- The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other
Since the Second World War many distinguished scholars have examined the history of ethnic and race relations between persons of the Jewish faith and majoritarian populations—especially the latter's antisemitism. Ivan Hannaford's monumental Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996) and George M. Fredrickson's Racism: A Short [End Page 138] History (2002) are but two splendid examples of recent scholarly books by intellectual historians who have adopted the aforementioned mode of analysis.
Abraham Melamed, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and Thought at the University of Haifa, Israel, however, has departed from the older approach in his new work, The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other. Cognizant of the acerbic, ideological disputes between African-American Muslims—especially those in the upper echelons of the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam—and Jewish scholars and religious leaders, Melamed has attempted to explicate the racial attitudes of Jewish thinkers toward blacks from biblical times to the early modern era. Melamed takes on hard issues that divide not only Afro-Americans and Jews but also the varied and diverse segments of the Jewish population. It is thus a tribute to him to have taken on these volatile issues with the degree of courage and fairness that is usually all too lacking in such discourses.
The ostensible purpose of Melamed's well-written and lucid work (translated by Betty Sigler Rosen) is to demonstrate that "the image of the black as inferior . . . does not belong exclusively to Jewish culture" (p. 3). By examining and analyzing both the Bible and the literature of rabbinical scholars and other literary genres of pagans, Christians, and Muslims, Melamed delves into both the "racist" and the "sexist" ideas that pervaded pagan, Christian, and Islamic, as well as Jewish cultures. Thus, it is not surprising that Melamed's comparative study of one of the nastiest types of human propensities leads him to comment that "there is no reason . . . that twentieth or twenty-first-century Jews need feel responsible for, or guilty about, what was said or written by Jews" (p. 5)—the accusations of Black Muslims notwithstanding.
Melamed, however, does not condone anti-black racism. He insists that racist Jews who continue to voice anti-black views should not be excused for their bigotry. Those persons, he argues unequivocally, should be condemned and rejected "in a boldly negative, judgmental fashion" (p. 6). Indeed, Melamed has clearly set out the parameters of his thesis and their relevance for present-day issues. He has demonstrated convincingly that the "Midraschic treatment of Bible texts" in reference to blacks and women was racist and sexist. For example, Melamed writes that in "the rabbinic and later texts there is a clear tendency towards negative value judgments about the black and about anyone whose skin is significantly darker than the norm" (pp. 61-62). In other words, for Melamed, during most of the historical periods under scrutiny, blacks were the "negative of the observer group's self-image" (p. 6).
In accounting for, or perhaps providing an excuse for, some of the Jews' racism, Melamed argues that Jewish denigration of persons of dark skin fulfilled certain psychological needs and justified their social and economic gains. To use Melamed's own words, "this identification of the Jew as inferior other by the majority culture—be it pagan, Muslim or Christian—increased the psychological need to define and confine the other's other, which . . . was so frequently people with darker skin" (p. 224). Such [End Page 139] psychological needs, he stresses, "influence the complex, ambivalent relationship of the American Jew to the Afro-American to this day, just as they do the relationships within Isreali society between 'Ashkenazi' and 'Sephardic' or 'Eastern' Jews, and between all of them and the Arabs: in Israel the other's other" (p. 224).
Despite the obvious strengths of this work, I have two reservations...