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.
“Indirect victims of the Holocaust”
Contrary to the fabrications of Israeli leaders, Palestinians played no role in the Holocaust. Yet they have been made to pay for it with their land and their lives in the name of Western atonement.
Germany has been sacrificing Palestinians to atone for its genocide of millions of European Jews since at least 1952, the year Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed a reparations agreement.
As the first postwar chancellor, Adenauer saw publicly compensating Israel as the most effective way to rehabilitate Germany’s image. He also spoke about payments to Israel as easing the way to a “spiritual settlement” for Germany’s “moral and material” debts.
And Ben-Gurion, facing an ailing economy, was desperate for the resources to preserve and expand Israel’s Jewish demographic majority following the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias from 1947 into the early 1950s, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba.
So against the backdrop of fierce Israeli protests, an Israeli delegation, which included no Holocaust survivors, negotiated a reparations deal despite knowledge that the West German government included many Nazis and Nazi collaborators whose pasts Adenauer was working hard to conceal.
Adenauer’s chief advisor, for instance, was Hans Globke, a man who helped draft and enforce many pieces of anti-Jewish legislation, including the infamous Nuremberg Laws, during the Nazi regime.
Since then, Germany has paid some $60 billion in reparations to Israel.
“This cash flow from Germany went directly to the Israeli occupation machine that has made the Palestinians indirect victims of the Holocaust,” observes author and journalist Max Blumenthal. “The current bloodshed is a result of this policy.”
Indeed, according to the independent Jewish magazine Moment, “As early as 1954, German reparation funds were secretly being used to buy patrol boats, tanks and arms.”
Germany itself directly supplied Israel with weapons through various channels.
The magazine cites a US Congressional Research Service report from 2007 that concluded that German-supplied arms “played a considerable role in Israeli military victories in 1967, 1973 and 1982.”
In other words, Germany played a key role in enabling Israeli violence, including the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel’s devastating invasion of Lebanon, including the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Germany’s military support for Israel may have gone beyond conventional weaponry. Last year, Germany’s Welt reported that Adenauer’s government financed Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program in the 1960s to the tune of $500 million, disguised as a development loan – an allegation Israel, which refuses to confirm it has nuclear weapons at all, has denied.
In the early years of the state, before 1967, the Israeli army’s priority was to keep Palestinian refugees from returning to their land while subduing the Palestinians who remained with military rule.
In 1957, Germany forged a secret agreement for military and scientific cooperation with Israel rooted in the belief that Germany was obligated by its Nazi past to guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state.
Israel regularly exploited this sentiment.
In early 1964, after Germany began funneling tanks, submarines, artillery, mobile cannons and missile boats to Israel, details of the secret program were leaked to the media, generating public opposition across Germany. The government was pressured into halting the arms flow and it pledged not to send any more weapons into conflict zones.
Israel’s deputy defense minister Shimon Peres issued a cable to the Israeli diplomatic delegation in West Germany, shamelessly capitalizing on Holocaust guilt.
Israel “doesn’t see itself as being located in a conflict region or as involved in an armed struggle,” wrote Peres, but “as part of the Jewish people, which is under constant threat of annihilation from the dictatorial government in Egypt.”
“If the Germans want to pass a law [against selling arms to conflict zones], they must commit themselves to correcting historical injustices toward the Jewish people and not make life easier for their simplistic policy at our expense,” he added.
Germany responded by resurrecting the arms program and establishing an open military relationship that was instrumental to Israel’s future conquests.
This dynamic remains so profitable to Israel that an Israeli diplomat told journalists last year that “it was an Israeli interest to maintain German guilt feelings” about the Holocaust. Without German guilt, “we’d be just another country as far as they’re concerned,” the diplomat reportedly said.
While the US has replaced Germany as the main guarantor of Israel’s military dominance, German money continues to fuel Israel’s military might.
As part of its perceived moral obligation to Israel, Germany has delivered five Dolphin-class submarines that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Destitute Holocaust survivors
If German reparations were intended first and foremost to support victims of Nazi atrocities, then by the most direct measures, the tens of billions of dollars in payments appear largely to have failed.
According to a 2015 report by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, 45,000 survivors in Israel live in poverty – 30 percent of all Holocaust survivors in the country.
German reparations appear to have been just as unsuccessful at alleviating the suffering of survivors of its atrocities now living in the US. In the New York region, more than half of Holocaust survivors who are supposed to benefit from such funds – approximately 40,000 people – lived on very low incomes defined as below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold, according to the UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study of New York for 2011.
In recent years, hundreds of Israeli Holocaust survivors have sued Israel and the Jewish Agency for appropriating the funds gained from Germany, ostensibly in compensation for their suffering, while they struggled with trauma and destitution.
“The money was officially given to help resettle what were termed ‘Holocaust refugees,’ but instead Israel spent the money on general public use instead of giving it to Holocaust survivors,” Gad Weissfeld, the lawyer for hundreds of survivors, said in 2011.
“A great many people benefitted from the money, but not the Holocaust survivors. They came here as ‘human dust,’ with absolutely nothing, and needed it for basic things like housing and education,” Weissfeld added.
On the same day the Israeli government won its legal battle to deny compensation to the survivors in 2014, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz noted, Israel’s parliament “approved funding to fly some 70 Knesset members to Auschwitz on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
It would be unfair to demand that Coates delve into the history of Palestine in an article about reparations for Black Americans had he not devoted an entire section and more than a thousand words to lauding Germany’s bankrolling of a racist, settler-colonial state as a model.
By doing so, he ignores the Nakba, erases Palestinian suffering and gives Germany a free pass for making Palestinians into secondary victims of its European genocide.
Acknowledging these shortcomings would require at the very least recognizing the existence of Palestinians, something Coates has struggled with in the past.
But Coates apparently has no problem recognizing – and maybe even identifying with – the oppressors of the Palestinians.
In an article headlined “The Negro sings of Zionism,” he once likened Black liberation leaders Malcolm X and Huey Newton to Zionists, while making no reference to Palestinians or to the fact that Newton’s avowedly internationalist Black Panther Party rejected Zionism, equating it with “chauvinism and ethnocentrism.”
On another occasion, Coates wrote about Jewish immigration to Palestine, likening the Black struggle against American racism to the Zionist colonization of Palestine.
“Should German Jews continue the fight against anti-Semitism in Europe or should they separate and give up trying to convince people who have long hated them?” Coates asks, observing that “the dilemma is familiar to some of us.”
Nowhere do the Palestinians figure in Coates’ moral or political calculations.
To his credit, Coates later tweeted an apology for writing “as though the Palestinian people do not exist.”
Yet here we are in 2016, and one of America’s most celebrated public intellectuals is still speaking as if Palestinians, and the violence Israel inflicts on them daily, are invisible.
Rania Khalek is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.