Two Chicago-area Jewish attorneys are suing the nation’s largest Jewish religious movement, alleging the organization’s call for reparations for slavery amounted to libel of all American Jews and, by imputation, the two of them.
Mark A. Stang, owner of the Stang Law Firm in Highland Park, filed the federal complaint against the Union for Reform Judaism, its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and its vice president, Rabbi Jonah Pesner. The suit seeks $1.8 million in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages.
Pesner, director of the URJ’s Religious Action Center, authored an op-ed published by the Chicago Tribune in mid-December, days before the URJ hosted its 5,000-attendee Biennial conference at McCormick Place.
In the opinion piece, Pesner advocated for more introspection and action by the American Jewish community toward issues of racism and discrimination.
During the five-day convention, the URJ passed a resolution calling for the creation of a federal commission to study proposals for reparations to descendants of enslaved people. The resolution also called for Reform Jewish congregations and their members to “take active steps to redress the destructive effects of historic and ongoing systemic racism” and to “strengthen our own institutions’ efforts to combat implicit and explicit bias and promote racial inequality.”
Suing on behalf of himself and attorney Stuart A. Cohn, Stang’s complaint alleges the Pesner op-ed libels American Jews as “‘racists’ who are purportedly bigoted against African-Americans, in [p]laintiff’s ‘hearts,’ ‘communities,’ ‘congregations,’ and ‘synagogues” and as “knowing and willing recipients of numerous benefits of ‘white privilege’ ….”
Pesner’s op-ed addressed his belief that, although Jewish immigrants to the U.S. since the early 1900s have faced and have overcome antisemitic discrimination, “they and many of us also benefited from, and continue to benefit from, the same white privilege that allows for the continued discrimination against black Americans.”
“From how we gained entry into this country to the places we were allowed to live and work, to access to education and financial capital, white Jews have reaped the reward of racism,” the rabbi wrote.
Stang argued in the complaint that the URJ’s proposal would make reparations “required of all white Jews, regardless of whether said white Jews’ ancestors were American slaveholders or immigrated to the United States from Europe decades after the defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in 1865.”
Following a reference to the Holocaust and the millions of European Jews killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II, Stang wrote in his complaint that “never in the darkest hours of the Nazi era did people claiming to be Jews, like the individual defendants … so unhesitatingly and publicly libel and vilify the Jewish people.”
Stang then turned to the Reform rabbis’ relationship with the Rev. Al Sharpton — a prominent proponent of reparations — before listing Sharpton’s own record of allegedly antisemitic remarks.
Stang wrote that a policy debate over reparations is fair game. “But nothing justifies any proponent or opponent of slavery reparations committing group libel against an identifiable racial, ethnic, or religious group, necessarily imputed to each of the group’s members, in perceived furtherance of their advocacy about the issue.”
And he continued that the rabbis’ pronouncements have served to incite “ethnic hatred and violence toward American Jews.”
Nearly eight pages of the 22-page complaint offer genealogical and biographical details about Stang and Cohn. Stang submitted a copy of his father’s Polish passport into the court record.
Stang wrote that both he and Cohn are sole practitioners who represent clients of color.
Both attorneys allege they have “suffered damage, and will continue to suffer damage,” to their reputations and practices “by [d]efendants’ libelous statements accusing American Jews … of being racists who have willfully benefited from ‘white privilege’ to the detriment of African-American citizens (and, by implication, to the detriment of all people of color).”
Stang wrote in the complaint that he submitted to the Tribune a critical response to the op-ed, but that the editorial board and the newspapers’ management opted not to publish it or any similar pieces by others.
In a phone interview with the Daily Law Bulletin on Monday afternoon, Stang described his case as “an action alleging a group libel against all American Jews by the defendants.”
Because both Stang and Cohn identify as Jewish, they have standing to address the libel, he said.
He said he is not equipped to turn the case into a class action, though he surmised such a class could be possible.
Stang said the demand for $1.8 million in damages is derived from a Jewish tradition behind the number 18, which is connected to the Hebrew word for life. And the demand for $6 million in punitive damages is a reference to the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The lawsuit says any damages awarded from the lawsuit will go to charity.
“We’re not virtue signalers like these rabbis,” Stang said.
He said he found encouragement to bring the lawsuit after studying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1952 decision in Beauharnais v. Illinois, which upheld a state group-libel law that criminalized libel against racial or religious classes of people.
In that case, the high court affirmed the conviction of a man who handed out racist leaflets on the streets of Chicago. The court’s 5-4 decision held that the provocative nature of the man’s libelous speech went beyond what the Constitution protected as free speech.
Beauharnais is still on the books, but it was issued 12 years before the high court narrowed what it considers libel in the landmark 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision.
Stang contends the Beauharnais precedent makes his group libel claim viable.
“If you can put someone in jail, there is a civil action for damages,” he said.
The URJ, which comprises about 850 synagogues and their 1 million congregants, brands its Biennial conventions as the largest Jewish gathering in North America.
Asked why he’s bringing his group-libel case against members of the very group that’s allegedly libeled, Stang said it’s because he was particularly upset the words were issued from powerful figures in the community .
“It’s coming from the two top leaders of the largest Jewish organization in America,” Stang wrote.
As in any newly filed lawsuit, the complaint is one side’s account of events and facts, and none of the allegations have been tested in a courtroom.
A spokeswoman for the URJ did not immediately return a request for comment.
The case is Mark Stang, et al., v. Union for Reform Judaism, et al., No. 20 C 757.