Jews, Blacks, and the Roots of Racism

Article excerpt

The 20th century ended with a spate of violent hate crimes in the Middle West and California targeting Jews, African Americans, and other minorities that added a sense of urgency to the debate over the present state and future prospects of race relations in this country. Paralleling this debate is a less known yet potentially explosive controversy, not about the present or future of racism, but about its past. One might think that the Christian Identity movement -- whose ideology, stigmatizing Jews as the devil's spawn and blacks as subhuman, inspired Buford Furrow's 1999 rampage in Los Angeles -- might provide a powerful motive for the two minorities to renew their alliance against bigotry. Instead, Professor Tony Martin of Wellesley College, in tandem with Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, continues to find in racism's origins additional reason for African Americans to distance themselves from Jews.

According to Martin, "invented by Jewish talmudic scholars over a thousand years before the transatlantic slave trade began, ... the Hamitic Myth ... [has] killed many millions more than all the anti-Jewish pogroms and holocausts of Europe." Martin means by "the Hamitic myth" later Talmudic elaborations on Genesis 9:24-25 in which Noah, awakened from drunkenness by his disrespectful son, Ham, curses Ham's son, Canaan, with the fate of a "servant of servants [the meanest servant] ... unto his brethren." Though there is no hint of color difference in the Bible story, rabbinic commentators, according to Martin, read racist meaning into it by fusing blackness with bondage as part of a divinely sanctioned punishment. Noah's Curse was subsequently seized upon by European Christians as a potent justification for the slave trade and racial slavery at the expense of Africans and African Americans.

The argument that "Jewish talmudic scholars" invented antiblack racism (an argument with roots going back to the 1960s) was not made up by Martin. What sets him (and Farrakhan) apart is the refusal to acknowledge a scholarly consensus that the argument is a misreading of both rabbinic texts and the history of racism. Following the line of research pioneered 20 years ago by Ethiopian Jewish scholar Ephraim Isaac, other scholars like David Aaron, Benjamin Braude, and David Goldenberg have all reached basically the same conclusion. Though there are Talmudic and Midrashic glosses suggesting that Ham's skin was somehow darkened as punishment for sexual misbehavior, the rabbinic sources never linked slavery with skin color as part of a divine malediction. Noah's Curse of perpetual servitude was strictly limited in Talmudic lore to Canaan and the Canaanites, ultimately displaced by the Israelite descendants of Ham's brother, Shem. Indeed, rabbinic sources distinguished the cursed descendants of Canaan from the black descendants of his brother Cush, who had supposedly established prosperous kingdoms south of Egypt. Ephraim Isaac demonstrated that the "children of Ham" (notably the Cushites) were sometimes both described as "black" -- the former as "black and beautiful," the latter as "black like the raven." Rabbis also spoke of the beauties of Moses's Cushite (or Ethiopian) wife, of the black Queen of Sheba, and of Solomon's Cushite scribes. The famous passage in the Song of Songs, "I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem," appears to have read in Hebrew and Greek versions as "I am black and beautiful."

Jewish legends were not the source of Martin's destructive "Hamitic myth" justifying slavery in terms of skin color. To understand the evolution of racism in the centuries leading up to the Atlantic slave trade and the founding of new world societies based on racial slavery, we need to look elsewhere--to medieval Christian Europe but also to the Islamic world from which Martin and Farrakhan avert their eyes rather than criticize. I will touch on what historians have learned in recent years about the medieval and early modern "construction of race" and how it cast a shadow over the modern age. …