(RNS) — Despite Congress and President Joe Biden recently designating Juneteenth a federal holiday, the United States still struggles to commemorate a jubilant, though complicated, moment of freedom from chattel slavery. As a nation, we have yet to fully reckon with the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.
Commemoration of events both joyous and tragic is woven into the fabric of Jewish faith and tradition. Our Jewish calendar is replete with holidays marking events both joyous (the miraculous oil that lasted for eight nights remembered each Hanukkah) and tragic (the destruction of the ancient holy temples remembered on Tisha B’Av just this month).
The account of our ancestors’ enslavement and exodus from Egypt is not only retold at the annual Passover seder, but also inspires the Torah’s most often repeated commandment to treat the stranger in our midst as one of our own, for we too were once strangers. Our history is not relegated to the past, but rather remains present within our daily lives and rituals, inspiring a vision of justice.
These traditions hold a lesson for our nation: To build a truly liberated society, we must use the power of collective memory to learn about, reflect upon and confront our 400-year-long history of slavery and systemic racism.
If we wish to redeem the soul of America, our efforts at earnest truth-telling must result in equally serious attempts to provide redress for past and ongoing harms. This is why we, as leaders in the Reform Jewish Movement, are calling for Congress to pass H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.
H.R. 40 would create a federally funded commission to study the history and devastating impacts of slavery and systemic racism, including federal and state governments’ roles, and to recommend appropriate remedies for these past and ongoing harms.
Jewish tradition also reminds us that simply remembering the past is not sufficient to create a future free of oppression. The Exodus narrative recounts that when the Israelites left Egypt, “they asked of the Egyptians silver items and gold items, and clothing. And God gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they gave them what they asked; so they emptied out the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-36).
In other words, when the Israelites were liberated from slavery, they were given some of the wealth their slave labor had created. In this manner, Jewish tradition recognizes material redress for the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites was a necessary step in their ultimate liberation.
This principle is not limited to the Exodus narrative. The book of Deuteronomy instructs “when you set them (indentured servants) free, do not let them go empty-handed. Surely furnish them” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
At the heart of our vision for liberation sits the principle that a just response to oppression requires reparative action.
Where Jewish tradition sets forth the importance of redress for past harms, recent history affirms these ancient values. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and, in some cases, their direct descendants continue to receive reparations from Germany. Likewise, Japanese Americans have received reparations from the United States government for the harms of their internment during World War II.
Much of the United States’ wealth — in the South and North alike — is built upon the legacy of chattel slavery and ongoing systemic racial oppression of African Americans. Every American, no matter our race, background or how long we or our families have lived in this country, is impacted by these shameful legacies.
Yet, due to institutionalized systemic racism throughout society, Black Americans have paid and continue to pay a steeper price across every socioeconomic measure, from maternal mortality to education outcomes to lifetime earnings. Simply put, Black Americans are disproportionately poorer than white Americans. Black Americans also live, on average, nearly six years less than their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a multiracial Jewish community, we believe H.R. 40 is in all of our interest. For Black Jews, certainly there is a debt that is owed. And for all of us who have benefited from the legacy of slavery, it is long past time to begin to repair the harm slavery and ongoing systemic racism have caused.
Our Jewish tradition reminds us each day that only through hard truth-telling and reparative action can the long-festering wounds of historic experiences be addressed. The same is true of our collective American experience marked by 400 years of slavery and systemic racism. We need reparations now. We cannot wait any longer.
(Deitra Reiser is the owner of Transform for Equity, an anti-racist repair group. Rabbi Hannah Goldstein serves as associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Sarah Bassin serves as associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, California. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)