As one who continues to venerate Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth Prime Minister, even though it has been over a quarter of a century since he departed this world, I especially admire the stance he took as leader of the opposition, less than four years after the establishment of Israel. Leading a group of 15,000, Mr. Begin spoke out against Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the Israeli government, as it entered into negotiations with the German government over reparations.
I may very well be a lone voice in the wilderness, but as far as I’m concerned, the term reparations is far too vague. I cannot help but feel that it was the duty of the Israeli government to point out to the German government, that there not one, but two injustices that must be addressed. The German government must answer for the Nazis confiscating Jewish homes along with precious and valuable paintings, objects d’art and furnishings. The German government must answer for Jews being forced out of their positions and deprived of their livelihood. For all this, monetary calculations and estimations can be made. For all this, reparations can be offered, provided that those who managed to survive were prepared to receive money tainted by German hands. The German government must also answer for the murder and annihilation of six million Jews. Regarding murder, there are no monetary calculations and estimations. Because no value can be placed on human life, reparations must sadly remain totally academic.
Although I am far from fluent in German, I am very much aware that “wiedergutmachung” or “making good again” is the German equivalent for “reparation.” However, I am also concerned that the German term “reinwaschen” or “washing clean” is conceptually dangerously close to “wiedergutmachung.” Because reparations have been made, those of our people accepting reparations, run the risk of absolving the Nazis for their heinous behavior. By accepting reparations, they have effectively wiped the slate clean. As noble as “let bygones be bygones” sounds, it runs the risk of evading responsibility. Accepting reparations affords the German people absolution and complete closure of a time, that in all likelihood, most Germans would be only too happy to sweep under the rug of history.
Webster’s Dictionary offers three different definitions for “reparations.” Among those three, one finds “reparations” to mean the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury. While it is entirely possible and certainly understandable that the aggrieved will demand money, I would hope that the aggrieved could realize that when all is said and done, money is the lowest form of reparation. One would be hard pressed to explain the connection between penitence and payment. True reparation ought to include taking responsibility through sincere contrition and honest commitment. It’s beyond me why, when entering negotiations with the Konrad Adenauer’s post war Germany, the nascent Israeli government did not explain that their greatest need was to build a country. And while financial reparation can be so very enticing in the short term, true reparation could produce so much more. Can you just imagine if Israel had demanded a proto “Peace Corps” where thousands of Germans would have signed up to travel to the fledgling Jewish State to volunteer for say, a period of six years (the length of World War II) building roads, working the land, helping out in hospitals and orphanages (which they helped create through their genocidal “cleansing.” I for one cannot help but feel, that there would have been catharsis of true contrition on the part of the Germans, as well as a catharsis of raging anger justifiably borne by a good many Jews.
Last week, activists and lawmakers gathered for a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the topic of reparations — whether the United States government should provide compensation to the descendants of slaves. In keeping with the sentiments I expressed, I hope that much thought and foresight goes into the process, so that the outcome will be beneficial to all.