Stephen Howe’s Refutation of Nation of Islam Book on Jews and the Slave Trade

Stephen Howe’s book Afrocentrism also includes discussion and refutation of the vicious anti-Semitism in parts of the movement. This anti-Jewish prejudice is particularly notorious in the case of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan’s assertion that Jews were responsible for the transatlantic slave trade. Howe attacks and refutes this assertion as it appears in the Nation of Islam’s anonymously published boo, The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews. Howe writes

‘The book is credited to the ‘Nation of Islam Historical Research Department’, an entity which has had no traceable existence or publications apart from this work. Under the guise of a scholarly treatise, and utilizing (though often misquoting or otherwise abusing) a very wide range of sources, this is in reality a violently anti-Jewish tract. It massively exaggerates the role of various Atlantic Jewish communities in slavery – a role which was in reality minuscule, with the partial exception of Jewish investors in the Dutch West India Company (Jewish investment here having been estimated at different times between 0.5 per cent and 10 per cent of the total, while the company itself controlled, at its peak, a maximum 16 per cent of the Atlantic slave trade, a handful of Jewish plantation owners in Surinam (Dutch Guiana), and a not precisely quantifiable number of Portuguese Marranos (Christians of actual, alleged or partial Jewish ancestry, who formed a significant portion of Portugal’s and her colonies’ populations after the Inquisition).

More revealing still of the book’s real nature is the repeated suggestion that Jewish involvement in slavery (no less and no more blameworthy than the far greater Christian and Muslim embroilment, and hugely overstated by mis-citation and innuendo) stems from some uniquely evil racial-religious characteristic, and has subsequently been concealed by all the all-too-predictable conspiracy of media and financial power. Yet The Secret Relationship is afar cleverer work of propaganda than its critics seem to assume. An impressive amount of research – albeit almost entirely in secondary sources – has gone into its compilation, however egregiously the results are then misused. It does not directly claim, as responses from the Anti-Defamation League and elsewhere asserted, that Jews are ‘genetically predisposed towards the exploitation of blacks; though the unwary reader might easily draw such a conclusion from it, and that, no doubt, was the anonymous author’s intention. It draws attention dozens of times to instances across the centuries and the continents when Jews were accused of rapacious and dishonest business dealings. It never quite directly says that such accusations were true, or that they reflect a noxious, invariant pattern of Jewish racial behaviour. Nor, of course, does it say that they were not true. It just leaves the reader to conclude that such multifarious and insistent charges must be solidly based.’ (276-7)

This is a good point, as unfortunately not all Fascists are clowns, and anti-Semites, whether White, Black or whatever, can dress their poisonous assertions up to make them apparently rational and historically grounded. You have to be careful not to be caught by such rhetoric.

In footnote 3 to that chapter, Howe recommends the following books giving scholarly overviews of Jewish participation in the slave trade. These are David Brion Davis’ ‘ The Slave Trade and the Jews’, published in the New York Review of Books, 22nd December 1994; Seymour Drescher, ‘The Role of Jews in the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, Immigrants and Minorities 12, 1993; and Harold Brackman’s Farrakhan’s Reign of Historical Error: The Truth behind The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews (Los Angeles 1992). Howe describes this last book a polemical with a touch of ethnocentrism itself.

I thought it worth posting Howe’s passage demolishing Farrakhan’s nasty little book, as I think these poisonous assertions are still being made. The sensitivity over this issue has also been used by the witch-hunters to smear entirely respectable historians and academics like Jackie Walker as genuine anti-Semites. Walker’s real crime in the eyes of groups like the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism is that she opposes the Israeli state’s persecution of the Palestinians and the system of apartheid it has erected to keep them very securely as second-class citizens. However, they smeared her as an anti-Semite with a comment with two colleagues discussing Jewish involvement in the slave trade, in which she stated clearly that the Jews were ‘her people’. As a Jewish woman of colour, whose father was a Russian Jew, practises the religion herself, and whose partner is Jewish and whose daughter attended a Jewish school, there should be no doubt that Walker is not any kind of anti-Semite. But because of some ill-guarded words in her post, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism were able to smear her as such.

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