- Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight
There are some audiences in North America today who find it difficult to understand past societies and their value systems, and who think a transgression in the past, however distant, invalidates activities or ideas of the present. For these people the finding that even one Jew participated in the slave trade in the 18th century invalidates Jewish political support of civil rights or integration in the 20th century. One outcome of this has been a re-invented history of the Jewish participation in the slave trade which asserts that Jews were the majority of slave owners in the United States and played a major role in the slave trade everywhere. It is in this context that Eli Faber wrote his scholarly book on the participation of Jews in the slave trade and slavery. He has provided the basic numbers that can be established on the relation between Jews and African slaves in the English and Dutch colonial worlds. His major finding is that Jews had a minuscule role in the slave trade and played only a minor role as slave owners wherever they resided in the New World. Of course, knowledgeable historians could have predicted the results of the book, given the circumscribed role of the Jews within European and American societies from the 15th through the 18th century. As Faber shows, the Jews were not a major factor in any international trade in the Anglo-Saxon world, except possibly the diamond trade. They were also not [End Page 743] significant as planters or slave owning farmers, except possibly in Surinam. To the extent that they owned slaves they tended to own fewer slaves on average than their non-Jewish peers. A dozen or so participated in some aspect of the Atlantic slave trade to 1800, with only about half a dozen being serious traders, and even this group moved a very tiny fraction of the total Africans brought to America. The largest group of Jewish slave traders in the British Empire, and the only ones who systematically engaged in the African trade over a long period were the three or four Rhode Island Jewish merchants who in total controlled less than 10% of the voyages and less than 10% of the slaves delivered by Rhode Island traders in the 18th century. In turn Rhode Island was one of the minor ports within the English world engaged in the slave trade. Practically no Jews within England engaged in the far larger trades coming from Liverpool, Bristol and London.
That it was necessary for a scholar to provide this much detail on this issue, tells us more about our own society than it does about the Jews and Africans in this period. Indeed one can understand much of the fascination with the Jewish role in the slave trade not as a matter of scholarly interest, but as part of an attack by anti-integrationist leaders on the Civil Rights movement and the “rainbow” coalition. By the principle of condemning the participation of any single member of a particular group participating in slavery or the slave trade, it would be possible to write histories attacking the role of Catholics, Protestants, Moslems, West Africans or Mozambicans, all of whom engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. Of course it might be impolitic to antagonize these groups. This tactic even seems to have found some resonance in some liberal circles in the United States, as seen by apologies given for this past Jewish participation, or even shock from those who had no idea that Jews had ever held slaves or owned slave ships.
As Professor Faber shows, the facts of limited Jewish participation in the trade and ownership of slaves have been known to historians for quite some time and has been dealt with at length by scholars. Where Faber has done all scholars a service is to gather all these specialized materials together and present them, along with his own research, in a coherent...