Jews and Racism

I said: This brings up a very sensitive problem: racism in the Old Testament. American Blacks charge that the Jews of Amsterdam were the original slave traders. I am completely uninformed, but, like Christ is cheese, it deserves scholarly consideration.  Hank Levin comments: Please be careful with your assertions.  I don’t think that American Blacks representing the large black community (and certainly not black historians or scholars) made the charge that Amsterdam Jews were the first slave traders.  To my memory, this assertion was made by persons associated with Louis Farrakhan and decidedly Anti-Semitic factions in the black community.  Could you identify the respected scholarship that makes this assertion?

RH: My "assertions" were really a question. Louis Farrakhan may have picked up the story, but it was made some years ago by presumably reputable scholars, whose named I do not remember.  I repeat that I know nothing about the subject, but some reputable historian must have examined the evidence.

Ed Jajko writes:  At the risk of identifying myself with people I with to have nothing to do with, and with the apologia that I respond to this posting only because I know a little about the matters in the colloquy of Messrs Levin and Hilton, I note that a charge that the Jews were the original slave traders was made in the book The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, volume one of which (the only one published) was issued in 1991 by the "Historical Research Department" of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.  I recall this because I made sure to acquire a copy of this work for the Hoover Institution Library when it was published amid some hoopla.  A Google search under the title of the book will turn up relevant web sites, as will as search under "Amsterdam Jews slave-traders."  The scholarship is half-baked.  Yes, there were probably Jews in the Old South who owned and traded slaves; but there were Christians of various kinds and unbelievers as well who owned and traded in slaves.  And nothing can excuse the fact that Muslims ran that slave trade in Africa, that slavery has existed in the Muslim Middle East into modern times, and that the common Arabic word for Negro or Black is "'abd," i.e. "slave."

RH: This leaves unanswered the question of racial attitudes in the Old Testament.

Middle East specialist Michael Margulies writes:  There is no doubt as to racial attitudes of the Old Testament; If you weren't a member of the Tribe, you were killed in either scorched-earth warfare or outright murder. As a matter of fact, most folk in the Old Testament came to a messy end. As to the issues of Jewish Slave traders; everybody else was involved, why not Jews too? It is fact though, that rival African tribes were often contracted by the slavers to produce quotas of their landsmen. So what of their complicity? The classic military strategy of "Divide and Conquer".

Slavery was a fact of life in Old Testament times, but the Hebrew tradition of slavery was vastly different than what transpired in the American South and rest of the world. Read the text of Leviticus 25::38-55 for insights into the laws governing the acquisition and management of Slaves. An interesting sidenote; The "Year of Jubilee" occurred every 50 Years and all slaves were set free and any outstanding debt forgiven. Land ownership (very tongue in cheek) was assigned by Tribe and Family after the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites and was not revokable or transferable. You could sell your rights to it, but it reverted back to your family every Jubilee. As far as I know, the Hebrews never actually celebrated the Jubilee, but it would have solved poverty and made it a temporary condition at a national level.

Leviticus 25::38-55 (NIV)
38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
39 " 'If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave.  40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee.  41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers.  42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.  43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. 44 " 'Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.  45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. 47 " 'If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien's clan,  48 he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. One of his relatives may redeem him:  49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in his clan may redeem him. Or if he prospers, he may redeem himself.  50 He and his buyer are to count the time from the year he sold himself up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for his release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired man for that number of years.  51 If many years remain, he must pay for his redemption a larger share of the price paid for him.  52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, he is to compute that and pay for his redemption accordingly. 53 He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly. 54 " 'Even if he is not redeemed in any of these ways, he and his children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee,  55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

RH: How do Orthodox Jews think this applies to the modern world?

Istvan Simon writes: I have little to comment on  Professor Hilton's question on the possible role that the Old Testament may have  had on slavery. But whatever the Old Testament's role may have been, which in my opinion at worst is only  a minor role, I think it is worthwhile adding to Ed Jajko's comments that slavery is still shamefully in vogue today in the Sudan and certain parts of Africa. Surely something that cries out wor action on the part of the civilized world. Yet once again where is the U.N. and the adherents to "International Law"  often mentioned in WAIS? 

RH: The index of  Basic Facts About the United Nations does not even list slavery. Short chapter (6) does not mention slavery, but it has a section on Palestine refugees.  Sudan has long been a blemish on the face of the earth.  It is the largest country in Africa and should be broken up.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 24, 2004