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March 2, 1995

Jews were never dominant in slave trade, Pitt historian says

Recent "spurious" claims to the contrary, Jews were never a dominant force in the Atlantic slave trade, according to a statement co-authored by Pitt history professor Seymour Drescher and endorsed recently by the Council of the American Historical Association (AHA).

Drescher and Yale historian David Brion Davis, experts on the history of slavery and anti-slavery movements, wrote the statement disputing charges that Jews played a disproportionate role as traders and owners of African slaves.

Such charges have appeared most prominently in the anonymous book, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," published by the Nation of Islam in 1991, and in statements by some self-described Afrocentric academicians, including Leonard Jeffries, head of black studies at City University of New York's City College.

Drescher said he fears the anti-Jewish claims have been gaining acceptance in recent years thanks to uncritical media publicity and the growing popularity of Jeffries and the Nation of Islam's Khalid Muhammad on the college lecture circuit. The question of Jewish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade has not been a divisive issue here, said Drescher and Joseph Adjaye, acting chairperson of Africana studies. Two years ago, faculty from history and Africana studies discussed "a number of issues and grievances," Drescher said. "One thing we agreed on was that the role of Jews in the slave trade had been marginal." Laurence Glasco, a history faculty member who has team-taught a Pitt course on "Blacks and Jews" with Barbara Burstin of history and Jewish studies, said, "From what I've seen, there isn't a whole lot of tension between blacks and Jews on this campus generally." As for the issue of Jews and African slavery, Glasco said, "I'm sure there are people in certain circles in Pittsburgh who follow this and read the literature from the Nation of Islam and so forth, but I don't find much of that on the Pitt campus. Whether it will come here some day is another matter." Glasco, who is African-American, said he supports the Davis-Drescher statement.

In January, the AHA Council approved a resolution condemning "any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the exploitation of slave labor or in the Atlantic slave trade." The council will publish its resolution and the Davis-Drescher statement in this month's issue of its newsletter. The Davis-Drescher statement reads as follows: "During the past few years there have been a number of egregious assaults on the historical record in institutions of higher learning and at educational conferences. These assaults implicate Jews as a dominant group in the Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans in the New World. The claims so misrepresent the historical record, however, that we believe them only to be part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history. In such scenarios, Jews are the secret force behind every major social development from capitalism to democracy, every major cataclysm from the Medieval pandemic of the plague through the French and Russian Revolutions to the collapse of Communism, and now, incredibly, appear for the first time as the secret force behind slavery. Unfortunately, the media have given the latest charges wide currency, while failing to dismiss them as spurious. As professional historians, who have closely examined and assessed the empirical evidence, we cannot remain silent while the historical record is so grossly violated.

"Atlantic slavery was an intercontinental enterprise extending over nearly four centuries. Ethnically, the participants included Arabs, Berbers, scores of African ethnic groups, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, Jews, Germans, Swedes, French, English, Danes, white Americans, Native Americans and even thousands of New World people of African descent who became slaveholding farmers or planters themselves. Since Portugal and Spain barred Jews from their empires, and since, by the 16th century most of the Jews who weren't either killed or converted in Western Europe had fled eastward, it was impossible for Jews to play more than a marginal role in a vast system that attracted tens of thousands of pagans, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. Even in Holland and the Dutch colonies, where Jews were allowed to make their main 'contribution' to New World slavery as merchants and planters, they always formed a minority. Similarly, 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 slaveholders."

— Bruce Steele

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