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
Gates concluded in 1992 that the reason for black anti-Semitism is a case of Rochefoucauld’s truism, that “ ‘We can rarely bring ourselves to forgive those who have helped us.’ For sometimes it seems that the trajectory of Black-Jewish relations is a protracted enactment of Rochefoucauld’s paradox.”
But aside from the sociological problems the book generated, it was also factually incorrect. “The Secret Relationship gives a false and distorted picture,” said David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and author of a trilogy on slavery, the first part of which won the Pulitzer in 1967 and the second of which won the National Book Award in 1976. “Of course, some Jews were involved in the slave trade. Every European Western nation was.” There were also some regions in which the slave trade was more accessible to Jews—Rhode Island, Newport, Holland, to name a few striking examples. “The Dutch Jews weren’t persecuted, so there were quite a few who were involved.”
Davis has been writing about slavery for over 60 years. An emotional writer, he wrote feelingly in the New York Review of Books in 1994 about the slave trade and the Jews, arguing that the historical record itself is infused with the kind of inaccuracies found in The Secret Relationship. He writes:
Much of the historical evidence regarding alleged Jewish or New Christian involvement in the slave system was biased by deliberate Spanish efforts to blame Jewish refugees for fostering Dutch commercial expansion at the expense of Spain. Given this long history of conspiratorial fantasy and collective scapegoating, a selective search for Jewish slave traders becomes inherently anti-Semitic unless one keeps in view the larger context and the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system. It is easy enough to point to a few Jewish slave traders in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, or Newport, Rhode Island. But far from suggesting that Jews constituted a major force behind the exploitation of Africa, closer investigation shows that these were highly exceptional merchants, far outnumbered by thousands of Catholics and Protestants who flocked to share in the great bonanza.
To keep matters in perspective, we should note that in the American South, in 1830, there were only 120 Jews among the 45,000 slaveholders owning twenty or more slaves and only twenty Jews among the 12,000 slaveholders owning fifty or more slaves. Even if each member of this Jewish slaveholding elite had owned 714 slaves—a ridiculously high figure in the American South—the total number would only equal the 100,000 slaves owned by Black and colored planters in St. Domingue in 1789, on the eve of the Haitian Revolution.
Furthermore, to count Jews is to ask the wrong question. Rather, Davis argues, the more important thing to keep in mind is that “Jews found the threshold of liberation from second-class status or worse, in a region dependent on Black slavery.”
At 60, Davis converted to Judaism, after being married to a Jewish woman for 16 years. “Judaism has contradictory aspects when it comes to slavery,” he said. “There’s a distinction between Jewish and Gentile slaves. There’s also a sense of having been slaves, and having been liberated, which was crucial for the Abolition movement. But of course, defenders of slavery also drew on the Torah,” he said.
Another historian, Jonathan Schorsch of Columbia University, has also written about the slave trade—most recently in his 2009 book Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World and in an article published in the journal Jewish Social Studies. Schorsch sees even the facts surrounding Jewish involvement as being contentious. “There seem to have been a handful of Jewish firms, proportionate to their population. A lot of things that don’t make anyone feel good.” About The Secret Relationship, Schorsch said, “The claim in the narrow sense is just. Why are they harsher toward Jews? Is it because they are afraid to antagonize Christians? Jews did their share of persecuting and discriminating, of being persecuted and discriminated. Neither Blacks nor Jews are as perfect as one would wish. Did Black Nationalists want to puncture Jewish pride? There are real stakes here—government funding and so forth. Then there’s the victim game—who’s the biggest victim? It makes some Jews very uncomfortable.”
Schorsch is critical of one of the positions he has encountered in his research, in which Jewish historians argue that Jews were excluded from the slave trade due to persecution from Christians. Jews were not allowed to own land, the argument goes, disabling their participation in the big slave industries. But for Schorsch, this position makes a crucial analytic error, namely, “Such a defense assumes that power is a kind of zero-sum game in which only those ‘on top’ possess it, leaving everyone else without,” he writes. “But power’s circulation throughout society must be continuously negotiated by all of the involved parties, not just those on top.
“There’s a tension in Jewish historiography,” Schorsch continues. Historians wish to represent Jews as “not just martyrs and victims, but agents and actors—there’s their place in business, their settlement in the New World. These are Jewish triumphs. But for Blacks, of course, these are not triumphs but problems.”
Farrakhan’s continued tirades aside, the historical moment that produced The Secret Relationship seems, at least according Paul Berman, squarely behind us. “That sort of crackpot conspiracy theory has receded to the margins,” Berman said. “Blacks have been politically mobilized to the mainstream. It’s thrilling to learn that in the past two elections, Black voter participation surpassed that of whites. There is no political expression of the crackpot wing.”
“So the innate rationality of the Black community won out over the crackpot claims?” I asked.
“Yes,” Berman said. “I have a feeling we’re in a different era. Don’t you?”
Correction, Aug. 22: We regret that due to an editing error, this piece initially misnamed one of the founding members of the NAACP. She is Mary White Ovington, not Atherton, and she was Unitarian, not Jewish, though a number of other founders of the NAACP were Jewish.
Sorry, guys. Bulletproof Stockings—drummer Dalia Shusterman and singer-songwriter Perl Wolfe—plays for women only.