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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 146-148

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Jews and the American Slave Trade. By Saul S. Friedman. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1998. xiv + 326 pp.

This is a difficult book to review, not least because of its serious purpose in refuting a charge that has become too common in some segments of the Black community in recent years which blames the Jews for the slave trade. This stance, Friedman seems to suggest, is partly a tactic of one outside group adopting the majority's traditionally hostile viewpoint towards another outside group for its own purposes. The two groups have had, perhaps more often than most, a relatively close relationship, despite the divergent circumstances of their passage to the Americas, sharing neighborhoods, poverty, and the struggle for civil rights. But they have also diverged in wealth, outlook, politics, and aims. In the last two chapters of this book, by far the most interesting, Friedman discusses the history of this relationship and explores its dynamics.

To some extent, this antagonism is a function of the close association. As Jews embraced opportunity and achieved success, seizing advantages African Americans did not always perceive or were not offered, Jews sometimes adopted the same attitudes towards Blacks as the majority community, attitudes more keenly felt and more roundly resented. Friedman quotes Shelby Steele as saying that this "brotherhood of out-sidedness," bred in a common rejection, carried with it a sense of shame and that Blacks and Jews "today distance themselves from each other and their kinship as a way of distancing themselves from the shame implied in that kinship" (p. 238). That may be true. But distancing, it seems to me, implies an aversion that is somewhat at odds with an antagonism that goes out of its way to seek a confrontation. The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book which Friedman set out to refute, evidently exhibits hurt and pain, jealousy and rage as well perhaps as shame. Or maybe I should say that shame is part of the mix that creates the attitudes the book exhibits because the book itself, at least as Friedman describes it (for I admit I have not read it) seems shameless in its ignorance.

Which brings me to the problem with Friedman's book. He makes it clear that he does not feel it is safe to let these unfounded charges go unanswered and he tries to respond to The Secret Relationship seriatim. In so doing he lets that book guide his own, and, while it is sometimes an effective brief, it is not always interesting reading. He details the story of the slave trade within the framework of European overseas expansion, and makes the basic point that the Iberian nations which led that [End Page 146] movement were fired, as much as anything else, by a religious motivation that excluded and persecuted Jews. Jews qua Jews, therefore, were not likely to have been, and in fact were not, leaders in the ventures of this period, including the slave trade. In some cases they were present, and in some cases they participated, but they did not dominate. He considers Portuguese contacts on the African coast, the settlements of São Tomé and other islands off the coast and the plantation systems there, and follows the Portuguese and the Spanish to the New World. He goes so far as to analyze the names and holdings of early merchants and colonists to prove his point. He has a problem in dealing with people who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the period, in considering when and to what extent they should be considered Jews, and some of these people took part in early colonizing efforts. There is the issue of pride of place, precedence, and purpose, and Friedman is not always sure where he wants to come down. But, without claiming that Jews were nowhere ever involved in slavery or the slave trade, he fairly effectively demonstrates that they dominated neither. He makes the same case with respect to the Dutch, the French, and the English...


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