Jews and slavery: the myths and the truth

Widespread concern over anti-black racism has led some to regurgitate an old lie: that Jews were dominant in the slave trade


One of the most pernicious antisemitic libels in recent years has been the allegation of Jewish dominance in the Atlantic slave trade and in the enslavement of Africans in the New World. There is concern that the Black Lives Matter movement is influenced to some degree by these false beliefs.

As in all forms of antisemitism, there is a kernel of truth here: a small minority of slave traders and owners were Jews; the Hebrew Bible and Talmud accept slavery as a fact of life; and the Bible, especially in the King James translation, was widely used to justify slavery and imperialism. Also, Judaism never developed an abolitionist movement: the first such movement began in England in the late 18th century.

Yet, it could be argued, justly, that Judaism is intrinsically an abolitionist religion.

Ancient cultures saw slavery from the owner’s view, as normal; the Bible tends to see mass slavery in Egypt and Mesopotamia from the slave’s view — as detestable.

The Greco-Roman notion of “natural slavery”, associated particularly with Aristotle, for whom slaves were “live tools”, was incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian belief in the equality of all humans in God’s eyes.

The Bible stresses the value of the free individual, created “in God’s image”. In Jewish belief, every human life matters: “This is why God created Adam alone: to teach that one who kills a single human being is regarded by Scripture as having destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single person is regarded by Scripture as having saved an entire world.” (Mishna Sanhedrin IV 5).

Much of the Bible is set against the rise of Assyria and Babylonia, the first extended empires in history. These empires conquered, deported and enslaved their enemies on a large scale. The two small monotheist kingdoms of Israel and Judah were destroyed, Israel by Assyria (late 8th century BCE), Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia (early 6th century BCE).

It is no wonder that the Hebrew Bible is so sensitive to human dignity and to freedom as an essential human right. The Bible opposes the abuses of power, particularly slavery, and is dedicated to the breaking of cruel empires. Its main story is of an enslaved people who break free, accept their own laws, and create their own independent state.

The exodus from the ‘iron furnace’ of slavery in Egypt is remembered not just on Passover but also in the Hebrew siddur (prayerbook), in the daily prayers, on the Sabbath, and on festivals in the recital of the Hallel psalms (nos. 113–118), as well as in the annual cycle of the public reading in synagogue of the Five Books of Moses.

Freedom from slavery in Egypt defines Judaism in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the greatest gift of the Bible to the poor of the world — slaves above all — is the Fourth Commandment: to rest on the Sabbath in memory of Israel’s liberation from slavery (Deuteronomy 5: 15).

The Bible is critical of slavery. The prophet Samuel condemns kings for enslaving the people through tax, forced labour and military service, and land confiscation. Later biblical prophets were dismayed that during the period of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, slavery was common and, at times — notably when the Temple in Jerusalem was built by Solomon — widespread.

Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, worsened his father’s corvée: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (I Kings 10: 11). The king’s cruel arrogance led to the first recorded slave revolt. The kingdom is split: Israel, the rebel state led by Jeroboam; and Judah, the remaining part of the Davidic state, with Jerusalem its capital.

Prophetic opposition to slavery evidently continued throughout the monarchic period. The last Judean king, Zedekiah, faced with a Babylonian invasion in the early 6th century BCE, proclaimed the emancipation of slaves but failed to follow this through. The prophet Jeremiah, outraged, denounced the state and warned of defeat and exile as divine punishments. This was, indeed, the fate of the Judeans, and worse, they were forced to work as slaves in Babylonia (II Chronicles 36: 20).

This wretched history of a once-enslaved people gaining freedom, then centuries later returning to slavery (though evidently only for limited periods), created an aversion to slavery in the Bible and in later Jewish life. Servitude could not be avoided entirely but was discouraged.

Historically, Judaism aims to limit slavery, particularly of Jews among fellow Jews, insisting upon the rights of slaves and responsibilities of masters: to acquire a Jewish slave is to acquire a master (Kiddushin 20a).

The recent symbolic topplings of icons associated with slavery, such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol, have a powerful biblical precedent: in the book of Daniel (2nd century BCE), Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statue of gold, silver and brass, with feet of clay — a symbol of the powerful ancient empires built with the labour of slaves — that is brought down.

After the Romans crushed three Jewish uprisings in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, many Jews were sold into slavery throughout the Roman empire, at its height the largest slave-society in history.

The Passover seder, commemorating the exodus from Egypt, shows the scars of these disastrous wars. By enacting liberation, it subverts tyranny. The Talmud stresses that even the poorest person should take part in the Passover meal and recline while drinking wine in the traditional symbolic gesture of freedom (Pesachim 108a).

Monotheist faith defended human life against slavery, as did the emphasis on education in Jewish life. By the medieval period, Jewish slavery was rare; when Jews were taken captive, Jewish communities did all they could to pay the ransom to stop them being sold into slavery.

In modern times, countless Jews were enslaved by the Germans before being murdered in the Holocaust. Consequently, for Jews today, Passover has especial meaning as a festival of liberation.

The story of the exodus from slavery of the Hebrew Bible has been a blueprint for nations seeking independence. For example, Americans at the time of their war of independence (1776-1783) saw Washington as their Moses and George III as a latter-day Pharaoh. The original seal of the United States showed the Hebrew slaves crossing the sea to freedom.

In Italy, too, Verdi’s ‘Chorus of Hebrew Slaves’ (Va pensiero) in the opera Nabucco (1842), written two decades before Italy’s independence, is a patchwork of biblical texts expressing the dream of Israelite slaves to be free from Egyptian bondage. Va pensiero became Italy’s unofficial national anthem.

The Bible has inspired those who fought slavery and exploitation, including William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

The theology of liberation tends to thrive in countries where human rights are abused, reaching hundreds of millions, in Africa, Latin America, Russia, China, and elsewhere. It is much more rarely taught in European synagogues and churches.

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