In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a compelling case for reparations owed to Black Americans for racial injuries, particularly with respect to discriminatory housing policies, that continue to affect millions today.
Published at The Atlantic, his award-winning piece sparked an important national debate. It also helped propel him into the national spotlight as a MacArthur Foundation “genius” and a best-selling author read, among others, by President Barack Obama.
Unfortunately, there is a major flaw in his argument that exposes one of his most glaring political lapses. Coates presents German reparations to Israel as a successful and moral model, ignoring the horrors Israel inflicted and still inflicts on Palestinians and other people of the region using those funds.
To make matters worse, shortly after the publication of his piece, Coates promoted reparations at a live event with his Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, the former Israeli prison guard and Obama favorite.
If the objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of reparations, then emphasizing German compensation to Holocaust victims would be completely appropriate.
But Coates focuses on the totally separate issue of German “compensation” to the settler-colonial state of Israel, portraying it as a positive development that contributed to Israel’s civilian infrastructure and economic growth.
“Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a roadmap for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name,” Coates writes.
There are some gaping holes in this narrative.
First, it relies on a total conflation of Israel and Zionism, on the one hand, with Jews, on the other. And it accepts uncritically the ahistorical claim that Israel and Zionism were the victims of the Nazis, and therefore Israel was the appropriate address for “reparations,” the delivery of which could offer Germans absolution.
It also completely ignores the fact that while other Jews were resisting the Nazis, Zionists infamously made a deal with them, the notorious Transfer Agreement of 1933, to facilitate the transport of German Jews and their property to Palestine and which, as Joseph Massad points out, broke the international Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany started by American Jews.
But even if we set these fundamental questions aside, as a practical matter, from the standpoint of Israel’s victims, German reparations were not used to repair but to destroy. The billions Germany gave Israel were an enormous contribution to Israel’s military capacity, enabling its colonial expansion, land theft, military invasions and occupations and further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Despite people pointing out such concerns to Coates on social media and in person (I tried engaging him on the issue at one of his speaking events, to no avail), he continues to invoke Israel as a model.
Appearing on Democracy Now! earlier this month to discuss reparations, Coates again cited Israel, telling host Amy Goodman that reparations from Germany were “invested in Israel. They basically sold them goods that Israel then used to build themselves up.”
This is a shameful whitewash of Palestinian suffering that needs to be corrected.