Experts on the history of the African slave trade are strongly contesting claims by Nation of Islam leaders that Jews overwhelmingly controlled the black slave trade.
They are calling the accusations – as one expert put it – a “vicious libel” against the Jewish people and they are using substantial documentation to disprove it.
The charges have gained a new prominence since they were contained in a widely publicized speech last November by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a top aide Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
At a Feb. 3 news conference, Farrakhan said he supported the “truths” propagated by his aide and detailed in a 334-page document put together by his organization’s Historical research Department.
The speech and subsequent news conference infuriated Jewish leaders and the ensuing controversy has highlighted the sensitivity of the issue in Black- Jewish relations.
“The reason (Nation of Islam leaders) focus on Jews and slavery,” said Kenneth Stern, program specialist for the American Jewish Committee, “is that’s the biggest canard they can put inside the African American experience. That’s the central event in the African American experience.”
Analysts say Farrakhan exploits a widespread ignorance of American history. “If people like Farrakhan get to people before the legitimate sources, then they are captive to his version of events,” said Mark Caplan, a research analyst for the Anti-Defamation League.
“The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” published in 1991, alleges that Jews were involved in the slave trade “disproportionately more than any other ethnic group in New World history.”
Critics of this claim, including prominent black leaders, point out that there is nothing fundamentally “historical” about it. They say it is an attempt to distort history to suit the Nation of Islam’s own political agenda.
Mainstream historians compare the thesis that Jews played a prominent role in the slave trade to Holocaust and say the slavery charge reflects classical anti-Semitic notions of Jewish power and control.
Yale University historian David Brion Davis, an expert in the history of slavery, says that while it is possible to cite specific examples of Jewish slave owners, Jews overall played a very minor role when compared to their Protestant and Catholic counterparts.
“A selective search for Jewish slave traders becomes inherently anti-Semitic unless one keeps in view the large context and the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system,” Davis wrote in a 1992 article in a publication called Culturefront.
Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) said in an interview that Farrakhan is scapegoating Jews as a “shortcut to power.” Owens, one of the few black politicians who have called publicly for the black community to sever ties with the Nation of Islam leader, said Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views have received widespread play from sympathetic members of the black media.
And the particular charge regarding the Jewish role in the slave trade has gained a level of legitimacy within the black community that extends beyond Farrakhan.
In a 1992 New York Times op-ed piece, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. warned that among “significant sectors of the black community” the Nation of Islam book has become “a credo of a new philosophy of black affirmation.”
In his article, Gates said the book is part of an effort to promote black isolationism by threatening the kind of strong interracial alliances epitomized by that between blacks and Jews. “The new anti-Semitism,” Gates wrote, “arises not in spite of the black-Jewish alliance but because of it.”
Gates said the most troubling aspect of the slavery claims is the notion that alleged historical deeds reflects an essential, inherited evil, which is manifest in modern-day Jews.
Gates was directing his article in part of other black intellectuals and academics, some of whom have endorsed Farrakhan’s message.
Wellesley College Professor Anthony Martin recently came under heavy criticism for teaching “The Secret Relationship” in a history course.
IN March 1992, Professor Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York was fired from his post as head of the school’s Black Studies Department because of anti-Semitic marks – including the slavery charge – he made in a 1991 speech.
Jeffries, who has since been reinstated as department head, claimed that Jews had helped finance the salve trade and that blacks may be intellectually superior to whites.
The AJCommittee’s Stern says Farrakhan’s message is particularly potent on college campuses, where many black students have already been exposed to exaggerated Afrocentric views.
Stern, who speaks at college campuses around the country counseling on how to manage these attack, says student, teachers and administrators on collage campuses have difficulty refuting Farrakhan’s claims because they are not familiar with the intellectual “sleight of hand” employed in revisionist rhetoric.
Stern said that Jewish officials have made the mistake of trying to argue with groups like the Nations of Islam on a point- by-point basis and are now trying to portray larger issue of historical distortion.
“When their point of view is not caring about factual accuracy,” Stern said, “you’re never going to be able to keep up with what their next lie is.”
Patricia Reeberg, a black minister and executive director of the Council of Churches in the City of New York, said many blacks have a sense that Jews played a role in the slave trade but are uncertain as the extent of that role. Such uncertainty, Reeberg said, “intensifies a lack of trust.”
Historian point out that “The Secret Relationship” takes the words of Jewish writers out of context, twisting them in order to suit the Nation of Islam’s own premise.
Specific instances of Jewish slaveowners are frequently cited without noting that these were a very small percentage of slave owners as a whole.
At his recent news conference, Farrakhan charged that Jews owned the 75 percent of slaves in the American South.
Davis, the Yale historian, said in an interview that the Farrakhan team was forced to use Jewish sources of buttress its claims because the Jewish role in the slave trade was too negligible to be mentioned by most non-Jewish accounts.
Even avowed anti-Semites, Davis said, did not make claims of Jewish involvement in the slave trade.
After a long history of Jews being blamed for everything from the French Revolution to AIDS, Davis said, “this is a new development.”
Following a series of expulsion from Western European countries, most European Jews went to Eastern Europe or the Ottoman Empire, where they were far from the booming slave industry. Only a negligible number of the mostly Sephardic Jews remaining in Western Europe were involved in the Atlantic trade. “Logistically,” Davis said, “it was impossible for Jews to have any kind of major role.”
Davis said that at no time was the proportion of Jews involved in the Atlantic slave trade in any way comparable to that of Protestants and Catholics.
“Anyone with the slightest knowledge of demography,” David said, “knows that this completely off the wall.”
Leading scholars say the total participation of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade was less than 2 percent.
And contrary to Farrakhan’s charges that Jews owned 75 percent of all American slaves, Harold Brackman, a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center who has written a refutation of “The Secret Relationship,” said in an interview that less than 1 percent of Southern slaves were owned by Jews. It was he who referred to the slavery charges as a “vicious libel.”
Scholars say that all Jewish slave traders combined bought and sold fewer slaves than the largest non-Jewish firm, Franklin and Armfield.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.