REPARATIONS, SUSTAINABILITY, DEMOCRACY
by Kate Poole and Jessica Rosenberg
Published in the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents.
WHAT ARE our roles and our responsibilities, as Jews, in the economy? Hand in hand with the economic, political, scientific, and agricultural change that we are seeking, we believe that we must also be working towards a revolution in values — a fundamental change from the scarcity, competition, and fear that govern so much of our culture and economy. We’re active in a movement that’s building a new economy — the next economy — centered on economic, racial, and climate justice. But in order for the concepts of the next economy to take hold in a deeply felt, culturally embedded, and long-lasting way, we see it as our work to develop theology and ritual that explore, embody and further these values and help build the world we want to see.
One important part of this work is mining Jewish texts and traditions for the wisdom of the ancestors — texts and practices from before the time when capitalism and our current financial system took hold. Bringing these texts to the forefront can help advance the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual work needed to make a transition to the next economy for mass movements of people.
People working on economic justice through the transformation of the financial and monetary systems are articulating specific values to guide their work. This is especially important in a field in which language has been used, at worst, intentionally to confuse and mislead people, and at best without regard for lay people’s understanding of terms and ideas, even when those terms, and not understanding them, have a huge impact on people’s daily lives.
Three key sets of ideas in the next-economy movement are: 1) justice and reparations, 2) non-extraction and sustainability, and 3) democracy and community control. All of these ideas are firmly supported by Jewish text and tradition. Part of our work is to develop new articulations of these ancient values.
1. Justice and Reparations
THE NEW ECONOMY Coalition in which we are active defines its commitment to justice in its work — involving 178 organizations — by stating that “a new economy must work for all people, starting with those who have historically been marginalized and exploited by racism, imperialism, classism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression.” In this movement, reparations, while not a framework that every participating project and organization utilizes, is a key concept for many who are looking to create justice by moving money. The Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF) explains:
SRLF moves capital stemming from an economy rooted in extraction, exploitation, slavery, and land grabs to build Southern enterprises that are owned and democratically controlled by the very communities from which the wealth was stolen in the first place.
POOR Magazine is a media, education, and art organization led by poor and indigenous people, who also maintain an associated organization called Homefulness, which seeks permanent co-housing and land reclamation for landless and houseless individuals and families. POOR Magazine frames “donations” as reparations, saying:
[W]e believe that giving and donating for the giver or donor is not a privilege, an option, or a nice idea, rather, it is a duty. A duty of people with class and/or race privilege, to give their time, their surplus income, their equity, and/or their support, towards change for people struggling with poverty in the U.S. and across the globe.
In Judaism, the word for moving money to achieve social good, tzedakah, is literally rooted in the word for justice, tzedek. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes in There Shall Be No Needy, “the theme of justice remains central to the understanding of tzedakah. Within Judaism, support for the poor is understood as an obligation and as a means of restoring justice to the world, and not as an altruistic or voluntary gesture.” We stand firmly within this tradition when we insist that, as Rabbi Jacobs asserts, not all charity is given in the spirit of tzedakah, and when we ask questions about whether the terms and conditions of financial projects are increasing justice or perpetuating systems of injustice and inequality.
We also find Jewish support for reparations in the concept of teshuvah. Literally meaning to turn or return, teshuvah is a process of self-examination, asking forgiveness, and making things right by repairing the damage. The responsibility to make teshuvah is both individual and collective — which is one reason why much of the liturgy of Yom Kippur asks forgiveness for the sins that “we have committed.” While reckoning with our personal shortcomings and mark-missing, we also have to think, talk, and act to repair collectively.
Applying this concept of teshuvah to contemporary economic and racial injustice, we advocate for state and civic bodies to make reparations to historically oppressed and economically exploited communities, as well as for individuals to pay reparations to people from whom we have derived economic benefit at their expense. This work can be messy and uncertain: Despite everything we may know about racialized wealth extraction, how do I, as an individual, figure out to whom to make payments?
Here I find it useful to apply a Jewish tzedakah concept with which contemporary progressives often struggle. Rabbinic tradition asserts a preference for giving tzedakah locally, to other Jews and poor people in our own towns, before moving money to non-Jews and poor people in other places. This principle seems exclusionary and isolationist, but it was developed in a time when Jews lived in segregated communities not of their own choosing, and is rooted in a desire to strengthen communal connections by being face-to-face with the recipients of our tzedakah — with the assumption that everyone in the community, including those who receive tzedakah, are giving it.
When thinking about reparations, one place to start is by thinking about our own communities, very specifically about from where our wealth has been derived, and then looking for organizations and projects that are funding the communities most affected by systems of economic inequality that have benefited us. My grandparents, for example, lived in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia — a neighborhood I am now, regrettably, helping to gentrify (after growing up and going to college in suburban Montgomery County) my life, making reparations takes the form, for now, of giving tzedakah to the MOVE Organization, a black-led revolutionary family that was targeted by Philadelphia city and police in the 1980s. My tzedakah therefore acknowledges the damages done by white flight, racist housing and land practices, and gentrification.
I root my tzedakah in my home city and communities because that is where the people and the particular expression of injustice to which I have a close relationship and the most direct responsibility are found — just as previous generations of rabbis believed we had a relationship and responsibility to the people in our closest community.
Justice and Reparations Action Steps
• Learn your family history. Does your family own land? Who lived on that land before your family? Has your family accumulated wealth? How was that wealth accumulated?
• Learn about the history of race and wealth accumulation in the U.S. Read the Movement for Black Lives policy platform on reparations. If you are a white person, move resources to black-led local organizations and movements for economic justice.
• Learn about the history of where you live. Who were the communities indigenous to the area? What happened to them? Consider donating resources or land to local indigenous groups.
• Talk to your friends, family and community about reparations. Host conversations and dinners, ask hard questions, and connect to each other. Support each other in taking action.
2. Non-Extraction and Sustainability
THE NEW ECONOMY Coalition defines the principle of sustainability as “regeneration of both human and natural systems” to build “community resilience by rooting wealth and power in place and in service of human needs on a finite planet.”
Others in this field are developing the principles of non-extractive finance. Extractive finance is how mainstream finance works now, squeezing the resources out of already historically looted communities, without regard to the environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts. Finance is extractive, for example, when you’re lending to a poor person at an exorbitantly high interest rate and then taking their house if they can’t pay you back. Non-extractive finance is when investors are adding more value to the community than they’re taking out.
Principles that the organization Regenerative Finance uses to guide its non-extractive investing are:
1) Loan terms are developed cooperatively by lenders and borrowers.
2) Lending is non-collateralized, meaning that there is shared risk for investors and borrowers, with the belief that communities should not be further dispossessed as a result of borrowing.
3) Profit-sharing is emphasized, not profit-taking.
Regenerative Finance is a project created by young people with wealth. It makes interest-free loans that redistribute rather than continue to accumulate wealth. Redistributing wealth this way creates space in our financial institutions for poor and working class folks to build their wealth.
The Southern Reparations Loan Fund explains their principles of non-extractive finance as follows:
We invest based on the potential profit and benefit of projects, not based on how many assets borrowers already have. Also, unlike a traditional lender, we do not expect repayment until the business shows a profit from the investment we made. We work closely with businesses to ensure a greater likelihood of success.
Long before the development of “non-extractive finance,” Jewish law about lending integrated principles of protection for borrowers, starting with interest-free loans. The reasons for doing so are clear, and in line with contemporary values on non-extractive finance. Exodus 22:24 commands: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.” Deuteronomy 23:20 commands, “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest.” While the next verse goes on to permit interest to foreigners, Leviticus 25:36-37 makes space to change how we consider people, when they are in time of crisis:
If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side, do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest.
This passage, while distinguishing between a “kinsman” and a ger, a resident alien, provides precedent for lending money and food without interest, and for considering a person’s financial stress as a reason for extending generosity and building a closer relationship with him or her.
In each of these Torah commandments, the reasons for protecting borrowers are infused, as we would expect, with a theology: The poor are God’s people, and fear of God means not loaning at interest. It is clear that interest degrades and endangers the borrower, and Torah is clear about extending protections from what we now call extraction.
Non-Extraction and Sustainability Action Steps
• Figure out how much money you need and how much money is enough.
• Consider making a 0 percent loan to a friend or community member in need.
• Research the interest you are earning on investments. Where is that interest coming from? How is your money generating more money? What are the mechanics, who are the financial intermediaries, and who are the borrowers?
• Meet the humans who work at the banks, credit unions, financial intermediaries and businesses that you’re invested in. Ask them about their values, and share what’s important to you.
3. Democracy, Community Control, and Power Shifting
MANY of the economic principles of next-economy investing, while asserting the need for sustainability for its own sake, have intended side-effects of shifting power and creating more community control of wealth and resources. The New Economy Coalition defines the goal of democracy in their work as follows: “a new economy incorporates democratic principles into the management of economic and civic life.”
Many of Regenerative Finance’s values are aimed at greater community control: “Investments in the new economy should support and increase worker ownership, democracy, and rights at the places of work and in the economy as a whole.” For this reason, not only are loan terms co-created, but many next-economy projects fund cooperatively run businesses and projects. Funds leveraged in this way not only generate and direct wealth, but also give decision-making power and greater agency to workers and historically marginalized communities.
In Jewish tradition, Maimonides’ classic eight levels of tzedakah is often cited as the pinnacle of Jewish wisdom about moving money justly. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes:
The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.
Jewish leaders in organizing economic justice need to be at the forefront of updating this principle for today’s integrated society, in which most Jews feel responsible to fellow people as much as to fellow Jews. It may also be seen as objectionable that the text implies that dependency on others is a shameful thing, certainly to be avoided. Perhaps these particular values reflect the intimately interwoven culture of the small Jewish communities that Maimonides saw as the norm of his era; his stress on anonymity in giving would imply as much. The enduring principle of this text, however, is that the ultimate form of tzedakah is that which creates greater control and independence for the recipient rather than perpetuating systems of inequality. Heeding this principle, contemporary Jewish tzedakah-givers can develop ways to strengthen people’s hands with financial models that increase community control.
In order for cultural and religious Jews to be part of a just economic transition, we need to be leaders in writing, practicing, and spreading a just culture and theology, rooted in our traditions and relevant to this moment. In Mishnah Berakhot we read:
A person is obligated to bless upon the bad just as he blesses upon the good. As it says, “And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and with all that you have” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “With all your heart” — with your two inclinations, with the inclination of good and the inclination of evil. “And with all your soul” — even if He takes your soul. “And with all that you have” — with all that you have.
“All that you have”: The commandment to give tzedakah is rooted in the Shema, arguably the most central Jewish prayer, our oldest declaration of purpose that has endured to this day. We are commanded to engage in tzedakah with body, mind and spirit, full heartedly. May we take this imperative to heart, and may our tzedakah be truly for the sake of and furthering justice.
Democracy, Community-Control, and Power-Shifting Action Steps
• Experiment with sharing power in decision-making by participating in collectives, cooperatives, and horizontal structures.
• When you have power over someone, try to share that power. For example, if you lend money to a business, experiment with trying to understand the business owners’ perspectives and making shared decisions about terms and schedules for paying back the loan. (Check out information about RSF Social Finance’s price-setting meetings at rsfsocialfinance.org.)
• Participate in a giving circle or investing circle in which you make shared decisions with a diverse group of people about how to allocate resources. (Check out Social Justice Fund NW and the Buen Vivir Fund.)
Best of luck with taking bold action! If you have questions or want to connect, you can email Jessica and Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Rosenberg is in her fifth year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she learns Jewish history for fun and Jewish text to support and challenge her political beliefs. She is a member of the POOR Magazine/Homefulness Solidarity Family, where she supports poor and indigenous people lead land reclamation and media, and works with Resource Generation Philly chapter, where she organizes for the just distribution of land, wealth and power in our city and world.
Kate Poole works with Regenerative Finance and Resource Generation to redistribute resources and shift control of capital. She also makes comics and dances, you can see more of her work at comicsbykate.com.