The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart [sic] whereof hath been accumilated [sic] by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.
WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry—she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.
This is probably the first American request for slave reparations. It is a 1783 petition signed by Belinda Royall, who was kidnapped from what is now Ghana by fellow Africans and sold into slavery as a child. She was taken across the Atlantic and then owned for 50 years, first by Isaac Royall, and then his son. Loyal to the British, the younger Royall ran back to Britain after the Revolutionary War, leaving behind his estate, including Belinda. Belinda, now free, was asking the Massachusetts legislature to grant her a pension from the abandoned estate—which the legislature did.
In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a long essay in The Atlantic, cited the case of Belinda Royall, commenting that “the idea that [black people] might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous”; he was arguing for reparations for American blacks today.
Economist Walter Block, while agreeing in principle with reparations, writes that Coates and other proponents “go off the rails,” because most of their modern proposals are purely race-based, with no regard for who was actually descended from slaves, and who was actually descended from slave owners. National Review managing editor Judson Berger notes the particularly ridiculous reparations program currently being considered in San Francisco:
Under the plan, the city would pay a minimum of $5 million to each qualifying black resident of the city over age 18 and commit to a 250-year program of guaranteeing a $97,000 income to low-income black residents…
Over 34 percent of San Franciscans are foreign-born, having no historic ties to the American past. That number has been above a third for four decades, and it was also consistently between a third and half of the city’s population between 1860 and 1910.
Douglas Murray, author of The War on the West, writes that the whole idea of intergenerational reparations is ludicrous. His silent implication is that if reparations for a historic injustice are requested by the generation upon which the injustice was directly committed, from the population that directly committed these injustices, then that claim may have validity. Do Jews agree?
Several years after the Holocaust, the West German government had offered the Israeli government reparations. While the secular socialists then in control of the Israeli government did not exactly gush with gratitude—“If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns to the warehouses and take it,” said David Ben-Gurion, “I would do that”—they did accept the offer, and Nachum Goldman signed the agreement in 1952.
Menachem Begin, who had in the past made great concessions to the socialists to avoid civil war, publicly announced that this time, he was ready to fight. The banner behind which he stood declared that our honor will not be sold for money, and our blood will not be atoned for by goods. The group he led pelted the Knesset building, breaking its windows and shutting down its operations. The tear gas fired at them was blown back into the building through those broken windows. This was not the high point of Israeli politics. There was a bomb attempt on the foreign ministry in Tel Aviv, and a separate attempt on German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The contingent of Jews opposed to reparations was giant, but they were unable to change the course of these particular events.
Within a few years, German train cars were carrying Jews to Jerusalem. “By the end of 1961,” writes Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million, “[German] reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet…. From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways.” The Israeli government of the time was somewhat reluctant to absorb former concentration camp inmates, with their often crippling chronic physical ailments and psychological trauma, whom it was notoriously difficult to integrate into the society; money was integrated more readily.
So what does the Torah say?
While it is not obvious that this is what it is, especially without reading ahead, God’s first message about reparations appears to be when He tells Avraham about how his descendants will live for centuries in a land that is not theirs. At the burning bush, God discusses reparations with Moshe. In our parashah, He asks Moshe to tell the nation to collect reparations, and the people do so. In the Torah, this is all simply presented as Jews asking Egyptians for gold and jewels, and the Egyptians willingly giving Jews their valuables.
960 or so years later, Egyptian representatives—likely from Alexandria—sued the Jews in the court of Alexander the Great, requesting the return of these valuables. Gviha ben Psisa obtained permission from Jewish leaders to represent the Jews in this case. He opened by establishing that the Egyptian delegation drew their evidence from the Torah; he then said that if they consider the Torah a valid source, then they must acknowledge the enslavement of the Jews. He said the Jews would consent to the return of the valuables on the condition that reparations are paid for their slavery. The suit was dropped.
Over three centuries after Gviha ben Psisa’s successful defense, Philo of Alexandria wrote that the Jews were just trying to recoup some small fraction of their stolen wages—he also wrote, however, that nothing could really compensate for the loss of freedom that the Jews suffered. A few decades later, Josephus, when writing about this incident, emphasized the voluntary nature of these transfers of wealth, explaining it, for some Egyptians, as a desire to get the Jews to leave faster, while for others, as just good neighborliness and friendship. Another century later, Rabbi Ishmael said that the Jews did not even have time to ask, because the Egyptians would already volunteer the valuables.
The popular understanding of this incident is often muddied by the fact that the verb שאל has often been translated as “borrow,” implying deceit. Ibn Janab, Rabbeinu Bachya, the Rashbam and Rabbi Chizkiyahu ben Manoach work through a lesson on Hebrew grammar, with many examples of the usage of the verb elsewhere in Tanach, showing that the meaning of שאל depends on the preposition that follows it—and that in this case, it does not at all mean “borrow.”
So where do we stand on intragenerational reparations? The granting of Belinda Royall’s petition seems to us like a just result; and it seems to us that if Germans or Poles offered Jews something from their personal property—much as the Egyptians did—this may have been appropriate to take. We are familiar with some stories of Jews receiving e.g. a knife for self-defence from a neighbor, and putting it to very good use later. The waters are muddier when it comes to the payment of reparations by the German government, and we are not so sure that the incident in the Torah is a commentary on that, one way or the other. There were Germans who hid Jews, and there were Poles and Ukrainians who who did the dirty work of the Einsatzgruppen; why should the former have been taxed for reparations while the latter were not?
What of intergenerational reparations? Gviha ben Psisa’s defense was theoretical: he was not so much suggesting the expropriation of Egyptians a millennium after the fact as he was defending the acceptance of valuables by the very generation that was subject to slavery.
For the American situation, we believe David Frum said it best:
[Martin Luther] King understood…that the wrongs of which he spoke could not be redressed with money…. [For example, w]hile all young people spend a lot of time in front of screens, black youth watch far and away the most television: almost 3.5 hours per day, or an hour and a quarter more than young white people. Almost 80 percent of black youth say they “usually” eat meals in front of a TV…. It’s not difficult to draw a chain of causation from the exploitation so stirringly described by Coates to the TV-dependence of black youth in the 2010s…[but] Coates advances an error that also does harm…. [Reversing this chain] does not work that way. Racism may have turned the TV set on. Anti-racism won’t turn the TV set off.
Voluntary reparations directly to an affected party seem to be the way of the Torah, and when it comes to private affairs, there is explicit halacha about restitution, about which we plan to read in three weeks’ time. Generations after a crime, on the other hand, extracting reparations at gunpoint from innocent people is simply another crime.
The verb used in the Torah for restitution is שלם. While we personally need not worry about what was done in America before our ancestors arrived, we must be sure that we do provide restitution to those whom we personally have wronged—allowing us to return to them, as the Amidah says, בתשובה שלמה. This in turn, the Amidah tells us, would bring what Ta-Nehisi Coates falsely promises America: רפואה שלמה. By ignoring people who sow division and quietly making sure that we recompense those whom we actually owe, perhaps we can achieve the שלום at the end of the Amidah.
 e.g. the Altalena Affair
 with whom we violently disagree on some issues, particularly those surrounding the Six Day War
 Breishit 15:14
 Shmot 3:21-22
 Shmot 11:2
 We say God asks Moshe because of the suffix נא in the request—very unusual for a command from God—an Rashi comments that God is asking because He wants to make sure that the promise he made to Avraham is kept.
 Sanhedrin 91a
 Mekhilta Bo 12, 36