Slavery and the Jews

A review of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews: Volume One

Almost as soon as it appeared, in 1991, The Secret Relationship generated a controversy that centered more on its intentions than its scholarship. The noise level was heightened in 1993 by the turmoil that swirled around Professor Tony Martin, of Wellesley College. A tenured professor in Wellesley's Department of Africana Studies, Martin assigned to one of his classes portions of the book, which singles out Jews for special prominence in the Atlantic slave trade and for having played a particularly prominent role in the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. He was accused of anti-Semitism, and wrote a brief book to refute the charges. The title of Martin's book, The Jewish Onslaught: Despatches From the Wellesley Battlefront, gave a clear preview of his opinions. It was a mixture of discussion, factual refutation, and angry recrimination. This last predominated, with paragraphs that opened using language like "To the Jews, and to their favourite Negroes who have insisted on attacking me I say . . ." His views on The Secret Relationship's use of historical materials amounted to a barrage of enthusiastic endorsements. Ironically, Martin's assertion that "Jews were very much in the mainstream of European society as far as the trade in African human beings was concerned" was very close to what many Jewish scholars had claimed some thirty years before.

Martin, in one of his endorsements, made a startling assertion concerning slave ownership by Jews: "Using the research of Jewish historians, the book suggests that based on the 1830 census, Jews actually had a higher per capita slave ownership than for the white population as a whole." The Secret Relationship does in fact approach making that suggestion, and since the claim would appear to be a pivotal one, it is worth examining.

In order to assess such a claim, one must resort to details. Martin's purported actuality is wrong on its face if applied to the "white population" of the United States "as a whole," because in 1830 only a handful of white northerners still owned slaves. Jews were concentrated in the North, and they constituted a very small minority there. Even if the statement is taken as applying only to the states in the American South that had not adopted gradual emancipation laws, it remains badly flawed. A careful and honest footnote in The Secret Relationship reveals that "Jewish scholars" had concluded that Jews in the South lived mostly in towns and cities. Neither this book nor Martin's explains the significance of this fact. In actuality, slave ownership was much more common in southern urban areas than in the southern countryside. The relatively high proportion of Jewish slaveholding was a function of the concentration of Jews in cities and towns, not of their descent or religion. It is also the case that urban slaveholders of whatever background owned fewer slaves on average than rural slaveholders, including those on large plantations. Thus the proportion of slaveholders has never been an accurate measure of the social or economic importance of slaveholding, unless it is assessed on a broadly regional or state-by-state basis. In this instance, as in so many others, the statistical data do not stand up and cry out their own true significance.

The book is interesting in many respects. It has an unnamed editor and provides no indication of personal authorship. The title page declares that it was "Prepared by The Historical Research Department [of] The Nation of Islam," but does not explain why this is "Volume One" or what may be offered in ensuing volumes. The book is ostensibly a scholarly work, replete with a short bibliography and a huge collection of footnotes. Its opening "Note on Sources" asserts that it "has been compiled primarily from Jewish historical literature."

A second title page of The Secret Relationship announces that "Blacks and Jews have recently begun to question their relationship and its strategic role in their individual development" and that the book "is intended to provide an historical perspective for intellectual debate of this crucial social matter." The word "individual" raises the question whether persons or groups are intended. Individual African-Americans and individual Jews as persons? Or two distinct individual groups?

As for the mechanics of scholarship, they present a central difficulty. The footnotes are extremely difficult to check in the form in which they are presented: although they follow the custom (in common with most of the humanities but not the social sciences) of providing a complete citation upon first mention and a shortened author-title-page version for ensuing ones, and are placed at the bottom of the page, they are numbered consecutively--all 1,275 of them--rather than starting afresh with each chapter. A reader encountering a brief reference to a presumably important article on Jewish slaveholding in the South (such as one on page 304, in footnote No. 1,238) can find a fuller citation--on page 91, in footnote No. 349--only after nearly an hour of thumbing through the book. Having gone this far, the reader must then consult the "Footnote Abbreviations" at the beginning of the book in order to discover a reference that might be usable in a library. The citation names a three-volume work edited by Abraham J. Karp. Upon consulting that work, which actually has five volumes, one learns that the article in question is by Bertram W. Korn. The same article by Korn is listed in The Secret Relationship's "Selected Bibliography," but in another set of volumes, with an incorrect date and no indication that it was reprinted elsewhere several times.

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