Jon Abrams reflects on the responses to his piece on Anglo-Jewry and slavery.
The responses to our recent article published by JewThink, ‘Why we need more research on how Anglo-Jewry profited from slavery’, have been baffling if not downright disturbing. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the comments have completely ignored the content of our article that argued for greater research to explore the impact of the proceeds of Jewish slave-ownership on the Anglo-Jewish community.
Instead, they focused on the potential fallout this may have on the Jewish community, fearing a backlash by segments of the Left and the Nation of Islam respectively who, it was feared, would distort our research to push their antisemitic claims. Nowhere in such responses, though, was much concern shown for the actual victims of slavery, just the potential for Jews to be further victimised as a result of its exposure.
This parochial and narrow-minded ‘Is it Good for the Jews’ mindset betrays a singular lack of menschlikayt or tikkun olam, of attempting to redress the errors and crimes of the past and to heal. Is this, as a community, what we have become?
Indeed, imagine if this ‘leave well alone’ mindset was applied to other aspects of Jewish history. What if we decided it was time to move on from research into the Holocaust and antisemitism, from the complicity of Nazi-era firms in the genocide of millions of Jews? We expect them to clean house and so should we.
Yet, rather than deal with the substantive claims in our piece, some will even find this comparison offensive, using it to further drive away from the points made in the article.
But without understanding slavery, we will not fully understand the Holocaust. As Dr James M. Smith, Co-Founder and President of the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, points out in the New Statesman, ‘Nazism had its roots in white supremacy, propagated by the West through colonialism and the slave trade.’
In fact, as far as we are aware no-one has posted any academic papers or research focusing on the legacies of British-Slave-ownership database and the role of Jewish slave-owners. Nor does there appear to be any research into how this slave wealth (however confined to a tiny amount of individuals it may have been) was redeployed prior to and after the abolition of slavery. Early indications suggest that Bevis Marks and the Spanish and Portuguese community were particular beneficiaries.
The ‘Is it Good for Jews’ mindset also engages in historical distortions. As Jews we love to debate. But interpretations of the past must be based on the facts. Criticism of our article centred on the idea that slavery has existed since time immemorial and was a common, and normal practice so why single out the Jews particularly when their role in it was marginal, miniscule even?
It is true, for many thousands of years people have been forced into slavery. As Professor James Walvin explains, ‘Many civilisations using slave labour, from ancient to modern times, have relied on supplies of slaves from distant places’. Indeed, Jewish texts such in particular the Torah, Talmud, Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch contain laws governing the ownership and treatment of slaves.
‘But the Atlantic slave trade was unique’, according to Walvin, it became the largest enforced movement of humanity ever recorded. He adds, ‘From the first recognised slave ship departing Africa for the Americas in 1525, to the last (to Cuba in 1866) more than 12 million Africans in total were loaded on to the Atlantic slave ship … Africans entered the ship stripped of everything: their clothing, their names, their families and friends… The crossings were brutal, and millions died.’
Imagine again if the Holocaust was described as ‘just another genocide in human history’? How would Anglo-Jewry react?
Another myth is the notion that the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act ended Britain’s role in slavery. As Catherine Hall, Emerita Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London whose research focuses on the legacies of British slave-ownership, points out, ‘Britain’s economy became more dependent on slavery after emancipation than it was before’ as British capital ‘moved into cotton and fed the massive expansion of slavery in the US south, the extensive use of indentured labour on the tea plantations in India and for sugar in the Caribbean’.
Hall’s article is entitled, ‘There are British businesses built on slavery. This is how we make amends’. Whether it’s good for the Jews or not, further research is still required to explore the role and impact of Jewish merchants, financiers, tradespeople, and manufacturers in the post emancipation period.
I see this as a doubling down on misleading characterisations, this time of the comments to the last piece (which had a headline which mischaracterised the content of the research within it). Most of the comments were that the headline – which is what most people will read and share, and read nothing else – was misleadingly broad; not that the research was inappropriate. (I acknowledge others said something close to that and there was a large amount of whataboutery.)
What I also said was that the headline seemed to be hold the Jewish community to a much stricter standard than other institutions that were engaging in similar research. You may think that I was saying that we shouldn’t look, but I am absolutely not saying that.
I encourage the research and the soul-searching. I don’t think it’s fair to say “the Jewish community benefited from slavery” when you mean a limited number of old (London) Jewish institutions received some money from some people who – amongst other sources of wealth – owned slaves (which is what your research had uncovered). It collectivises and magnifies Jewish responsibility in a way Academe does not. (They have entire libraries and halls built from such wealth, bearing the names of the slave owners proudly.)
Who likes to collectivise Jewish responsibility? Both Antisemites and Jews, but in different ways.
By all means we should, as a means of Tukkun Olam, examine these historic issues and consider their modern implications. It is relevant to me, even if I don’t go near a Jewish institution that dates from the time of slavery. I am happy to engage in that collectivisation. A Jewish outlet like this is a place to do that.
What we don’t need to do is to give it clickbait headlines.
Excellent article. I thoroughly endorse it.
Really great article. I have written a play about the Jews planning to assassinate Ernest Bevin in protest to the quotas on Jews entering Palestine. Broken English published in the volume Political Plays by Oberon Books, 2012. But during Corbyn’s Labour leadership, I wondered if it was wise. Now Covid has killed theatre, whether to produce or not is not pertinent.
This article also made me think about the male morning prayer of practising Jews where slavery is mentioned. Oh and yes, thank you God for not making me a woman.