To find sanctuary and profit in the new world, Jews sometimes played a prominent role in the machinery of slavery, I learned from scholar Jonathan Schorsch
One-hundred and fifty years after the U.S. Civil War, slavery's ramifications continue to torment the American psyche. Nearly six in 10 Americans think race relations are bad, and four in 10 feel they are getting worse, according to a recent New York Times poll.
In June, a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And in July, yet another African-American, Sandra Bland, wound up dead under suspicious circumstances after being arrested by a white police in Waller County, Texas.
American Jews would like to think they have only an incidental share in their country's sullied legacy of slavery and racism. But both white supremacists and black chauvinists insist Jews were central to the equation.
Jonathan Schorsch has devoted much of his academic career to understanding the relationship between Jews and blacks in the New World. Schorsch, the son of former Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Ismar Schorsch, was drawn to the subject in the early 1990s, after learning of the accusations from Black nationalists, such as Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, that Jews were responsible not only for the slave trade but for having embedded the very idea of racism into Scripture.
Yet Schorsch was no less exasperated with the knee-jerk Jewish reaction to Farrakhan. Jewish leaders in the 1980s and 1990s turned the discussion to the vanguard role the community played in the civil rights movement.
The history, it turned out, was far from black and white.
SLAVERY WAS ubiquitous in the New World starting in the 1500s until well into the mid-1800s. Schorsch set out to establish the facts— painful as they might be in contemporary eyes— about Jewish-Black relations in the age of slavery.
In 2004, he wrote Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World which concluded that Jewish attitudes toward blacks, between the 1600s and 1800s, were on the whole not much different from the European colonial norm.
In 2009, he came out with Swimming the Christian Atlantic: Judeoconversos, Afroiberians and Amerindians in the Seventeenth Century . The book, aimed at an academic audience, examined the extent to which the Catholic Church in the 1600s distrusted and discriminated against both Jewish and African converts to Christianity.
His latest essay on Jews in the Caribbean appears in a just-released collection of http://www.walburgpers.nl/winkel/algemeen/joden essays— for now available only in Dutch— published in conjunction with the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam's current exhibit on Jewish life in the Caribbean.
IN JUNE, I heard Schorsch speak at the historic Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam about how Jews in the Dutch Caribbean reconciled halacha and slavery. Many in the audience were non-Jewish descendants of former slaves.
Jews from Spain and Portugal— but also from Ashkenazi lands— began to live openly in Amsterdam starting in the early 1600s after the Netherlands became Protestant. Schorsch explained that slavery in Europe during the 1600s was mostly of the domestic variety. Slaves in Jewish households were often incorporated into the family. Males were circumcised. Women went to the mikve. Otherwise, they couldn't work in the home preparing kosher food or serving wine.
Meantime, Jews arrived in the Caribbean in the 1600s settling in Suriname, Curaçao, northeast Brazil, and New Amsterdam – all Dutch colonies dominated until 1730 by the quasi-governmental Dutch West India Company. The Dutch were happy to have white Jewish slave owners settler in the Caribbean.
But the slavery of the New World was a far cry from the domestic variety that had offered a prospect of assimilation back in Europe. Caribbean slavery was plantation-based aimed at stoking colonial economies – at a dreadful cost to African lives and dignity.
The Jewish communities of the Caribbean enjoyed sweeping religious and economic freedom not generally available in the Old World. And Jews followed the prevailing Christian and Muslim mores in their treatment of slaves – not Jewish law. The massive plantation system blocked opportunities for assimilation into the master's household previously available.
Schorsch came to conclude that the Jewish minority was no less involved in benefiting from the institution of slavery than the larger Christian society. In the 17th and 18th century, Jews owned perhaps 40,000 slaves in the Dutch Caribbean most of whom were not given the option of conversion and assimilation into the Jewish community.
I caught up with Schorsch after he returned to his academic base at Potsdam University in Germany.
What would halacha have demanded of Jewish slave owners?
That slaves be allowed to rest on Shabbat. Halacha on other matters was not monolithic. The most stringent, but until the 16th century the most widespread halachic understanding was that male slaves would be circumcised at purchase or within the first year, and that female slaves be immersed in the mikve. It was also forbidden to approach a slave sexually.
How learned were the Dutch Jews who reached the Caribbean in the 1600s of Jewish tradition?
Scholars continue to debate the Jewishness of the Converso or New Christian population. The consensus has it that the Portuguese Conversos were far more loyal to and fervent regarding maintaining Jewish beliefs and practices than the Spanish Conversos.
I think the best way to understand the Jewishness of Conversos is to see the population as being divided into four types: (1) those secretly loyal to Judaism – Marranos; (2) sincere converts to Catholicism and those who for pragmatic reasons dropped interest in Judaism; (3) those practicing a syncretic religion combining Judaism and Christianity; (4) those disgusted by religious coercion and violence; skeptics, free-thinkers.
Because Judaism was forbidden in Iberian territories, a prohibition enforced by the Inquisitions, secrecy and dissembling epitomize this whole phenomenon, making it simply impossible to quantify the size of each of these four types.
So even Conversos loyal to Judaism tended to know little about actual living Judaism.
With some exceptions they had no input from contemporary Jews or Jewish texts. Hence the increasingly tenuous connection between crypto-Judaism and real Judaism.
Many Conversos who fled to lands where one could be a Jew openly did so not out of a desire to be Jewish but merely to flee the terror of the Inquisition.
Raised as Catholics, these “New Jews,” in historian Yosef Kaplan’s phrasing, were mostly ignorant of rabbinic law and many even saw it rather negatively, as did the Church.
Jews appear to have played a comparatively minor role in importing African slaves to the New World. Right?
As slavery became industrialized by the Portuguese and Spanish in the late 15th century, some Converso or New Christian merchants played a prominent role as slave traders. This lasted perhaps into the 17th century.
One question remains the religious loyalties of these men, but we should not preclude the likelihood that some were Marranos, i.e., loyal Jews.
In terms of open Jews, the number of slave traders, even part-time, known to scholars from the four-century history of the Atlantic slave trade probably does not exceed 30. This is an astonishingly low number and the reason for the paucity of Jewish slave traders continues to be unclear.
Did ethics keep Jews out of this business? Lack of connections? The most well-known (or notorious) might be Aaron Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island.
Jews in various colonies often played a role, sometimes a prominent one, in buying up slaves at slave markets in the Americas and selling them in the interior of the colonies to planters.
Were there differences in how Jews related to the slave economy among Caribbean colonies controlled by the Netherlands versus those dominated by France or Britain?
French colonies did not generally tolerate a Jewish presence, but where they did, as in Saint Domingue (later Haiti), some Jews entered the planter elite, just as in Suriname, a Dutch colony, and Barbados and Jamaica, English colonies.
But in all of the colonies, Jewish merchants benefitted from slave labor, as did almost any family that wasn’t poor and could afford one or two slaves to help with the arduous and endless work necessary for running their domestic economy.
Were there Jews who protested the slave system?
Beginning in the 18th century, some European Jewish influenced by the enlightenment became critics of slavery. Some Jews became active in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, which really thrived only in the English colonial orbit, but they represented a small minority of the Jewish population and their radical stance often went unappreciated by the larger community, to put it mildly.
Turning to domestic slaves. How did the Caribbean Jewish community relate to these Jews of color?
Those few slaves who were converted, either according to Halacha or by taking on Jewishness through sexual/romantic relations with Jewish masters were usually initially welcomed in the small, vulnerable communities around the Atlantic. They were treated as full Jews, as was the standard way in the so-called Old World before the rise of industrial slavery.
They married within the community, the men were given honors in synagogue. But quickly in each community a backlash ensued. In Amsterdam, Suriname and Curaçao the governing elites instituted legislation against non-whites, for example banning non-whites from burial in the regular part of the cemeteries, banning their circumcision, immersion or conversion, removing the option of calling the men to the Torah or studying in the yeshiva at Amsterdam, prohibiting non-white women from sitting in the front rows of the women’s section in synagogue.
While Halacha is hardly always “progressive,” we see how under the Atlantic slave system race came to take precedence over Halacha in many Atlantic-world Jewish communities.
If Jews were not prominent players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade or instrumental in financing for the slave trade why have Jews been persistently singled out by Black militants for opprobrium?
I think the animosity stems from two factors. The first is the turn of early 20th-century American Black activists and radicals from their elders’ Christianity. "White” Christianity now faced harsh critique from them and so did Judaism, the source of Christianity and a partner in the alleged Judeo-Christian civilization that American thinkers loved to parade around.
The second factor is later 20th-century socio-economic tensions. In the Civil Rights era many Blacks negatively compared their own situation to that of Jews. They came to see Jews as succeeding because they could pass as white and surmised, not without reason, that some of that success was gained at their expense.
There could not have been a slave trade without Africans in Africa prepared to sell other Africans to European and Muslim buyers. Yet you seem to feel that this is besides the point.
African slavery prior to the era of European conquest and colonization— taking losing warriors in inter-tribal conflicts or raiding rival villages for slaves— was mostly domestic, an equal-opportunity matter, and lacked the intense racism that European enslavement of Africans developed and required. This is not to excuse such slavery.
Once Europeans arrived in Africa, however, they took slaves in increasingly high numbers in order to provide labor for their profit-making agricultural colonies and intentionally instigated inter-tribal wars in order to obtain more slaves.
The slaves themselves were now treated miserably, like non-humans, and since almost every slave came from Black Africa – an entire, vicious system of exclusion, ostracization, and dehumanization was erected.
And what about the Muslim/Arab slave trade?
Often inquiries into these topics have as much to do with current ideological drives than with some supposedly neutral facts. People want to know whom to blame, whom to absolve. So, frequently such questions are rhetorical as much as purely informational.
If Africans participated in slavery then whites aren’t so terrible, some whites might say. If most of the slave trade and economy was run by white Christians, the Jews who were involved were just doing what everyone else was doing.
I find this a highly unsatisfying, even a suspect way of avoiding responsibility.
Nonetheless, can you assess the role of Arabs in the transport of African slaves to the new world.
I have never heard of Arabs involved in transferring slaves to the Americas. They were rather busy with their own extensive slave system, which differed significantly in some respects from Atlantic-world slavery.
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist. His book Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness will be published by The Toby Press in October.