Female Circumcision

Slavery and Jews

Lincoln and Abortion

Advice & Consent

Female Circumcision

Linda Burstyn ("Female Circumcision Comes to America," October Atlantic) is right on target. Female genital mutilation is child abuse, a serious human-rights violation, and a crime as serious as rape. The United States needs to outlaw the practice, to see that its practitioners are prosecuted, and to do everything possible through international organizations to eliminate the practice worldwide.

Respect for cultural differences cannot justify toleration of genocide, torture, slavery, child prostitution, and other violations of universal human rights. Female genital mutilation is no different from these other crimes.

Edd Doerr

Linda Burstyn's article is based on claims of a dubious character, to say the least. The mention of cultural relativity in connection with female genital mutilation is a laughable attempt at being cynical. The whole story, in fact, is laughable journalism--a collection of unchecked claims and impromptu interviews of nameless men.

I am not sure how much FGM is practiced in America or by whom. Mimi Ramsey says that families chip in to pay the airfare for a traditional person to perform female circumcision. What nationality are these families? Among the several Ethiopian families I know all over the United States, I have not heard of even one that practices female circumcision. I realize this does not give me the authority to say that no Ethiopian practices female circumcision. But I can confidently say that an appreciable percentage of urbanized Ethiopians at home and abroad have abandoned female circumcision altogether--not only because of the suspiciously unscientific claim that it has an adverse effect on female sexuality but also because it is now rightly regarded as a hazardous ritual.

Mimi Ramsey need not claim Ethiopian parentage to prove that some depraved parents in Athiopia have their children mutilated in an unspeakable manner. Unfortunately, barbaric acts are performed on children all over the world, the extent of barbarism being greater among the depraved. The unfortunate Ramsey perhaps needs medical attention even more than the money she is trying to attract from generous, liberal Americans who are often exploited by such characters.

Abebe Semegn

By any logical thinking, cultural relativism entails that our culture can assert itself within its purview. It should be glaringly obvious that our commitment to working out contradictions within our culture, such as racism and other forms of oppression that preclude autonomous choice, does not entail abdicating the very values in service to which we try to end oppression and domination. Using our respect for difference to justify letting people destroy the future autonomy of children is just self-contradictory--and, frankly, stupid.

Robert T. Fancher

Why, oh, why, did "Female Circumcision Comes to America" give no information as to just how the first bill introduced by Representatives Pat Schroeder and Barbara-Rose Collins "died in the previous Congress"? Who killed it, and how? Whom should we write or call to encourage the passage of the law? How could such an article be so apolitical?

Joan Strasser

The anti-FGM legislation first proposed by Schroeder and Collins died from the inertia that often kills bills low in congressional priority. Technically, the House passed the conference report that contained the legislation, and the Senate simply never got to the legislation to vote on it one way or the other.

At the time of this writing the anti-FGM legislation in the House (HR941) and the Senate (S1030) has been sent to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and the Judiciary and Commerce committees in the House. So far no action has been taken on the legislation. Those who are interested in voicing their opinions about these bills can write to the chairpersons of these committees or write or call their representatives or senators.

Slavery and Jews

Readers of "Slavery and the Jews" (September Atlantic), by Winthrop D. Jordan, should be informed that in January of last year, in an action that was virtually unprecedented in its 111-year history, the American Historical Association issued a policy resolution that "condemns as false any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the exploitation of slave labor or in the Atlantic slave trade." The AHA was defending the historical record from egregious assaults, staged by those using the tract under review as a guide, to assign Jews a major role in the Atlantic slave system. The statement that was published along with the resolution, written by David Brion Davis and Seymour Drescher, "noted experts on the history of slavery," concluded that these "claims so misrepresent the historical record . . . that we believe them only to be part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history."

Given what Davis called "the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system" (New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994), it is unfortunate that Winthrop Jordan chose to dwell on their role in the Dutch trade. For even here, Davis explained (citing the work of the Dutch historians Pieter Emmer and Johanes Postma), "Jews had a very limited and subordinate role even at the height of the Dutch slave trade in the 17th century." As Drescher has noted, in the British academic journal Immigrants and Minorities (July, 1993), Jews' investment share in the Dutch West India Company at this peak period "amounted to only 0.5 percent of the company's capital." And since Jordan chose to mention Brazil (New Holland), he should have indicated that Jews were allowed to play a role there only for about twenty-five years, during which less than one percent of the slaves ever imported into Brazil were landed there. He might also have said that Jews owned only six percent of Brazilian plantations during those years.

The Davis-Drescher statement concluded by observing that "Jews played only a nominal role in the slave system in the American South. Never more than a tiny fraction of the white population, they never formed more than a minuscule proportion of slave holders." Jordan could have informed his readers that in 1830, the year on which the tract under review dwells, there were only 1,500 Jews in the American South and, as the historian Harold Brackman has shown, only twenty-three of the 59,000 slave holders who owned twenty or more slaves were Jews. Indeed, in 1830 African-American slave holders outnumbered Jewish ones by fifteen to one. In short, Jews had a negligible role in American slavery and in the Atlantic slave trade.

Eunice G. Pollack

Winthrop Jordan's review of the Nation of Islam's The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews demonstrates conclusively that the key premises of the book (Jewish domination of the Atlantic slave trade and a decisive role in American slavery) are absolute fiction. However, Professor Jordan should have warned readers that this is not a serious piece of history at all, but rather a collection of anti-Semitic deception and pseudo-scholarship. To cite just a few examples:

1) The anonymous authors actually refer, apparently with a collective straight face, to "the Jewish pilgrim fathers."

2) The book asserts that Jews used black slaves in numbers disproportionately greater than "any other ethnic or religious group" in the New World. The fact is that there were twenty Jews--less than 0.2 percent--among the 12,000 southerners who owned fifty or more slaves in 1830. That year's census records that 3,775 free blacks owned 12,760 slaves.

3) The authors assert that Jewish complicity in the slave trade "incited the moral indignation of Europe's Gentile population" and led to the expulsion of the Jews from most European countries by the year 1500. It's hard to decide whether to laugh or cry after reading such fantastic nonsense.

Henry Louis Gates, the chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, has called this book "one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled," concluding that it "massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotation of often reputable sources."

One could make a persuasive argument that this book should never have been reviewed at all in a serious journal. But as a responsible historian, Winthrop Jordan should have made the character and purpose of the book very clear to his readers.

S. M. Stern

T does not deserve the legitimacy of a review.

Winthrop Jordan chose to argue with the Nation of Islam as if all the academic facts in the world could somehow persuade them that their history is flawed. What Jordan doesn't understand is that history is meaningless to Louis Farrakhan and his minions. Enlightened scholarly analysis (especially from a white scholar) has no meaning to those who practice the art of deception and propaganda.

For example, on page 211 of The Secret Relationship, Jews are said to have helped to suppress the famous slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. And indeed, a few Jewish-sounding names appear on the master lists of the hundreds of Virginia state militiamen who were called out to quell that violent revolt. This is of about as much historical importance as the fact that some of the militiamen were left-handed or that some were married.

Some books are just not worth talking about, and some books are not worth the dignity of a scholarly review. Some books deserve only the dignity of the big round file. The Secret Relationship is one of them.

Martin S. Goldman

It is no secret that some Europeans, among them some Jews, participated in the slave trade. Contrary to what many believe, however, they bought their slaves from Africans engaged in slave trade on the coast of western Africa, and did not raid villages, as the Arabs had done in eastern Africa and continued to do into the twentieth century. The island of Zanzibar, an Islamic state, was utilized as a holding pen for slaves captured by Arabs from raids in the interior and traded throughout the Arab world.

England, France, and America stopped the trade and slavery in the nineteenth century, whereas Arabs did so only in the 1960s, and then only after pressure from the United Nations. The Tuareg people of northern Africa freed their black slaves later in the same decade.

In view of the history of African slavery, why is it that The Nation of Islam, and some African-Americans, condemn Jews in particular, and not the Arab Islamic people, whose very religion sanctions slavery, and who continued the practice long after others had stopped? How does The Nation of Islam rationalize this attack on Jews, many of whom have fought consistently to see that justice and equality are not denied to American blacks?

If slavery is truly the motivating factor behind The Nation of Islam's attack on Jews, an honest and thorough review of all people and nations involved in the trade should be made before assigning blame to any one group.

Nicholas Alemanne

My comments on The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews focused on what the book itself said about the past, not the present. I deliberately avoided treating it as a contemporary political tract--which surely it is. There are dangers in regarding such a book as evidence of our present situation, dangers that become clear when efforts are made to balance the Atlantic slave trade somehow with the slave trade conducted on the east coast of Africa by Islamic peoples. The book did not discuss that latter trade. In my opinion, such blaming does not help our understanding of the past and most certainly does not open a gateway from present difficulties. Calls for considering the wider context of the book are perhaps justified, but that context has an almost infinitely expanding quality. Once begun, the inquiries spill rapidly into such arenas as ancient Greece, medieval Korea, and present-day California. As for dealing with The Secret Relationship as a work of scholarship, I thought it important to do so because the book was and is being presented as such to some of our young.

Lincoln and Abortion

George McKenna quoted me in his article "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position" (September Atlantic). He wrote:

[Abortion's] warmest supporters do not like to call it by its name. . . . Abortion clinics are "reproductive health clinics." . . . In an op-ed piece that appeared in The New York Times shortly after a gunman killed some employees and wounded others at two Brookline, Massachusetts, abortion clinics, a counselor at one of the clinics complained that the media kept referring to her workplace as an abortion clinic. "I hate that term," she declared.

I do hate the term "abortion clinic." I am not afraid of the word "abortion" or of the act of performing abortions. I object to the term "abortion clinic" because it is reductive and inadequate. Either McKenna did not read my piece carefully or he chose to quote me out of context. Because McKenna so earnestly exhorts us to "start talking with one another honestly," I'd like to give him another chance to see my words in their proper context:

Over and over, the news media and protesters call this place an abortion clinic. I hate that term. We do much more than provide abortions. We screen women for cervical cancer. We treat them for sexually transmitted infections. We connect women who want to continue their pregnancies with the services they need. We help women prevent pregnancies they do not want [emphasis added]. We help them plan when and whether they will become parents.

McKenna picked me out as an example of squeamish "pro-choicers, who simply refuse to face up to what abortion is." He picked wrong. I can say from personal experience and from my contact with hundreds of women that having an abortion is hard. Like nearly all of the women I have counseled, I am acutely aware that having an abortion means stilling a heartbeat. About half of us have already borne a child. We consider very carefully the significance of our decisions. It is arrogant and callous to assume otherwise.

Louise Ambler Osborn

George McKenna misunderstands the nature of the conflict he seeks to resolve when he says, "Here, then, is the center of it all. If abortion had nothing to do with the stilling of heartbeats and brains, there would be no abortion controversy." The abortion controversy is not chiefly about the unborn but is rather the most passionate battle in the ongoing power struggle between men and women. As such, it is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For the present, however, I think the abortion-rightists hold the upper hand, and since they seek to block rather than to enact legislation, it is probable that they will continue to do so well into the next century.

Alexis A. Gilliland

"Permit . . . discourage . . . restrict." Such confusing and inconsistent words were disturbingly prevalent in an article that strove to lend a clarity of purpose to the abortion debate. I found them of little help. One phrase in George McKenna's article did keep coming back to me, however. "When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man . . . that is despotism." Using a Congress that is more than 80 percent male as a platform for debate on abortion seems to me one of the more stunning examples of precisely the brand of despotism that Lincoln warned us of. For, despite a mutual vested interest in keeping our species chugging along, it is and always has been women who are forced to endure the physical and emotional burden of pregnancy. Whatever the outcome, the deck has been stacked against women on this one, and it is chilling that McKenna did not even care to mention that fact in his description of the historical politics of "choice."

Matthew Scanlon

I hope Louise Osborn will forgive me for finding in her letter the same note of defensiveness that I found in her original op-ed article. Yes, she is saying, we do abortions, but we do other things, too--very good things.

Her letter does contain one notable advance in candor: her admission that abortion "means stilling a heartbeat." Yet in her article she called her clinic "a place of healing and care." The question, then, comes down to this: How can "stilling a heartbeat" be reconciled with "healing and care"? How can the bad thing be reconciled with the good things? Perhaps there is some way, though I doubt it. But one of the points I sought to make in my article is that this issue must be debated, not suppressed or hidden behind euphemisms and fine sentiments.

Matthew Scanlon and Alexis Gilliland would frame the abortion controversy, in Gilliland's words, as a "power struggle between men and women." This is nonsense. Public-opinion polls conducted since Roe v. Wade, in 1973, have consistently shown women to be more pro-life than men. In 1992, for example, a Gallup poll for Life magazine found that 52 percent of women thought abortion should be legal "never" or "in only a few specific circumstances." The leadership of the pro-life movement is composed primarily of women, and the leaders of the original American feminist movement (in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) were outspoken in their opposition to abortion.

Advice & Consent

Your October issue carried an advertisement by an organization that calls itself FLAME--so-called Facts and Logic About the Middle East. These advertisements are outrageously racist and full of malicious disinformation. If you were remotely familiar with FLAME, you would know that it engages in a propaganda assault on all Arabs, regardless of their religion or nationality, for the purpose of evoking unconditional support of Israel, regardless of Israeli practices and actions.

FLAME's ads seek to portray a tiny, defenseless Israel surrounded by murderous, fanatical "Moslem-Arab" terrorists. Of course there is no mention of the fact that Israel, which is an undeclared nuclear state, has been occupying Palestinian land, Syria's Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon for decades. There is no mention of the fact that to this day Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, violate Palestinian human rights (including the right to self-determination), engage in collective punishment of innocent Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, build settlements on Arab land, and jail political prisoners who have never been tried in a court of law.

FLAME's blatant racism is evident in ads that blame "Arab-Moslem fanaticism" for all the problems of the Middle East. FLAME's intent is to equate all Arabs with Islam and, in turn, to equate Islam with terrorism, even though many Arabs are Christian or Jewish, and even though Islam does not promote terrorism any more than Christianity or Judaism does. FLAME's racist anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda is appalling.

It is a disgrace that a respectable magazine like The Atlantic Monthly would agree to carry such inflammatory and racist messages! Would you publish an advertisement by the KKK? I think not. And rightfully so! It is unimaginable that your magazine would carry ads by groups who promote anti-black or anti-Jewish sentiments. Arabs, like Jews, are a Semitic people. Why is anti-Semitism tolerated when it is directed at them? By carrying FLAME's ads, you are compromising the integrity of your magazine. Arabs are not fair game for bigotry, lies, and hateful messages.

Hamzi K. Moghrabi

FLAME's advertisements present a clear political position, but they are not racist, and we would not publish them if they were. The Atlantic Monthly does not for political reasons censor or "correct" advertising that appears in the magazine, nor does it necessarily endorse what any advertisement says. The Atlantic Monthly Company believes in free speech. We accept advertising from FLAME just as we would accept advertising from a group opposed to FLAME.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 1; pages 10-16.