Several scholarly works have been published to rebut the antisemitic canard of Jewish domination of the slave trade in Medieval Europe, Africa, and/or the Americas, and that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery. They possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean, and in no period did they play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades.
Like their Christian and Muslim neighbors, Jews historically owned and traded in slaves. In the middle ages, Jews were minimally involved in slave trade. During the 1490s, trade with the New World began to open up. At the same time, the monarchies of Spain and Portugal expelled all of their Jewish subjects. As a result, Jews began participating in all sorts of trade on the Atlantic, including the slave trade.
It is currently known that Mainland colonial Jews played a minute role in the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean and a marginal role as slave sellers. Jason H. Silverman, a historian of slavery, describes the part of Jews in slave trading in the southern United states as “minuscule”, and writes that the historical rise and fall of slavery in the United States would not have been affected at all had there been no Jews living in the south. Jews accounted for 1.25% of all Southern slave owners, and were not significantly different from other slave owners in their treatment of slaves.
Assessing the extent of Jewish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade
Historian Seymour Drescher emphasized the problems of determining whether or not slave-traders were Jewish. He concludes that New Christian merchants managed to gain control of a sizeable share of all segments of the Portuguese Atlantic slave trade during the Iberian-dominated phase of the Atlantic system. Due to forcible conversions of Jews to Christianity many New Christians continued to practice Judaism in secret, meaning it is impossible for historians to determine what portion of these slave traders were Jewish, because to do so would require the historian to choose one of several definitions of “Jewish”.
Historian Heinrich Graetz, in History of the Jews (published 1853-1875) was the first historian to document Jewish participation in the slave trade, although he limits his scope to Europe, and does not address the Atlantic slave trade.
In 1960, Arnold Wiznitzer, published Jews in colonial Brazil, in which he wrote that Jews dominated the slave trade within Brazil in the mid-17th century, buying up slaves at the West India Company’s auctions. Wiznitzer’s statement was subsequently quoted in antisemitic literature, but sometimes taken out of context so it seemed to apply to the entire Atlantic slave trade.
In 1983, Marc Lee Raphael, professor of Jewish history, rabbi, and later Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at College of William & Mary, wrote Jews and Judaism in the United States: a documentary history which discussed Jews in the Atlantic slave trade and asserted that in “Curacau in the seventeenth century, as well as in the British colonies of Barbados and Jamaica in the eighteenth century, Jewish merchants played a major role in the slave trade. In fact, in all the American colonies, whether French (Martinique), British, or Dutch, Jewish merchants frequently dominated. This was no less true on the North American mainland, where during the eighteenth century Jews participated in the ‘triangular trade’ that brought slaves from Africa to the West Indies and there exchanged them for molasses, which in turn was taken to New England and converted into rum for sale in Africa.” In a later work, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America (2008), Raphael retracted this claim of Jewish dominance, stating that “subsequent extensive research demonstrated that this was not the case”, and instead called the role of mainland colonial Jews “minute”.
The publication of The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews spurred detailed research into the participation of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade, resulting in the publication of the following works, most of which were published specifically to refute the thesis of The Secret Relationship:
- 1992 – Harold Brackman, Jew on the brain: A public refutation of the Nation of Islam’s The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews
- 1992 – David Brion Davis, “Jews in the Slave Trade”, in Culturefront (Fall 1 992) pp 42–45.
- 1993 – Seymour Drescher, “The Role of Jews in the Atlantic Slave Trade”, Immigrants and Minorities, 12 (1993), pp 113–125.
- 1993 – Marc Caplan, Jew-Hatred As History: An Analysis of the Nation of Islam’s “The Secret Relationship” (published by the Anti Defamation League)
- 1998 – Eli Faber, Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight, New York University Press.
- 1999 – Saul S. Friedman, Jews and the American Slave Trade, Transaction.
Most post-1991 scholars that analysed the role of Jews in the overall Atlantic slave trade concluded that it was “minimal”, and only identified certain regions (such as Brazil and the Caribbean) where the participation was “significant”.
Wim Klooster wrote: “In no period did Jews play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. They possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean. Even when Jews in a handful of places owned slaves in proportions slightly above their representation among a town’s families, such cases do not come close to corroborating the assertions of The Secret Relationship.”
David Brion Davis wrote that “Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery.” Jacob R. Marcus wrote that Jewish participation in the American Colonies was “minimal” and inconsistent. Bertram Korn wrote “all of the Jewish slavetraders in all of the Southern cities and towns combined did not buy and sell as many slaves as did the firm of Franklin and Armfield, the largest Negro traders in the South.”
According to a review in The Journal of American History of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber and Jews and the American Slave Trade by Saul S. Friedman: “Faber acknowledges the few merchants of Jewish background locally prominent in slaving during the second half of the eighteenth century but otherwise confirms the small-to-minuscule size of colonial Jewish communities of any sort and shows them engaged in slaving and slave holding only to degrees indistinguishable from those of their English competitors.”
According to Seymour Drescher, Jews participated in the Atlantic slave trade, particularly in Brazil and Suriname, however in no period did Jews play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. He said that Jews rarely established new slave-trading routes, but rather worked in conjunction with a Christian partner, on trade routes that had been established by Christians and endorsed by Christian leaders of nations. In 1995 the American Historical Association (AHA) issued a statement, together with Drescher, condemning “any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave trade”.
Allegations that Jews had a major contribution to Atlantic slave trade were denied by David Brion Davis, who argued that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery. These charges were widely refuted by other scholars, as well. While acknowledging Jewish participation in slavery, scholars reject allegations that Jews dominated the slave trade in Medieval Europe, Africa, and/or the Americas.
According to a review in The Journal of American History of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber and Jews and the American Slave Trade by Saul S. Friedman:
Eli Faber takes a quantitative approach to Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade in Britain’s Atlantic empire, starting with the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the London resettlement of the 1650s, calculating their participation in the trading companies of the late seventeenth century, and then using a solid range of standard quantitative sources (Naval Office shipping lists, censuses, tax records, and so on) to assess the prominence in slaving and slave owning of merchants and planters identifiable as Jewish in Barbados, Jamaica, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and all other smaller English colonial ports. He follows this strategy in the Caribbean through the 1820s; his North American coverage effectively terminates in 1775. Faber acknowledges the few merchants of Jewish background locally prominent in slaving during the second half of the eighteenth century but otherwise confirms the small-to-minuscule size of colonial Jewish communities of any sort and shows them engaged in slaving and slave holding only to degrees indistinguishable from those of their English competitors.
Jewish slave ownership in the southern United States
Slavery historian Jason H. Silverman describes the part of Jews in slave trading in the southern United states as “minuscule”, and wrote that the historical rise and fall of slavery in the United States would not have been affected at all had there been no Jews living in the south. Jews accounted for only 1.25% of all Southern slave owners.
Jewish slave ownership practices in the southern United States were governed by regional practices, rather than Judaic law. Many southern Jews held the view that blacks were subhuman and were suited to slavery, which was the predominant view held by many of their non-Jewish southern neighbors.
Jews conformed to the prevailing patterns of slave ownership in the South, and were not significantly different from other slave owners in their treatment of slaves. Rich Jews in the south generally preferred employing white servants rather than owning slaves. Jewish slave owners included Aaron Lopez, Francis Salvador, Judah Touro, and Haym Salomon.
Jewish slave owners were found mostly in business or domestic settings, rather than plantations, so most of the slave ownership was in an urban context – running a business or as domestic servants.
A significant number of Jews gave their energies to the antislavery movement. Many Jews of the 19th century, such as Adolphe Crémieux, participated in the moral outcry against slavery. In 1849, Crémieux announced the abolition of slavery throughout the French possessions.
In England there were Jewish members of the abolition groups. Granville Sharp and Wilberforce, in his “A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” employed Jewish teachings as arguments against slavery. Rabbi G. Gottheil of Manchester, and Dr. L. Philippson of Bonn and Magdeburg, forcibly combated the view announced by Southern sympathizers, that Judaism supports slavery. Rabbi M. Mielziner’s anti-slavery work “Die Verhältnisse der Sklaverei bei den Alten Hebräern,” published in 1859, was translated and published in the United States.
The Jewish woman Ernestine Rose was called “queen of the platforms” in the 19th century because of her speeches in favor of abolition. Her lectures were met with controversy. When she was in the South to speak out against slavery, one slaveholder told her he would have “tarred and feathered her if she had been a man”. When, in 1855, she was invited to deliver an anti-slavery lecture in Bangor, Maine, a local newspaper called her “a female Atheist… a thousand times below a prostitute.” When Rose responded to the slur in a letter to the competing paper, she sparked off a town feud that created such publicity that, by the time she arrived, everyone in town was eager to hear her. Her most ill-received lecture was likely in Charleston, West Virginia, where her lecture on the evils of slavery was met with such vehement opposition and outrage that she was forced to exercise considerable influence to even get out of the city safely.
In the civil-war era, prominent Jewish religious leaders in the United States engaged in public debates about slavery. Generally, rabbis from the Southern states supported slavery, and those from the North opposed slavery. The most notable debate was between rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall, who defended slavery as it was practiced in the South because slavery was endorsed by the Bible, and rabbi David Einhorn who opposed its current form. However, there were not many Jews in the South, and Jews accounted for only 1.25% of all Southern slave owners. In 1861, Raphall published his views in a treatise called “The Bible View of Slavery”. He wrote, “I am no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery, But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery.” Raphall, and other pro-slavery rabbis such as Isaac Leeser and J. M. Michelbacher (both of Virginia), used the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) to support their argument. Abolitionist rabbis, including Einhorn and Michael Heilprin, concerned that Raphall’s position would be seen as the official policy of American Judaism, vigorously refuted his arguments, and argued that slavery – as practiced in the South – was immoral and not endorsed by Judaism.
Nathan Meyer Rothschild was known for his role in the abolition of the slave trade through his part-financing of the £20 million British government buyout of the plantation industry’s slaves. In 2009 it was claimed that as part of banking dealings with a slave owner, Rothschild used slaves as collateral. The Rothschild bank denied the claims and said that Nathan Mayer Rothschild had been a prominent civil liberties campaigner with many like-minded associates and “against this background, these allegations appear inconsistent and misrepresent the ethos of the man and his business”.