"To Seek out that which was Lost..."

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WEEKEND EXTRA - No. 003 - 18th January 1996


This week MED looks at an oft-repeated claim, that Jews have been in the vanguard of the slave trade and other racist activities against black Africans. The following article was prepared under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Center by Dr. Harold Brackman of the Center and Professor Mary R. Lefkowitz of Wellesley College. Although written from the perspective of US history, and freedom of academic thought within the USA, its arguments are of general interest.


If a hate speaker were to come to your campus or organization, what would you do? There was a time when this question would have been largely theoretical; but now the problem of how to deal with hate speech affects everyone at every level of our society.

The First Amendment protects the rights of all of us to state our opinion. We think it is important for all of us to be as well-informed as possible about the issues, and to confront racist speech not with violence or unreasoning hostility but with information.

Our focus here is one group, among a range of groups, that has been targeted for attack. In recent years, campus speakers have made new and astounding accusations against Jews, specifically in relation to the history of Africans and African Americans. Many of these charges concern events about which most people have little detailed knowledge.

In this Fact Sheet we try to show why these accusations are wrong, and to suggest resource materials for anyone who wants to study the issues in detail. We hope that you will read these materials with an open mind, and judge the issues for yourself.


Q. Did Jews "Dominate" the Slave Trade Within Africa?

A. Between the years 1650 and 1900, ten million or more Black Africans were carried by slavers either north across the Sahara or east over the Red Sea/Indian Ocean route.

This trade was under the control not of Jews but of Muslim merchants who also helped supply the Atlantic slave trade Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University in Roots and Branches:
Current Directions in Slave Studies, ed. Michael Catron (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979), p. 287: "The kind of structure which Islamic imperialists imposed on that part of Africa over the centuries . . . [created] a structural pattern that was highly predatory . . . which, in the long term, distorted, even prevented, regional development. One might even go a step further, and say that the resistance to European penetration might have been much stronger had it not been for the underdevelopment of Africa, due to that earlier slavery."

Q. Did Jews "Dominate" the Atlantic Slave Trade?

A. Jews were barred from the New World colonies of Spain, Portugal, and France. The British and Dutch generally allowed them to settle, but limited their participation in the international slave trade. "New Christians" of Jewish descent were more involved until they were persecuted and driven to the sidelines by the Spanish Inquisition. Overall, the role of slave traders of Jewish faith or family origin was minor.

Professor David Brion Davis of Yale University in Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), p. 89: "Whatever Jewish refugees from Brazil may have contributed to the northwestward expansion of sugar and slaves, it is clear that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery."

Q. Were Jews Major Slave Traders in the Old South?

A. Jews were never prominent in the domestic slave trade within the American South from states like Virginia to the fields of the Cotton Kingdom. For example, the Davis brothers - small-scale operators - were one of three Jewish-owned firms among seventy in Richmond.

Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, "Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865," in The Jewish Experience in America, ed. Abraham J. Karp (Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1969), Vol. 3, pp. 197-98: "None of the major slavetraders was Jewish, nor did Jews constitute a large proportion in any particular community. . . . Probably all of the Jewish slavetraders in all of the Southern cities and towns combined did not buy and sell as many slaves as did the firm of Franklin and Armfield, the largest Negro traders in the South."

Q. Were Jews Prominent Among the Major Slaveholders in the Old South?

A. Only ten percent of the 150,000 American Jews at the time of the Civil War lived in the South. Southern Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly "smallholders" concentrated in cities, not in the plantation districts containing ninety percent of the enslaved population. For example, there were only four Jews - less than one-tenth of one percent - among the 11,000 Southerners who in 1830 owned fifty or more slaves.

Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, "Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865," in The Jewish Experience in America, ed. Abraham J. Karp (Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1969), Vol. 3, p. 180:

"[There were] Jewish owners of plantations, but altogether they constituted only a tiny proportion of the Southerners whose habits, opinions, and status were to become decisive for the entire section, and eventually for the entire country. . . . [Only one Jew] tried his hand as a plantation overseer even if only for a brief time."

Q. Did Jews Shun the Antislavery Movement?

A. Prominent Jews joined the manumission societies that gradually ended slavery in the North in the generation after the American Revolution. The militant abolitionist movement of the 1830s - led by "born again" Protestants --frightened off some Jewish support. But by the 1850s, German Jewish immigrants were flocking to the antislavery Republican Party at the same time as other immigrants became firmly wedded to the anti-abolition Democrats.

Maxwell Whiteman, "Jews in the Antislavery Movement," Introduction to The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: The Narrative of Peter and Vina Still (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970), pp. 28,42:
"Antislavery strongly appealed to the Jewish concept of the universal freedom of man. Hence, the hundreds of Jews who believed in the God of Israel . . . gave their energies to the antislavery movement . . .[despite] the Christian-martyr complex of many abolitionists, the evangelism of others, and the exclusiveness of still others."

Q. Did Jewish Rabbis "Invent Racism"?

A. Judaism is a universalist religion that embraces people of all colors and never imposed racial or ethnic limitations on conversion to the faith. The Old Testament instructs Jews to "love the stranger," and the biblical story of how Noah, angered by his son, Ham, cursed Ham's son, Canaan, has nothing to do with race.

The rabbis who compiled the Talmud, the pre-fifth century commentary on Jewish law, did not link slave status with black skin as part of a "divine curse." This linkage was made centuries later by Islamic and then Christian writers to justify the slave trade in non-white Africans.

Dr. Ephraim Isaac of the Institute of Semitic Studies, "Genesis, Judaism, and the Sons of Ham'," in Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, ed. John R. Willis (London: Frank Cass, 1985), Vol. 1, p.76: "Notwithstanding the fact that few monolithic Rabbinic teachings exist about any subject, there is always a general trend of thinking that can be extracted . . . . On that basis, it should be stated affirmatively that in Biblical or Rabbinic thought it cannot be said that the curse of Noah directly affected the whole family of Ham, nor can it be said that black people are regarded as the descendants of Canaan who was the accursed son of Ham."

Q. Was There a "Jewish Conspiracy" to Spy on African Americans?

A. During the 1920s, "Back to Africa" advocate Marcus Garvey sought a political alliance with the Ku Klux Klan at the same time as he castigated Jewish civil rights activists as "spies for the rest of the white race." Now, Garvey's charges have been revived specifically regarding the World War I activities of NAACP Board Chairman Joel E. Spingarn.

The facts are that, once the US entered the war in April 1917, Spingarn shared W.E.B. DuBois' controversial view that "Closing Ranks" behind the still-segregated military efforts was the best way to advance the civil rights cause.

Spingarn toured the country urging black college students to become officer candidates because it was time for "colored heroes who are lieutenants, captains, colonels, and generals." He enlisted and, in 1918, was assigned as a Major to Military Intelligence in Washington. He ultimately failed to convince his military superiors to create a special "Negro Section," in which DuBois would also be commissioned, with the dual purpose of discouraging antiwar activity and promoting patriotic enthusiasm among African Americans.

During and after the war, the Army used black intelligence agents to conduct domestic political surveillance, but Spingarn (who was reassigned to a combat regiment in France) had no significant part. His wartime role, however viewed, had nothing to do with Spingarn's negligible Jewish identification and organizational involvement.

Mark Ellis, "Closing Ranks, and Seeking Honors: W.E.B. DuBois in World War I," Journal of American History, Vol. 79 (June, 1992), p. 105: "[Spingarn] proposed propaganda initiatives aimed specifically at black opinion, and he called for federal action to redress grievances such as lynching and segregation. He claimed this dual approach had military relevance, since it would guarantee black participation in the war. But in linking a war for democracy' fought in France and the extension of democracy at home Spingarn was trying to further the aims of the NAACP as much as the war effort . . . . only two of his projects produced any results. In June 1918 he succeeded in having . . . hearings [held] on a wartime antilynching bill, and in July he persuaded the Committee on Public Information to organize a conference of black editors."

Q. How and Why Did Jewish Involvement in the Civil Right Movement Develop?

A. In 1909, when four Jews were among the sixty multiracial signers of the Call to National Action resulted in creation of the NAACP, the Yiddish newspapers on New York's Lower East Side were already equating lynchings of African Americans in the South with pogroms against Jews in Russia. During the next half century, organizational bonds and political cooperation between African American and American Jewish communities gradually matured.

The culmination in 1964 was Mississippi Freedom Summer when over half of the white students who journeyed south to fight for black voting rights are estimated to have been Jewish. Those drawn to the civil rights movement gave diverse reasons, and selfless idealism on behalf of others coexisted with enlightened self-interest in uprooting prejudices that also victimized Jews.

Martin Luther King, Jr., from a 1965 interview, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings (1986), p. 370: "How could there be anti-Semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice. Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi? And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom - it has been so great."


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