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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 102-132

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American Jewish Historians, Colonial Jews and Blacks, and the Limits of Wissenschaft: A Critical Review

Jonathan Schorsch

Though absolutely justified in refuting the specious yet dangerous accusations that Jews instigated anti-black discourse and/or the Atlantic slave trade, it has become all too easy for Jewish scholars to fall prey to a self-congratulatory delusion of the opposite order. Rebuttal of the anti-Jewish views of extremist black nationalist demagogues does not erase the need to critique problematic biases "at home." In this article, I will analyze some of the major works of American Jewish historiography on the early period of European colonialism, tracing the relationship between Jewish agency as historical subjects and black agency as historical subjects as well as race relations and European colonialism. 1 This analysis grew out of an interest in understanding how Jewish scholarly self-cognition has shaped and been shaped by the intermittent but persistent debates about blacks and Jews. 2 Although some works have been written about the number of Jewish academics who "transferred" their problematic ethnicity into the empathetic study of other, less ambiguously downtrodden peoples, the ways in which Jewish scholars have treated "their own" people in the framework of colonial race relations have attracted little notice. 3 The investigation here seemed to me particularly key given the overwhelmingly apologetic nature of Jewish scholarship on black-Jewish relations. I aim here to highlight and question the ways Jewish scholars have approached blacks in a certain phase of Jewish history. Nothing in this article should be taken to suggest that Jews were more anti-black or more responsible for [End Page 102] the Atlantic slave trade than any other group, both of which they decidedly were not. I argue for an attitudinal difference, not a quantitative one, in the place given to colonial black-Jewish relations in the narrative of Jewish history.

Next to the growing corpus of American Jewish historical scholarship 4 on the question of ancient rabbinic attitudes toward black people, and a similarly expanding number of studies on late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century black-Jewish interactions, the entire period in between remained for the most part unexplored until quite recently. 5 A book on Jews and blacks in the English colonial orbit first came out in 1998. 6 Of the three book-length histories of black-Jewish relations in the United States written by Jewish historians, only Bertram Wallace Korn's treats pre-Civil War times. 7 This lack of attention stems from a twofold reluctance: a reluctance to confront Jews as active historical agents acting as a dominant group over subaltern groups, and a reluctance to abandon a Eurocentric perspective on modern Jewish history. 8 These two obstacles would seem to be connected, and they are joined by a third: the often bitter and hostile atmosphere of mutual recriminations has created a situation inimical to scholarship willing to recognize nuances, ironies, and contradictions other than those that would undermine the arguments of the "opposing" side. Paul Gilroy's plaint about certain small-minded black intellectuals applies as well to some of their Jewish colleagues, who "fear that the integrity of [their] particularity could be compromised by attempts to open a complex dialogue with other consciousnesses of affliction." 9 Sherry Ortner also rightly points out that the "impulse to sanitize the internal politics of the dominated must be understood as fundamentally romantic." 10

A quite visible (though not universally admired) stream of new works in various fields of Jewish studies makes use of some of the new and fruitful approaches inspired by "theory." Unfortunately, few cover the early colonial period. 11 In some ways, Jewish historiography has been from its outset a form of subaltern studies. Even before "theory," Jewish historiography--in part because of the rhizomatic and ever-mutating nature of its object of study--had long understood the importance of environmental factors (i.e., other peoples and cultures). Most of these studies, however, took the dialogical history of Jewish identity in the...


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