Is Jewish Control Over the Slave Trade a Nation of Islam Lie or Scholarly Truth?
When Louis Farrakhan says, ‘You need to get this book,’ he means an insidious 1991 title whose claims to scholarship echo today
At a recent rally for the Voting Rights Act in Alabama, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam spoke of the Jews. Surrounded by a cadre of tall, glowering men with snappy suits, sunglasses, and folded arms, Farrakhan addressed an enthusiastic crowd in terms that would be unsurprisng to anyone familiar with his unique way of stirring up an audience. After asserting, with a benevolent smile, that he is not an anti-Semite, Farrakhan dove into his feelings about Jews: “I just don’t like the way they misuse their power,” he said. “And I have a right to say that, without being labeled anti-Semitic, when I have done nothing to stop a Jewish person from getting an education, setting up a business, or doing whatever a Jewish person desires to do.” The remarks were evocative of the sentiments he has shared widely throughout his decades-long career as a public figure—namely, that blacks should not trust Jews.
It’s a position that Farrakhan has articulated for years. Perhaps the most noxious element of Farrakhan’s position, that the Jews are no friends to African Americans, has been locating its point of origin in the idea that Jews were heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1991, the Nation of Islam, a branch of the Black Nationalist Movement, published a copiously footnoted book intriguingly titled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The Nation of Islam won’t say who wrote the book, though in one sermon, Minister Farrakhan attributes it to an individual by the name of “Alan Hamet.” It is published by “The Historical Research Department of the Nation of Islam,” which has three titles to its credit: The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, vol. 1, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, vol. 2, and a third book simply titled Jews Selling Blacks. “This is a scholarly work, not put together by nincompoops!” Farrakhan exclaimed about The Secret Relationship during a sermon. The book claimed to provide “irrefutable evidence that the most prominent of the Jewish pilgrim fathers [sic] used kidnapped Black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history.” Awash in footnotes and quotes from reputable, often Jewish, historians, the book provides such details as lists of slaves, lists of Jews, and their relationship (disproportionate, The Secret Relationship concludes). “The history books appear to have confused the word Jews for the word jewel,” the anonymous author states. “Queen Isabella’s jewels had no part in the finance of Columbus’ expedition, but her Jews did.”
Felicitous quotations aside, do scholars take the work seriously? For years, Eli Faber, professor of history at CUNY and author of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight, has assigned portions of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews to his graduate class in order to teach them about anti-Semitism. But, he said, this has had some unintended consequences. “Just two weeks ago, my students found those sections convincing,” he told me in an interview in June. “The academic framework of that book is very convincing. ‘If it’s science, it must be good,’ they think. It has all the trappings of that which confers legitimacy: footnotes, citations, sources. If you don’t think very deeply about it, you’re not going to stop and say, hold on. People get very swept up in it.”
The Secret Relationship alleges that Jews were over-represented in the slave trade, but it goes about doing so in a funny way. For the author, the fact that Jews participated at all is tantamount to proof that without Jewish money and Jewish traders, the entire industry would have collapsed. For example, the book’s anonymous author cites the fact that in 1774, the Jews of Jamaica owned 310 slaves, which, horrific as it is, is only 4 percent of the total slave population in Jamaica at that time (7,424). A grand total of 12 Jews owned plantations, and yet this doesn’t stop the author from concluding that Jews dominated the trade.
Faber found during his more recent scholarly research with British Naval Office records that in 18th-century Britain, Jews actually were not heavily invested in the trading part of the slave trade. “Overwhelmingly,” Faber said, “Jewish merchants and shippers were not involved at all; they represent a minuscule portion of owners of ships.” While Jews did own slaves, he found, “their ownership was directly proportionate to their numbers.” Both were about 18 percent. The two companies with slaving ventures had small numbers of Jews among their owners: The Royal Africa Company had none until 1712, and the South Sea Company always had a handful of Jews, though interestingly, “those Jews were more likely than non-Jews to invest heavily,” Faber says.
“The numbers just aren’t there to support the view,” said Faber. “Jews were involved, but to an insignificant degree. That doesn’t absolve them of that guilt, but everyone made money off African slaves: Arabs, Europeans, Africans,” he said. “And there was no attempt to deny it—the Nation of Islam used Jewish sources.”
And indeed, most black intellectuals were never convinced by The Secret Relationship. “You can’t even say that Christians across the board were slave-traders!” said Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director and senior vice president for Advocacy for the NAACP. “There is not a religion that doesn’t have someone doing some dastardly thing. Did you know that in Ku Klux Klan’s handbook, it states specifically that one must be a devout Catholic? And this is problematic for the relationship between the two communities, which has been so important to us.”
The Secret Relationship emerged from a very specific historical moment in which social forces threatened the previously strong relationship that Blacks and Jews shared, based on the similarity of their persecution and the sympatico nature of the fight for civil rights. This relationship became strained in the second half of the 20th century, as Paul Berman wrote in The New Yorker in 1994, by differences on specific questions of public policy, such as affirmative action. The Jewish liberals opposed it, according to Berman, as a betrayal of the tenets of liberalism, insofar as affirmative action means “people should be viewed primarily as members of groups, not as individuals.” Furthermore, the Black Separatist movement in the late 1960s, through its identification with the Third World, chose to support the Palestinians, which Berman says was felt to be a betrayal by their Jewish friends.
Tensions came to a head in the 1990s, when demagogues like Leonard Jeffries (whose nephew, Shavar, is a candidate for Mayor of Newark, N.J.) and Khalid Abdul Muhammad gave incendiary lectures blaming Jews for the slave trade and the racist depiction of Blacks in Hollywood. Around that time, the Nation of Islam published The Secret Relationship. “They thrived because they were in protest against the Civil Rights Movement,” said Berman of Farrakhan and his ilk. “Black Nationalism raised some legitimate questions about cultural identity, how to present oneself to the rest of the world, how to self-identify and culturally define an autonomous community. But this had nothing to do with civil rights.” Farrakhan’s confusion led people to anti-Semitism, what Berman calls “the mother of all conspiracy theories.” The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews was both a catalyst and a symptom of a particular historical moment: The anti-Semitic content allowed Farrakhan to weave racism against Blacks into a larger Third World context, making it a worldwide phenomenon, with Jews at the helm.
In 1992, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a bleak op-ed for the New York Times about the spate of “Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars” whose culture had produced The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. In it, he criticized the book for its troubling assumption, in a critique that many Jews could stand to internalize, namely, that “underlying [The Secret Relationship] is … the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. For it suggests a doctrine of racial continuity, in which the racial evil of a people is merely manifest (rather than constituted) by their historical misdeeds. The reported misdeeds are thus the signs of an essential nature that is evil.”
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