History Questioned: Group Denies Jews Played Big Role in Slavery

Article excerpt

IN A HIGHLY unusual move, the American Historical Association has condemned as false any assertions that Jews played a disproportionate role in the exploitation of black slave labor.

Those who make such allegations, the association said, are involved in a "misuse of history that distorts the historical record to demonize or demean" Jews.

A spokesman for the group said Tuesday that the only other time the 18,000-member organization had taken a position on a specific historical topic was in 1991, when it condemned those who claimed the Holocaust never happened.

The brief policy resolution, which was unanimously approved by the historical organization's ruling council, was accompanied by a detailed statement by two leading experts on slavery, David Brion Davis and Seymour Drescher.

Citing "a number of egregious assaults on the historical record in institutions of higher learning and at educational conferences," Davis and Drescher called the claims "part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history."

The historians blamed news organizations for having given the charges "wide currency, while failing to dismiss them as spurious."

Neither the policy resolution nor the historians' statement attributes the charges to anyone in particular. The claims have been given most prominence in the 1991 Nation of Islam volume, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews."

The introduction claims "irrefutable evidence that the most prominent of the Jewish pilgrim fathers used kidnapped Black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history."

With 1,275 footnotes, many of them citing books by "highly respected scholars of the Jewish community," as well as an editor's note warning the subject "should be approached with great sensitivity," the book gives every appearance of authority.

But Davis, the Sterling professor of history at Yale, called it "insidiously clever. While filled with the grossest distortions, it looks like bona fide research."

A woman at the Nation of Islam office in Chicago said no one was available to speak about the book Tuesday.

While sensitive to the notion that this issue may only be inflamed again by the historical group's statement, Davis said that possibility was outweighed by "a need to try to meet this head on. …