The Problem

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Carving of Slave, Museum Kurá Hulanda, Otrobanda, Curaçao. Photo by Laura Leibman, 2008. “Blackamoor” figures are stylized depictions of black Africans used in sculpture, jewelry, armorial designs and decorative art. Such carvings literally objectified enslaved Africans and reinforced the perception that they were always already possessions.

Like it or not, when we talk about Jews, race, and the Slave Trade, we enter into a debate that has been going on now for over two decades.  This conversation is not only unpleasant, it has created ongoing tensions and conflicts between Jews and African Americans today.  Moreover, even after several books have “set the record straight” about the “facts” of Jews and the slave trade, the battle of warring messages continues to rage on the internet.  Why?  Is the lack of willingness to accept a modified version of Jews’ role just “antisemitism,” or is something more at stake?  What can we learn from this problem that can help us unpack other difficult conversations about Jews, slaves, and race?

The controversy broke out in 1991, when the the Historical Research Department of the The Nation of Islam published a book entitled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Volume 1An extremely damaging battle of warring messages ensued.

Here is a brief summary of the terms of the debate:

The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews…alleged that Jews dominated the Atlantic slave trade.[71] Volume 1 of the book claims that Jews played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade, and profited from black slavery.[72] The book was heavily criticized for being antisemitic, and for failing to provide an objective analysis of the role of Jews in the slave trade. Common criticisms were that the book used selective quotes, made “crude use of statistics”,[32] and was purposefully trying to exaggerate the role of Jews.[73] The Anti-Defamation League criticized the Nation of Islam and the book.[6] Henry Louis Gates Jr criticized the book’s intention and scholarship.[74] (Wikipedia)

Like many difficult conversations, sometimes The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews and its critics did not dispute certain key facts.  As Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen note, “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right.  They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values” (10).  Historian Ralph A. Austen notes this problem in his review of the book:

Historian Ralph A. Austen, heavily criticized the book and said that although the book “seems fairly accurate” it is an antisemitic book, whose “distortions are produced almost entirely by selective citation rather than explicit falsehood…. more frequently there are innuendos imbedded in the accounts of Jewish involvement in the slave trade,”[75] and “[w]hile we should not ignore the anti-Semitism of The Secret Relationship…, we must recognize the legitimacy of the stated aim of examining fully and directly even the most uncomfortable elements in our [Black and Jewish] common past.”[76] (Wikipedia, emphasis mine)

Moreover, despite the vast quantities of publications that have attacked the methods and claims of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews (see Resources below), the theories put forth in book continue to hold sway in both virtual and real communities.  In the online reviews of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews on Amazon.com 22 out of 25 customers gave the book five stars.   Common praise for The Secret Relationship included its “emotionless and unbiased manner,” its, “objectivity,” its use of Jewish sources, and its “thousand footnotes and references.”  In contrast, those who gave it one star refer to it as a “Handbook of Hate,” “distortions,” and an example of how “Hate Sells.”

I would argue that the reason why the conversation continues despite the fact that publications have “set the record straight” on the facts, is that Jewish responses may not have addressed the underlying concerns expressed by proponents of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews.  To help students (or yourself) think about the underlying issues raised by the controversy, one might think about the conflict in light of the following three types of conversations:

  1. The “What Happened” Conversation
  2. The Feelings Conversation
  3. The Identity Conversation

Resources

Several prominent historians have published important responses to The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews including

In addition, several scholars published shorter responses to the book, such as

  • David Briton Davis, “Jews in the Slave Trade,” Struggles in the Promised Land, ed. Cornel West and Jack Saltzman (NY: Oxford UP, 1997): 65-72.
  • Seymour Drescher, “The Role of Jews in the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks & Jews in the United States, ed. Maurianne Adams and John H. Bracey (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2000): 105-15.
  • Ralph A. Austen, “The Uncomfortable Relationship: African Enslavement in the Common History of Blacks and Jews,” Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks & Jews in the United States, ed. Maurianne Adams and John H. Bracey (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2000): 131-36.
  • Winthrop D. Jordan, “Slavery and the Jews.
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