[, Ph.D., Michigan State University 1992, is Assistant Professor at Oxford College of Emory University. He is a specialist in ancient religions and teaches European history.]
I recently ordered a copy of the much cited work _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_, published by the Nation of Islam. The book was anonymously prepared by the Historical Research Department of the Nation of Islam. It came in a plain, brown-paper wrapper, like illicit Danish pornography.
Since its publication in 1991, the book has enjoyed a steadily growing infamy. Its defenders largely inhabit the periphery of the academic and intellectual community, if that. But they are vocal, and visible. The book's critics are, understandably, legion. Its sloppy scholarship and myopic historical perspective have ensured that virtually no competent scholars take it seriously. Few, indeed, have read the book. Yet most have heard of it. It is, ironically, among the most cited works of "economic history" published in the last five years. What is in this book, which has recently gained such notoriety? That is the sad question which I sought to answer, when I ordered myself a copy of _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_.
The thesis of _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ asserts that "Jews have been conclusively linked to the greatest criminal endeavor ever undertaken against an entire race of people -- a crime against humanity -- the Black African Holocaust." Hence, the book's thesis contains two broad points. The first point, made explicitly, is that Jews bear much moral culpability for the slave trade. Alleged Jewish domination of the slave trade, then, becomes the book's primary empirical focus, providing its pseudo veneer of careful historical scholarship. The thesis statement's second point, however, is implicit: that the Black African Holocaust was "the greatest criminal endeavor ever undertaken against an entire race of people."
This implicit thesis warrants special consideration, at the outset. Clearly the Nation of Islam researchers are challenging Jews to a victim contest. What was worse, they are asking: the Nazi Holocaust, or New World slavery? The question is loaded with innuendo and larger implications. The most subtle and pernicious form of Holocaust Revisionism has generally sought to position the Holocaust in a comparative framework. In his work _The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation_, historian Ian Kershaw points to this emerging trend, especially prevalent in Germany. There, the place of the Holocaust in modern history is being debated, a discussion called the _Historikerstreit_ (historians' dispute). He especially notes German scholar Ernst Nolte, from the Free University of Berlin, who argued, in 1986, for the need to view the Holocaust as part of a larger group of modern genocides. Hitler is placed alongside other modern butchers such as Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and myriad others. Such seductive reasoning, however, diminishes the Holocaust's uniquely atrocious character. The Holocaust was motivated by sheer racial hatred, and represents a modern bureaucratic state's efficient attempts to eliminate an entire ethnic group from the face of the earth. Other attempts at genocide, however abominable, have generally been motivated by political, economic, or social considerations. By positioning itself in this comparative framework, _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ borrows a well-worn device, employed by antisemites for decades.
In an April 19 speech at Howard University, Khalid Abdul Muhammad explored the problematic question of "whose Holocaust (African or Jewish) was the worst Holocaust in the history of all time?" Having recently come from a visit to the new Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Muhammad noted with chagrin that various references in the exhibit implied that the Nazi's Final Solution was the worst crime in human history. In the speech, Muhammad said that "The 'so-called Jew Holocaust' lasted...ten years, but the Holocaust of the Black man and woman lasted 500 years." Thus has discourse in American intellectual life devolved. In late twentieth century America, money and political clout are often allotted to the victims of past injustice. Shareholders of victims groups reap rich dividends. Indeed, the Nation of Islam has long been an advocate of reparations for slavery, including the granting of land. Victimization has now become an industry. Trivialized by all the semantics and posturing, however, are both the Holocaust and the African slave trade. These terrible chapters of human history have become pawns in modern political struggles.
But most of the book is concerned with the African slave trade, not the Nazi Holocaust. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ claims that "They [the Jews] were participants in the entrapment and forcible exportation of millions of Black African citizens into the wretched and inhuman life of bondage for the financial benefit of Jews." But lest this classically antisemitic rhetoric worry anyone, an "Editor's Note" sagaciously cautions that "the subject at hand is a controversial one and should be approached with great sensitivity...The wise will see this as an opportunity to develop a more equitable relationship between the families of man."
At least the thesis, albeit virulent, is clear. The body of evidence which allegedly supports the thesis constitutes a morass of half-truths, murky innuendos, and, to say the least, selective use of facts. Ambiguous links between words like "Jews" and "jewels" are liberally mixed together with eyebrow-raising subtitles like "The Jews Kill the Blacks of Surinam," and "Proud to Murder Black Men." _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ is heavily footnoted, and seems to especially relish that a great preponderance of the sources cited are "from the Jewish historical record," meaning, presumably, the work of Jewish historians. Relied upon especially heavily are such noted works as _Encyclopedia Judaica_ and _Aspects of Jewish Economic History_. The introduction all but assigns to Jews the blame for the plight of African peoples during the last 500 years. Despite its bold claim, the book's use of factual analysis is thin. Its central focus rests on exiled Sephardic Jewry and their involvement in New World exploration, especially the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South. Information presented is often given without sufficient context. Sweeping statements are supported with dubious evidence. Sketchy use of empirical data abounds, like the "partial list" of Jewish plantation owners in Brazil, or the citation of a Jewish merchant or two who served the Dutch or British. Indeed, virtually the last half of the book is a lengthy section titled "Jews of the Black Holocaust," featuring a laundry list of Jewish slave-holders from the old American South. This appears, frankly, as a rather blatant attempt at padding the text's length, as in junior high. Without it, the book would be close to a hundred pages shorter.
But these abundant technical flaws are minor, compared to the book's larger, more comprehensive problems. Its historical overview is vastly uninformed, and simplistic. In classic antisemitic fashion, it obsessively strives to provide readers with a specific list of Jewish activities, with regards to the African slave trade. This infatuation with Jews irreparably skews the authors' general historical perspective. It would rather try to count the Jews in sixteenth century Brazil than look at the broader economic system which produced sixteenth century Brazil, so to speak.
This fictitious and lopsided historical overview is the book's greatest flaw. Ultimately, _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ distorts utterly the complex confluence of factors which led to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the inexcusable, tragic enslavement of millions of African peoples.
THE SECRET RELATIONSHIP
The book emphasizes a "secret" aspect of the relationship between Blacks and Jews. This gives the volume something of a mysterious quality. Readers may feel a veritable voyeuristic thrill upon first opening the book. Unfortunately, the secret remains a secret. The book mistakes innuendo for subtlety. Undoubtedly part of the "secret" involves the fact the few groups or individuals, before the Nation of Islam, had "uncovered" the alleged extent to which Jews were involved in the slave trade. Another aspect of the "secret," however, hints at a class of "hidden-Jews." This classically antisemitic allusion seems to revolve around the requisite conversions many Jews were forced to undergo at the hands of the Inquisition. Such Jews often converted to Christianity publicly, but remained Jews in private, earning the generic name _conversos_. Conversos that continued with their faith in private were pejoratively labelled as marranos, an abusive term related to the Spanish word for "swine." Interestingly, the book routinely employs this derisive term to refer to such Jews. The term does have some legitimate use among careful scholars, as it describes a specific category of individuals operating in a unique, and tragic, historical context. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_, however, seems to employ this old epithet with special relish.
An emphasis on "secret Jews," or "_marranos_," is classic antisemitism. Marranos were especially hated. Even fellow Jews, those who had braved the Inquisition, were apt to view them as turncoats. On the streets of Christendom, too, these "crypticJews" were often loathed. They sometimes adopted overtly Christian names, and publicly participated in Christian rites with great enthusiasm. But deep down, they were still viewed with suspicion,still seen as harboring that old antipathy for the goyim. The notion of a "Secret Jew" fed directly into some of Medieval Europe's oldest and most virulent antisemitic views regarding Jews' alien loyalties, and penchant for secret conspiracies. The list of such "grievances" is well-known. Jews had not been loyal to the ancient Roman Empire, an accusation which was sometimes extended to Christians, who were often confused with Jews in the earliest centuries of this era. Jews of Visigothic Spain had aided the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711. Jews indulged in an infamous ritual murder called the "Blood Libel," in which a Christian child was murdered annually in an unholy religious rite. Jews had poisoned wells in Europe, prompting the devastating plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century. In a later but equally tragic age, such notions were to culminate in the notorious _Protocols of the Elders of Zion_, purportedly the eyewitness account of a secret conventicle held during the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland (1897). There, the Chief Sage and the Elders of Zion plotted how to achieve global Jewish domination by exploiting bourgeois democratic liberties. Though the document was an appalling forgery, it possesses tenacity. It appeared in Japan as recently as the late 1980s. Make no mistake about it. When someone starts talking about "secret" Jewish activities, or "secret" Jews, it is one of the oldest and deadliest strains of bigotry there is.
_The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ sees conversos as the driving force behind New World exploitation, and, by extrapolation, slavery. In its simplistic overview, anybody who had anything to do with Atlantic maritime commerce or New World colonization was either a Jew or a conversos. Christopher Columbus was probably a Jew. The investors who sponsored his voyage, contrary to legends about Queen Isabella, were Jews. The first settlers of Brazil were Jews. Ditto for Jamaica, St. Thomas, Barbados, Surinam, Curacao, et al. Dutch merchants were "frequently Jews." A trader who gave smallpox infested blankets to the Indians of Pontiac's 1763 Confederacy, wiping out thousands, was a Jew. Jean Lafitte the pirate, who smuggled slaves into Louisiana after the 1808 prohibition on importing slaves, was a Jew. The 1831 slave revolt of Nat Turner was put down with "the help of at least two Jewish militiamen." Twenty-Three staff officers in the Confederate army were Jews. The list goes on and on.
What maddens here is the use of half-truths and selective facts to distort the historical record. It is true, in fact, that some recent scholarship hints at the possibility that Columbus was a conversos, as Jane Gerber pointed out in her recent work _The Jews of Spain_. Although he claimed descent from the Italian city Genoa, Columbus was never known to write Italian. The name Columbus hints at the name Colon, which was extremely common with Sephardic Jewry. Too, the literal translation of Christopher Columbus -- "Christ-Bearing Dove" -- recalls the overtly Christian names often adopted by conversos. He was known to keep company with both the Jews and Muslims of Spain. He seems to have been especially adept at gaining the favor of the Christianized Jews in Isabella's court, which may have helped him secure financing for his voyage. Moreover, much of the finest work in the still evolving understanding of navigation and geography had been advanced by Jewish scholars. Jewish cartographers had produced some of the finest known maps of the North African and Mediterranean Coasts. Jewish inventiveness had also contributed greatly to the development of the "quadrant," an instrument which enabled sailors to fix their position by ascertaining the position of heavenly bodies. If anything, these known Jewish contributions to maritime technology were great contributions to human knowledge. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ makes them look shameful and conspiratorial.
Similarly, it is likewise true that there was a Jewish presence in Atlantic maritime commerce. Along with Syrians and Byzantine Greeks, the Jews had a long history of providing Medieval western Europe's stunted economy with merchants. In both Carolingian and Byzantine texts, the word for Jew is often interchangeable with the word for merchant. Unfortunately, _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ makes no attempt to depict the deplorable conditions which drove so many Jews to seek their livelihood in trade. Given the editor's assertion that "We have made every effort to be fair and just," this is an egregious oversight. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were generally forbidden to own land. Their religion forbade them from entering into the Christian oaths upon which feudal contracts were predicated. The Church, obviously, was out of the question. In many Medieval cities, walled "ghettoes" were established, where Jews lived a precarious existence, ever mindful that pogroms could come at any time. They often were forced to wear special clothing, including the now infamous yellow-star.
Such conditions drove many enterprising Jews to commerce and finance as a means to advancement. And Jews of the early Middle Ages possessed some decided economic advantages. First, Old Testament law permitted the practice of usury (interest), while it remained forbidden by Catholic Popes throughout the Medieval era. Moreover, the sorrowful condition of Jewry since the Babylonian Captivity of Old Testament fame had inadvertently created a climate conducive to far-flung commerce -- one which was sorely lacking in the early Christian world of Barbarian Europe. Because of the Diaspora, Jews had one foot in the Islamic world and one foot in Christendom, having family and cultural ties which spanned the entire Mediterranean world. Such contacts easily converted into a business network. More, the rigorous religious training their faith demanded made them arguably the most literate of European peoples, during the Medieval era's early centuries. They were thus able to engage in correspondence and bookkeeping practices far surpassing anything in the western Christian world. Medieval Jews learned to earn their keep by providing the Christian West with the exotic commodities -- spices, oils, drugs, jewels, etc. -- which it was often unable to provide for itself. In return for providing these prized items, they were frequently despised and envied.
_The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ also fails to point out that during the Medieval Era, Jews themselves were often captured and sold into slavery. Because of their linguistic and navigational skills, there were often Jews on board both Christian and Ottoman ships. Christian ships would capture Jewish crew-members on Islamic ships and sell them into the slave markets, and vice-versa. A Jewish slave was especially prized, because it was believed -- often rightly -- that the various Mediterranean Jewish communities would buy the Jewish slave for a price far exceeding market value. In effect, the Jew was being held for ransom, under the guise of being sold into slavery.
THE MISSING HISTORICAL CONTEXT
_The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ utterly fails to provide the reader with a historical context. The entire issue of Jewish involvement in Atlantic maritime activity, for example, is impossible to understand without reference to political developments in late Medieval Spain and Portugal. Specifically, one must understand the tragic expulsion of Jews from Iberia in the 1490s, many of whose ancestors had lived there since the days of the Roman Empire. Fantastically, the book implies that Jewish slave trading weighed heavily in Spanish treatment of the Jews. Here, _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ speaks, far too briefly, of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition played an all-too central role in the Sephardim's sad story. Readers are told that "More than once, Jews were accused (by the Inquisitors) not just of being Jews, but for slave dealing and sometimes for that alone." Continuing, the book alleges that "Slave dealing and slavery and its connection with Judaism and Jews was offensive to the Spanish reformers." This passage all but makes the Inquisitors looks like the good guys. Note that the text even refers to the Inquisitors as "reformers," as though their notorious activities were justified in the face of such grave Jewish immorality. It's a little bit better than calling the Gestapo "the Defenders of Society," but not much.
Again, the book makes liberal use of half-truths. Jewish religious custom dictated, in fact, humane treatment of slaves, making them something akin to household members. Many slaves in Jewish homes did convert to Judaism, and the Talmud requires that slaves in Jewish homes be circumcised. Thus, the spread of Judaism through slavery was plausible, and a concern to the Christian European states. In some cases, it may have been a peripheral concern of the Inquisition. Neither were genuine Christian concerns regarding slavery unknown. But to emphasize these sentiments as central motives of the Inquisition, at the exclusion of the broader context in which the Spanish Inquisitions flourished, is ludicrous. Unfortunately, any larger sense of what the Inquisition means to history is absent from the pages of this book. The Inquisition was established to destroy heresy, much of which emanated from dissident groups within the Catholic Church itself. Search and seizure, torture, and the death penalty, were powerful weapons at the Inquisitors' disposal. In the thirteenth century, Pope Gregory IX established the first Inquisition court in the South of France -- not to abolish European Jewry, but to stamp out the Albigensian heresy, a form of Christianity sometimes compared to ancient gnosticism. The Spanish Inquisition, to which _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ alludes, was established during the Christian "Reconquista" of Spain. Its persecutions of both Jews and Muslims were part of a sweeping movement to Christianize Spain. The Spanish Inquisition is thus heavily imbued with geopolitical overtones, issues related to nascent Spanish central government, and the bureaucratic structure of the Roman Catholic Church.
In short, the expulsions of Jews from most of the major Medieval European states are ascribed not to antisemitism, but to church displeasure with Jewish involvement in the slave trade. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ essentially explains the removal of Jews from their homes, and their treatment at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, as though it were "rough justice" for their activities in slave commerce. It assigns to the powers of Christian Europe all-too honorable motives, and blatantly implies that slave trading was a virtually exclusive Jewish activity. This is an unconscionable assertion.
The nation-states of Europe had enormous interests in the slave-trade. Singling out the Jews is not only morally suspect, it is light years from factually accurate. The Christian states of Europe who sponsored the voyages of exploration reaped enormous dividends from their ventures. Far removed from modern illusions of laissez-faire economics, the Christian states of Europe proved willing to go to great lengths to protect their developing markets. Even before the discovery of America in 1492, the Portuguese had been trading in slaves to man the labor forces of the new plantations they established on North African islands like Madeira. They were more than willing to defend their economic interests abroad with the same violent tactics which they had acquired during years of bloody North African "Crusades" against the Moors. The Aviz Dynasty, Portugal's royal house during the fifteenth century, set up fortifications to protect their nation's African trade, which not only included African slaves, but also gold, ivory, and pepper. These forts, the first of which was established at Arguin Island off the West North African Coast, became the prototype for European forts in the New World; part military fortification, part "trading-post." Later, such entities became familiar, even mythical, fixtures of the American frontier. The great Portuguese trade route established by Vasco da Gama, and subsequent explorers, thus featured such fortifications at Ormuz, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Goa on the Malabar Coast of India, and Malacca, site of modern-day Singapore. Such trade was lucrative. In Africa alone, Portuguese returns were said to run as high as 500%, once the "Bulge of Africa" had been mastered, and rich markets on the Guinea Coast opened.
_The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ largely ignores this broad-based theater of operations in which the late Medieval economy flourished. It is much more concerned with the New World -- especially marrano presence in the New World. It ascribes to them a pernicious and ubiquitous presence in the Western Hemisphere. Here again, half-truths and distortions abound. In fact, many marranos, as well as conversos, made their way to the New World. Jewish presence in the Americas and the Caribbean should come as no surprise. The New World territories ultimately attracted peoples from most regions of the earth. The Diaspora Nation of Jewry had wandered since the sixth century B.C. That they, too, should seek new homelands is readily understandable. Probably many of the first plantations on St. Thomas were established by marranos. Brazil's first governor, Thomas de Souza, was Jewish. Once again, however, the book seems unable to see the forest for the trees. While focusing on the scattered Jewish names and Jewish communities known to have existed in the early years of New World settlement, it utterly misses the larger historical context of international Atlantic activity.
A GLOBAL ECONOMY
What ultimately evolved in the centuries immediately subsequent to 1492 was a global economic system, one involving much of the planet. Among its leading powers were the nation-states of western Europe. The population of Europe had been steadily rising, ever since its catastrophic decline during the plague years of the fourteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century, the peoples of Europe were spilling over into the American hemisphere. Vast new markets were created. The flood of New World metals into Europe, and fractional reserve banking, created an inflationary boom, stimulating ever broadening "consumer" classes to demand more products. Furthermore, the clearing of New World lands produced an enormous demand for labor, especially unskilled labor. Thus was born the terrible dynamic which fueled the market for slaves.
The role of the Dutch needs to be especially considered in this regard. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ seems to use the terms "Dutch" and "Jewish" as veritable synonyms, subtly implying that Jews controlled Holland's financial system, the way modern antisemites might accuse the Jews of controlling Hollywood, or the Federal Reserve System. Once again, this is a great distortion of the historical record. There was, in fact, a significant conversos presence in Holland. After the Spanish and Portuguese expulsion decrees of 1492 and 1497, many Jews sought refuge in the Dutch Netherlands. Once the Reformation's initial spate of Calvinist zeal had passed, the Dutch became among Europe's most religiously tolerant peoples, a fact which contributed greatly to their prosperity during the seventeenth century. But the Netherlands's great bourgeoisie was by no means exclusively Jewish. It was far too broadly-based to be so narrowly defined. By 1600, the Dutch manned 10,00 ships, and were the world's leading power in maritime commerce. In 1609 the great Bank of Amsterdam was established, an event which probably should be considered as "ground zero" for the modern Western financial system. Deposits were guaranteed by the government. The bank's solvency was unrivalled, a welcome development after the plethora of debased and varying monetary units which had characterized the sixteenth century economy. The Bank's florin became the standard unit of European currency. Checks could be written against bank accounts. Sephardic resources and expertise certainly played a role in forming this great bank, as they did later in the seventeenth century when a group of Dutch financiers, many of them conversos, agreed to hold British bonds in return for the ability to operate a bank similar to the Bank of Amsterdam. This second great European bank, the Bank of London, was thus formed in 1693. In both banks, Sephardic investments were significant, but not exclusive. Above all, the Banks were obviously sponsored by national regimes and Christian upper-classes, which benefitted greatly from them.
The African slave trade was facilitated by this financial colossus. Various credit instruments and partnerships could now be used to finance ever bigger commercial ventures, tapping into the massive capital pools created by deposit banking. Governments acted in close coordination with private interests, using their power to gain favorable balances of trade, and enhance national wealth. The system is sometimes referred as "mercantilism." Under such policies, the great European regimes both subsidized and protected trade. Whole companies were chartered to facilitate the efficient exploitation of the new markets abroad. Like modern-day utility companies, these companies were generally regulated quite heavily. But they were given a monopoly over trading rights in a certain region, and could raise capital through the sale of stock. Many African slaves brought to the New World were, in fact, brought by such companies, especially the Dutch West India Company, founded in 1621. Similarly, in 1672, the British founded the Royal Africa Company, which controlled the slave trade emanating from the mouth of the Niger River. Governments could also grant special slavetrading contracts to private merchants, called _asientos_. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ seems to delight in the occasional Jewish name which crops up in these contracts. Far less attention is given to the global context in which such trading developed.
African peoples were involved in the slave-trade, too. Whole native African states were established to monopolize the trade in gold and slaves, ruthlessly pillaging the African hinterlands to supply European traders with the human commodities they sought. Slave traders themselves rarely ventured inland from the coastal trading-forts which European governments had established for them. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ makes virtually no mention of this native African role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, without which slavery would have been utterly impracticable.
By the eighteenth century, a terrible dependency on slaves had been established. At its heart was sugar. Sugar was produced on New World "plantations" manned by slave labor. Sugar, and many of the high-quality, low-cost goods produced by slave labor, were shipped from the colonies to their mother-countries, especially France and Britain. Whole industries were predicated on the import of cheap slave-produced raw goods, which were converted into finished products and exported abroad. To gain the slave labor force essential for production in these New World colonies, the European states supplied their African trading partners with goods, especially cloth. This web of trading relationships created a "triangular trade." Cloth travelled from Europe to Africa. Slaves were moved from Africa to America. Sugar, and eventually cotton, came from America to Europe. The great wealth of Britain and France during the eighteenth century was largely created by this global economy. So was the wealth of America, both North and South.
In concluding, several points warrant mention. First, the African slave trade was part of an ugly, global economic system. For _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ to single out the Jews as bearing some special guilt for the slave trade is not only antisemitic, it is historically inaccurate. The forces which compelled the development of Atlantic maritime commerce in the fifteenth century have their roots deep in the Medieval World's earliest centuries. The Christian states of Europe sponsored and benefitted from the development of new markets. To the extent that Jews were involved in finance and trade, it was often the by-product of Christian persecution, which drove them out of other livelihoods. By the time one reaches the mercantilist world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slavery was a cornerstone for many national economies. The patina of slave-produced goods tainted local economies far removed from the auction blocks where human beings were actually bought and sold. Hence, sensitive souls, who would perhaps recoil from witnessing the degradations of Caribbean sugar production, were spared from discomforting confrontation with the labor force that provided so many of their imports. This geographical and emotional distance from physical slavery, however, in no way diminished the dependence on slavery. Even if the Jews had been the Atlantic's sole slave-traders -- and they were not -- they would merely have been providing the Christian states with that which they desired.
Second, there is the whole question of how to respond to hateful bigotry, in general. _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ is a virulently antisemitic piece of work. An understandable current of thought believes that such works should not be dignified with a response. When the legitimate scholarly community comments on such viewpoints, the reasoning goes, it only gives these bigoted notions greater publicity. Furthermore, it creates the impression that some kind of "dialogue" is occurring. Hence, many would argue that the responsible discussions of competent scholarship have no place for such hateful, banal ideas. Even clear and unambiguous refutations of such viewpoints elevate them to a dangerous level of respectability. As Deborah Lipstadt points out in her recent work _Denying the Holocaust_, America is now firmly enmeshed in a relativistic "talk-show culture," in which everybody gets to have an opinion. Each view, no matter how poorly reasoned or substantiated, is too often treated with equal respect. The old distinctions between right and wrong -- both in terms of factual veracity and morality -- are increasingly blurred. Lipstadt's point is well-taken. Certainly the standards which govern the tenor of public discourse do need to stay high, and high-minded. At the same time, however, the sorts of arguments posited in _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ have obviously gained a small but significant following, especially on many American college campuses. This may be evidence of, if nothing else, the abysmal historical background which too many students receive in secondary education. At any rate, the arguments canvassed in this now notorious book are too unsubstantiated to go unchallenged.
Third, criticism of _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_ must be carefully excised from any racist overtones. African-Americans have suffered enough in this country, without now being branded as the new "Nazis." Sweeping indictments of "shoddy African-American scholarship" could obviously resurrect old canards. Calls for "mainstream black leaders" to denounce the notions put forth by the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Abdul Muhammad must not seem to view African-America as a monolith. There is the danger that contempt for the vile ideas espoused by Nation of Islam ideologies could itself become a new kind racism. Thus would be perpetuated the vicious cycle of grievances and counter-grievances which has plagued the world since time immemorial. Unfortunately, sympathy for the suffering of AfricanAmericans in this country would probably be the ultimate victim. For if there is anything that the book has right, it is that blacks suffered horribly during the centuries of the slave era.
In the final analysis, then, sensitivity is required of all parties. Historical perspectives emphasizing the global, systemic nature of the African slave-trade cannot be seen as apologizing for, or explaining away, the moral atrocity which slavery was. Unless one believes that human beings are economic marionettes -- puppets at the mercy of vast, impersonal forces --the role of individual morality and volition must remain central to historical discourse. At the same time, the informed student of history cannot help but note the macro-economic realities of the seventeenth and eighteenth century worlds, which saw slavery become so riveted into certain global areas. In an age when cheap Chinese imports are tainted with the whiff of prison labor, and Caribbean sugar cane is worked by indentured servants, modern Americans would do well to remember the lessons of earlier centuries. Slavery does not operate in a vacuum. Neither is it some primitive institution from a cartoon dark age. It is a subtle and tenacious evil, one whose economic tentacles can reach into the most far-flung markets. Even to ascribe exclusive moral guilt for slavery to the American South is a gross caricature of the Antebellum world's complex, international economic networks.
To blame Jews for slavery, however, goes beyond jejune over-simplifications. It goes beyond the typical human foibles which occasionally afflict all historians. Blaming the Jews for slavery is more than inaccurate. It is bigotry, reeking of the conspiracy theories which have falsely blamed Jews for so many of the Western World's woes, since biblical ages. Such a dubious thesis not only utterly fails to empirically support itself, but can only distract scholars from the great injustice that slavery truly was. And that is perhaps the saddest thing of all about _The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews_.
April 18, 1998