Interview with Nahshon Perez, author of Freedom from Past Injustices

“Do contemporary citizens, some of them descendants of wrongdoers, owe anything to the descendants of victims? For almost all cases, the answer given is no.”—Nahshon Perez

The following is an interview with Nahshon Perez, author of Freedom from Past Injustices: A Critical Evaluation of Claims for Inter-Generational Reparations:

Nahshon PerezQuestion: What is Freedom from Past Injustices about?

Nahshon Perez: In Freedom from Past Injustices I argue that past wrongs should not be corrected through legal means, and that it is important to let bygones be bygones. This is not a popular opinion among scholars and many practitioners, and the arguments carefully examined and developed in my book are not frequently voiced. They are nevertheless, I think, powerful and persuasive.

Freedom from Past Injustices focuses specifically on past wrongs: these are substantial cases of injustices in which all the wrongdoers and victims have since passed away. The issue, therefore, always includes the question: do contemporary citizens, some of them descendants of wrongdoers, owe anything to the descendants of victims? For almost all cases, the answer given is no.

Freedom from Past Injustices views persons as individuals. Consequently, the first challenge facing those who support inter-generational reparations for past wrongs would be to justify burdening non-wrongdoers with the payment of reparations to non-victims. As the arguments for and against inter-generational reparations for past wrongs are carefully examined, the importance of this individualistic point of departure becomes clearer.

Q: Why did you write this book, are there personal stakes for you?

NS: I started thinking about past wrongs and intergenerational reparations in a class I took with philosopher David Heyd of Hebrew University as a graduate student. We read many articles on the topic and obviously, as Jewish and Israeli, many aspects of these articles were directly relevant to both my family and my country. The topic was intriguing, and while I decided to write my dissertation on a different topic, my interest in reparations remained. I continued to read about various cases involving claims for reparations following past wrongs, both academic sources and legal cases. I was especially interested in the wide scope of the topic: I read legal cases from Northern Cyprus, Australia, Israel, the U.S., and Austria. Additionally, I noted the fascinating diversity of arguments employed and widespread disagreement between various courts– a phenomenon that increased my curiosity about the problems intergenerational reparations cases entail.

After a few years, while a visiting lecturer at UCLA, I finally picked up the topic as a full research project. I think that the catalyst was a series of articles published on the topic in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs which I found odd as the authors were not interested in what I thought was the most crucial question: who should bear the cost of such reparations. At that point, I wrote one article that appeared in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. Then, when I moved to Boston University, I wrote the entire manuscript for what eventually became this book. The driving force was my disagreement with much of the academic literature which, almost without exception, supports intergenerational reparations. The fact that courts disagreed with each other so much about such cases also fueled my curiosity. Lastly, a personal biographical fact perhaps played a part (although one can never be sure how such facts play in the development of one’s ideas) – my father’s decision to waive reparations from Germany.

Q: What are the main parts of the book?

NS: The book is divided into 5 chapters which can be described briefly as follows: the first chapter introduces and defines basic concepts such as compensation and restitution, past wrongs, and responsibility. These are all contested terms, making this definitional work necessary for any serious examination of the issue of intergenerational reparations, even if no universally accepted definition can be decided. I also clarify the choice to adopt material reparations for past wrongs as my focus, rather than other means of making amends such as apologies or other symbolic acknowledgments of past wrongs. The second chapter examines the non-identity problem which arises in cases of past injustices: since past wrongs change the lives of the victims, their children differ from the children they would have had if the wrong never happened. This nullifies the claims for reparations made by the victims’ descendants, as without the wrong they would not have existed. This is a famous idea, and the chapter carefully examines the various objections to this argument and offers potential replies. The third chapter examines the difference between compensation and restitution, a fundamental distinction which is crucial for any careful evaluation of claims for intergenerational reparations. Chapter four, the longest, examines justifications of intergenerational reparations based on various notions of intergenerational collective responsibility. Its length was determined following the complexity of the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ – as there are various ways to understand ‘collective responsibility’, before even attempting to argue for or against intergenerational collective responsibility, I had to clearly delineate this contested concept. Only then was it possible to critique the arguments which attempt to justify intergenerational reparations. The conclusion reached through these efforts is that collective responsibility, save unusual cases, cannot justify material reparations for past wrongs. Chapter five examines forward looking arguments for reparations—for example, that paying reparations will improve relations between two given communities— which differ from arguments concerned with (let us say) unjust enrichment or collective responsibility.

I’m aware that this all sounds rather theoretical, so I included examinations of various illustrative cases from Australia, Austria, Northern Cyprus and elsewhere. These real-life examples convey the political relevance of the strict theoretical arguments, especially when such cases are presented in constant dialogue with arguments and counter-arguments as exemplified in Freedom from Past Injustices.

Q: What are the main differences between Freedom from Past Injustices and other books in the field?

A: I think that there are two main differences between Freedom from Past Injustices and other books in the field. First, this is the only book (that I’m aware of) which provides an argument against rectifying past wrongs. This is very unusual, and it may cause some agitation. I hope that the reader will focus on the arguments and understand why this is my conclusion, rather than assume that the position articulated is merely provocative or stubborn. Second, the book examines a larger variety of arguments for and against intergenerational reparations for past wrongs than the typical study. The reader might find this very useful (and not easily duplicated with other books), even if s/he disagrees with my arguments.

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