Lenni Brenner’s Letter to Prof. Tony Martin

Dear Tony,

Let me start off by completely solidarizing myself (and the Committee to Stop Israel’s Arms Traffic with South Africa) with you and your absolute right to use the Nation of Islam’s The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews in your class. Academic freedom means the right to use any and all texts, if they will bring some light on your subject, Black history. Furthermore, politically, the day is long past when the Black community will tolerate any whites telling any Black what book they can or cannot read, or use in teaching.

As you know, I reviewed the book for the [New York] Amsterdam News (Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and 10, 1992). I said then, and say now that

The only way to judge it is to look at it exactly as educated readers look at any nonfiction. Frequently, authors’ philosophical failings cause them to misinterpret some aspects of their specialty while doing an adequate job on other facets of their topic. The question is whether readers can learn from the book even with its failings. Using that criterion, if I were a professor, I’d give it a B.

As Richard Muhammad, the managing editor of the Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s paper, wrote, in his interview with you (May 10, 1993), “Neither the book nor Dr. Martin claim Jews dominated the American slave trade, nor was the text chosen as an attack on Jews.” In fact the least controversial part of the book is its description of the magnitude of Jewish involvement in the slave trade. The NOI’s scholars cited numerous Jewish writers on this.

I believe that a large part of the problem lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of today’s American Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe, who arrived here after the Civil War. Most of them know nothing about the prior Sephardic colonization here, much less the Sephardic role in South America and the Caribbean. Therefore their automatic attitude is to say something like, “Yes, Jews held Black slaves, but why focus on that?” The reason is that those Sephardic Jews played a significant part in the slave trade, and not to study their role would be the same as not studying the role of the Dutch or any other major factor in that traffic. God, they say, is in the details.

To understand their role, it is necessary to know some Portuguese history. As many people know, the Spanish crown gave the Jews a choice in 1492, convert to Catholicism or be exiled. But the Portuguese king decided that it would be foolish to expel such an important part of his country’s merchants. Instead, he forcibly converted all the Jews. Naturally most of them continued to think of themselves as Jews. But once he sprinkled some holy water on them, he proceeded to do business with them, as usual. The Encyclopedia Judaica article on Brazil tells the story:

In 1502 a consortium of New Christians headed by Fernando de Noronha obtained from King Manuel I of Portugal a concession to colonize and exploit the newly discovered land….A large number of the 120 engenhos [sugar plantations with mills  LB] that existed on Brazil in the year 1600 belonged to New Christians, many of whom were also administrators….The majority secretly observed Jewish rites….Brazil had about 50,000 European inhabitants in 1624, a high percentage of whom were New Christians.

The Dutch took northeastern Brazil from the Portuguese in 1630 and, again, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica,

[M]any Marranos (Portuguese for secret Jews)…happy to be able to give up their double life, were circumcised and became professing Jews….Jews…were largely engaged in the slave trade. The import of Negro slaves from Africa was a monopoly of the West India Company, which sold them at public auction for cash. Jews purchased the slaves and resold them at great profit (on credit, payable at the next sugar harvest) to the owners of the plantations.

By 1645, Jews were “about 50%” of the European population of Dutch Brazil. But the Portuguese reconquered the Dutch settlement at Pernambuco in 1654 and the open Jews had to leave with the Dutch:

The majority left for Amsterdam, but some sailed to Caribbean Islands (Curaçao, Barbados, etc.) where they are believed to have introduced the sugar plant and the sugar industry.

It isn’t necessary to quote further. Anyone seriously interested in the topic can read the Encyclopedia Judaica articles on all the European colonies in the Caribbean. There they will see for themselves, from Jewish scholarly sources, that Jews played a major role in slavery in that region. If they read further, they will see that the first American Jews in this country migrated here from their strong economic base in the Caribbean. Because they came here relatively late, and in small numbers, Jews never were as important here in the slave traffic as in Brazil or the Caribbean. Nevertheless, they were most definitely a major factor in Newport, Rhode Island, where Aaron Lopez was the “leading Merchant and her largest taxpayer” (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11).

Slavery is ancient and all three monotheistic faiths condoned it. The Jewish role in slavery is important because wherever they were allowed to live they made up a significant proportion of the merchant class. But it must also be understood that nowhere and at no time in the entire period of the Black slave trade were the Jews the dominant political or even economic power. Those Jews who took part in the crime of slavery were everywhere a minority of the slaveholding and slave trading class. The vast majority of slaveholders and traders in the Americas were Christians and the vast majority in North Africa and the Middle East were Muslims.

Nevertheless, it is disgraceful that you should be attacked for discussing the Jewish role in that traffic, and in using the Nation of Islam’s book. Who thinks that anyone would have complained if you had dealt with the role of Christians or Muslims in the African holocaust? And it is particularly odious that the Anti-Defamation League should be among your tormentors. Anyone reading the papers now knows that the organization is a non-stop spy outfit, “investigating” innumerable Black groups, and the progressive camp in general.

If I or the CSIATSA can be of further assistance to you, do not hesitate to call on us.


In solidarity, Lenni Brenner