fully recover from the grief over the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Yet, because of reparations offered by Germany, we Jews know what it means when perpetrators (or the descendants of perpetrators) acknowledge their crimes and try, insufficiently but earnestly, to make amends. Some of our energy expended on anger and mourning has been re-channeled into rebuilding our lives. Because of our experience, Jewish Americans can bear witness to the healing power of repentance and reparations.
We can set ourselves free from the past. We can create our nation and ourselves anew. It is time. Let 5780 be the year in which we make teshuvah and begin the reparations process.
Ruth A. Zlotnick is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, Washington, and is Vice President of Membership of the CCAR Board of Trustees. A version of this post appeared in The Seattle Times.