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Jews and the American Slave Trade.

Jews and the American Slave Trade. By Saul S. Friedman. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1998. xiv + 326 pp.

This is a difficult book to review, not least because of its serious purpose in refuting a charge that has become too common in some segments of the Black community in recent years which blames the Jews for the slave trade. This stance, Friedman seems to suggest, is partly a tactic of one outside group adopting the majority's traditionally hostile viewpoint towards another outside group for its own purposes. The two groups have had, perhaps more often than most, a relatively close relationship, despite the divergent circumstances of their passage to the Americas, sharing neighborhoods, poverty, and the struggle for civil rights. But they have also diverged in wealth, outlook, politics, and aims. In the last two chapters of this book, by far the most interesting, Friedman discusses the history of this relationship and explores its dynamics.

To some extent, this antagonism is a function of the close association. As Jews embraced opportunity and achieved success, seizing advantages African Americans did not always perceive or were not offered, Jews sometimes adopted the same attitudes towards Blacks as the majority community, attitudes more keenly felt and more roundly resented. Friedman quotes Shelby Steele as saying that this "brotherhood of outsidedness," bred in a common rejection, carried with it a sense of shame and that Blacks and Jews "today distance themselves from each other and their kinship as a way of distancing themselves from the shame implied in that kinship" (p. 238). That may be true. But distancing, it seems to me, implies an aversion that is somewhat at odds with an antagonism that goes out of its way to seek a confrontation. The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book which Friedman set out to refute, evidently exhibits hurt and pain, jealousy and rage as well perhaps as shame. Or maybe I should say that shame is part of the mix that creates the attitudes the book exhibits because the book itself, at least as Friedman describes it (for I admit I have not read it) seems shameless in its ignorance.

Which brings me to the problem with Friedman's book. He makes it clear that he does not feel it is safe to let these unfounded charges go unanswered and he tries to respond to The Secret Relationship seriatim. In so doing he lets that book guide his own, and, while it is sometimes an effective brief, it is not always interesting reading. He details the story of the slave trade within the framework of European overseas expansion, and makes the basic point that the Iberian nations which led that movement were fired, as much as anything else, by a religious motivation that excluded and persecuted Jews. Jews qua Jews, therefore, were not likely to have been, and in fact were not, leaders in the ventures of this period, including the slave trade. In some cases they were present, and in some cases they participated, but they did not dominate. He considers Portuguese contacts on the African coast, the settlements of Sao Tome and other islands off the coast and the plantation systems there, and follows the Portuguese and the Spanish to the New World. He goes so far as to analyze the names and holdings of early merchants and colonists to prove his point. He has a problem in dealing with people who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the period, in considering when and to what extent they should be considered Jews, and some of these people took part in early colonizing efforts. There is the issue of pride of place, precedence, and purpose, and Friedman is not always sure where he wants to come down. But, without claiming that Jews were nowhere ever involved in slavery or the slave trade, he fairly effectively demonstrates that they dominated neither. He makes the same case with respect to the Dutch, the French, and the English, and the Old South.

Of course, no serious scholar credits The Secret Relationship's calumny, and most know the story that Friedman relates, in outline if not in detail. Many in the general public will not know these facts, however, and perhaps the case needs to be made. But it is evident he is not working in his particular field of expertise. He begins the book with a disclaimer: "This is not a text in American history, Jewish history, nor, for that matter, the history of slavery. Neither is it intended as an update of Robert Weisbord and Arthur Stern's excellent study of Black-Jewish relations, Bittersweet Encounter. Rather, it is intended as a response to a series of charges" (p. xi). But in that case, how is it to be judged? The answer, I suppose, would be in how effectively he proves his case. For most scholars, the case does not need to be proven. For the educated public, already sympathetic, the case is a strong one. For the dubious public he makes enough simple errors, errors even they might recognize, so as to cast doubt on other parts of his argument, and one could wish he had let some authorities in the field view the manuscript before publication.

Simple mistakes are legend. For example, he evidently thinks Winthrop Jordan, author of the seminal White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) is Black, writing, after one mention that "this is the extent of Jordan's reference to Jews as slave traders in a volume strident in its assault against the Puritan oppressors of his people" (p. 14). In fact, Jordan is White (a fact Friedman might possibly have inferred from Jordan's preface) and, as I understand it, descended from those Puritan oppressors. I would like to assume that when, on page 38, he comments "The notion of Jewish slave domination gained popularity among nationalistic writers like Houston Stewart Chamberlain," he knows that Chamberlain is white; it seems to me it would be important for his argument to say so. But neither the context of the statement nor his reference to Jordan make me comfortable in making the assumption. On page 49, he confuses the papal bull of Alexander VI in 1493 with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. In a couple of places he makes a common error about the asiento, which permitted the importation into the Spanish empire of a specified number of piezas de Indias (the equivalent of prime male slaves), and might not be consistent with the number of slaves imported. It is difficult to know what he means when he says (page 82) that the code noir "established the slave system" in Louisiana and might pass unnoticed were it not for these other errors. On page 134, he writes that "Both Virginia and Maryland were established as proprietary colonies, the former reserved for members of the Church of England, the latter for Catholics." In fact, Virginia was a corporate colony chartered to two English companies and while the Church of England was the established church, people of other denominations entered; although Maryland was a proprietary colony intended partly as a refuge for Catholics, more Protestants than Catholics entered almost immediately. Later on the same page, speaking of the seventeenth-century, he says that "Virginia equated the practice of any form of Christianity other than Anglicanism with blasphemy and automatically freed any Christian white servant owned" by Blacks, Jews, Indians, or Moslems. But this was not true for most of the seventeenth century; the law to which he refers was passed towards the end of the century, designed to correct a perceived problem, and marked a change in Virginia history. He correctly cites David Brion Davis for the quotation but somewhat out of context. Davis was comparing similarities between ancient slavery and the modern concept. He was not making a point about seventeenth-century Virginia. There are other such mistakes, and my point is not to pile on or to suggest that Friedman intends to mislead. These are the mistakes of someone unfamiliar with the field in which he is writing. Perhaps none of his mistakes is serious by itself. But a series of them pose a problem. This is especially the case in a work created to use measured truth to confront a hateful lie. It loses effect if it appears to substitute one polemic for another.

This book has a serious purpose and attempts to grapple with a serious issue. It is too bad it could not have done so better.

Daniel C. Littlefield is Carolina Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (1981).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Littlefield, Daniel C.
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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