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Jewish views on slavery are varied both religiously and historically. Judaism's religious texts contain numerous laws governing the ownership and treatment of slaves. Texts that contain such regulations include the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Talmud, the 12th century Mishneh Torah by noted rabbi Maimonides, and the 16th century Shulchan Aruch by rabbi Yosef Karo. The original Israelite slavery laws found in the Hebrew Bible bear some resemblance to the 18th century BCE slavery laws of Hammurabi. The regulations changed over time. The Hebrew Bible contained two sets of laws, one for Canaanite slaves, and a more lenient set of laws for Hebrew slaves. From the time of the Pentateuch, the laws designated for Canaanites were applied to all non-Hebrew slaves. The Talmud's slavery laws, which were established in the second through the fifth centuries C.E., contain a single set of rules for all slaves, although there are a few exceptions where Hebrew slaves are treated differently from non-Hebrew slaves. The laws include punishment for slave owners that mistreat their slaves. In the modern era, when the abolitionist movement sought to outlaw slavery, supporters of slavery used the laws to provide religious justification for the practice of slavery.
Presently, slavery (as defined as the total subjugation of one human being over another) is absolutely unacceptable in Judaism. However, historically some Jewish people owned and traded slaves. In the middle ages, Jews were minimally involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Several scholarly works have been published to rebut the antisemitic canard of Jewish domination of the slave trade in Medieval Europe, Africa, and/or the Americas, and that Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery. They possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every Spanish territory in North America and the Caribbean, and in no period did they play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades.
American mainland colonial Jews imported slaves from Africa at a rate proportionate to the general population. As slave sellers, their role was more marginal, although their involvement in the Brazilian and Caribbean trade is believed to be considerably more significant. Jason H. Silverman, a historian of slavery, describes the part of Jews in slave trading in the southern United states as "minuscule", and writes that the historical rise and fall of slavery in the United States would not have been affected at all had there been no Jews living in the American South. Jews accounted for 1.25% of all Southern slave owners, and were not significantly different from other slave owners in their treatment of slaves.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt, as related in the Torah, has shaped the Jewish people throughout history. Briefly outlined, the story recounts the experience of the Israelites under Egyptian enslavement, God's promise to redeem them from slavery, God's punishment of the Egyptians, and the Israelite redemption and departure from Egypt. The Exodus myth has been interpreted and reinterpreted in every era and in every location to suit or challenge cultural norms. The result over time has been a steady increase in governance of masters in favor of slaves' rights and eventually the complete prohibition of slavery.
Ancient Israelite society allowed slavery, however, total domination of one human being by another (as the Israelites suffered under Egyptian rule) was not permitted. Rather, slavery in antiquity among the Israelites was closer to what would later be called indentured servitude. Slaves were seen as an essential part of a Hebrew household. In fact, there were cases in which, from a slave's point of view, the stability of servitude under a family in which the slave was well-treated would have been preferable to economic freedom. It is impossible for scholars to quantify the number of slaves that were owned by Hebrews in ancient Israelite society, or what percentage of households owned slaves, but it is possible to analyze social, legal, and economic impacts of slavery.
The Hebrew Bible contains two sets of rules governing slaves: one set for Hebrew slaves (Lev 25:39-43) and a second set for Canaanite slaves (Lev 25:45-46). The main source of non-Hebrew slaves were prisoners of war. Hebrew slaves, in contrast to non-Hebrew slaves, became slaves either because of extreme poverty (in which case they could sell themselves to an Israelite owner) or because of inability to pay a debt. According to the Hebrew Bible, non-Hebrew slaves were drawn primarily from the neighboring Canaanite nations, and religious justification was provided for the enslavement of these neighbors: the rules governing Canaanites was based on a curse aimed at Canaan, a son of Ham, but in later eras the Canaanite slavery laws were stretched to apply to all non-Hebrew slaves.
The laws governing non-Hebrew slaves were more harsh than those governing Hebrew slaves: non-Hebrew slaves could be owned permanently, and bequeathed to the owner's children, whereas Hebrew slaves were treated as servants, and were released after seven years of service or the occurrence of a jubilee year. One scholar suggests that the distinction was due to the fact that non-Hebrew slaves were subject to the curse of Canaan, whereas God did not want Jews to be slaves because he freed them from Egyptian enslavement.
The laws governing Hebrew slaves were more lenient than laws governing non-Hebrew slaves, but a single Hebrew word, ebed (meaning slave or servant) is used for both situations. In English translations of the Bible, the distinction is sometimes emphasized by translating the word as "slave" in the context of non-Hebrew slaves, and "servant" or "bondman" for Hebrew slaves.
Most slaves owned by Israelites were non-Hebrew, and scholars are not certain what percentage of slaves were Hebrew: one scholar says that Israelites rarely owned Hebrew slaves after the Maccabean era, although it is certain that Israelites owned Hebrew slaves during the time of the Babylonian exile. Another scholar suggests that Israelites continued to own Hebrew slaves through the Middle Ages, but that the Biblical rules were ignored, and Hebrew slaves were treated the same as non-Hebrews.
The Torah forbids the return of runaway slaves who escape from their foreign land and their bondage and arrive in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the Torah demands that such former slaves be treated equally to any other resident alien. This law is unique in the Ancient Near East.
In the early Common Era, the regulations concerning slave-ownership by Jews apparently became the subject of some confusion, and efforts were undertaken to revise the slavery laws. The precise issues that necessitated a revision to the laws is not certain, but it could include factors such as ownership of non-Canaanite slaves, the continuing practice of owning Jewish slaves, or conflicts with Roman slave-ownership laws. Thus, the Talmud (circa 200–500 CE) contains an extensive set of laws governing slavery, which is more detailed, and different than the original laws found in the Jewish Bible.
The major change found in the Talmud's slavery laws is that a single set of rules, with a few exceptions, governs both Jewish slaves and non-Jewish slaves. Another change was that the automatic release of Jewish slaves after 7 years is replaced by indefinite slavery, in conjunction with a process whereby the owner could—under certain situations—release the slave by a written document (a manumission). However, historian Josephus wrote that the seven year automatic release was still in effect if the slavery was a punishment for a crime the slave committed (as opposed to voluntary slavery due to poverty). In addition, the notion of Canaanite slaves from the Jewish Bible is expanded to all non-Jewish slaves.
One of the few rules that distinguished between Jewish and non-Jewish slaves regarded found property: items found by Jewish slaves were owned by the slave, but items found by a non-Jewish slave belonged to the slave owner. Another change was that the Talmud explicitly prohibits the freeing of a non-Jewish slave, which was stricter that the biblical law which was silent on the issue, and simply permitted slaves to be owned indefinitely. However, non-Jewish slaves could be freed and thus fully converted to Judaism, in some circumstances.
It is apparent that Jews still owned Jewish slaves in the Talmudic era, because Talmudic authorities tried to denounce the biblical permission that Jews could sell themselves into slavery if they were poverty-stricken. In particular, the Talmud said that Jews should not sell themselves to non-Jews, and if they did, the Jewish community was urged to ransom or redeem the slave.
Some scholars have asserted that the Curse of Ham described in Judaism's religious texts was a justification for slavery - citing the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) verses Genesis 9:20-27 and the Talmud. Scholars such as David M. Goldenberg have analyzed the religious texts, and concluded that those conclusions on faulty interpretations of Rabbinical sources: Goldenberg concludes that the Judaic texts do not explicitly contain anti-black precepts, but instead later race-based interpretations were applied to the texts by later, non-Jewish analysts.
The classical rabbis instructed that masters could never marry female slaves—they would have to be manumitted first; similarly, they ruled that male slaves could not be allowed to marry Jewish women. Unlike the biblical instruction to sell thieves into slavery (if they were caught during daylight, and couldn't repay the theft), the rabbis ordered that female Israelites could never be sold into slavery for this reason. Sexual relations between a slave owner and engaged slaves is prohibited in the Torah (Lev. 19:20-22). However, the Torah allows sex with non-engaged slaves, by clarifying that if she is engaged when the master has sex with her, "they are not to be put to death, since she was not freed" (which implies that a woman's slave status has direct bearing on whether she can be used for sex). The punishment specified in the Talmud (oral Jewish law code) for sexually violating a female was flogging and temporary excommunication.
The Jewish Bible contains the rule that Jewish slaves would be released following seven years of service, but that was replaced in the Talmud with potentially indefinite slavery, accompanied by a process whereby slaves could be freed—this process is called manumission. Freeing a non-Jewish slave was seen as a religious conversion, and involved a second immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh). Jewish authorities of the Middle Ages argued against the Biblical rule that provided freedom for severely injured slaves.
The Jewish Bible and the Talmud contain various rules about how to treat slaves. Biblical rules for treatment of Jewish slaves were more lenient than for non-Jewish slaves and the Talmud insisted that Jewish slaves should be granted similar food, drink, lodging, and bedding, to that which their master would grant to himself. Laws existed which specified punishment of owners that killed slaves. Jewish slaves were often treated as property; for example, they were not allowed to be counted towards the quorum, equal to 10 men, needed for public worship. Maimonides and other halachic authorities forbade or strongly discouraged any unethical treatment of slaves, Jewish or not. Some accounts indicate that Jewish slave-owners were affectionate, and would not sell slaves to a harsh master and that Jewish slaves were treated as members of the slave-owner's family.
Scholars are unsure to what extent the laws encouraging humane treatment were followed. In the 19th century, Jewish scholars such as Moses Mielziner and Samuel Krauss studied slave-ownership by ancient Jews, and generally concluded that Jewish slaves were treated as merely temporary bondsman, and that Jewish owners treated slaves with special compassion. However, 20th century scholars such as Solomon Zeitlin and Ephraim Urbach, examined Jewish slave-ownership practices more critically, and their historical accounts generally conclude that Jews did permanently own Jewish slaves, and that Jewish slave-owners were no more compassionate than other slave owners of antiquity. Historian Catherine Hezser explains the differing conclusions by suggesting that the 19th century scholars exaggerated the humaneness of Judaism in order to facilitate the assimilation of Judaism into Christian society.
The Talmudic laws required Jewish slave owners to try to convert non-Jewish slaves to Judaism. Other laws required slaves—if not converted—to be circumcised and undergo ritual immersion in a bath (mikveh). A 4th century Roman law prevented the circumcision of non-Jewish slaves, so the practice may have declined at that time, but increased again after the 10th century. Jewish slave owners were not permitted to drink wine that had been touched by an uncircumcised person, so there was always a practical need - in addition to the legal requirement - to circumcise slaves.
Although conversion to Judaism was a possibility for slaves, rabbinic authorities Maimonides and Karo discouraged it, on the basis that Jews were not permitted (in their time) to proselytise; slave owners could enter into special contracts, by which they agree not to convert their slaves. Furthermore, to convert a slave into Judaism without the owner's permission was seen as causing harm to the owner, on the basis that it would rob the owner of the slave's ability to work during the Sabbath, and would prevent them from selling the slave to non-Jews.
In the middle ages Jews were minimally involved in slave trade. Christian leaders, including Pope Gregory the Great (served 590-604), objected to Jewish ownership of Christian slaves, due to concerns about conversion to Judaism and the Talmudic mandate to circumcise slaves. The first prohibition of Jews owning Christian slaves was made by Constantine I in the 4th century. The prohibition was repeated by subsequent councils - Fourth Council of Orléans (541), Paris (633), Fourth Council of Toledo (633), the Synod of Szabolcs (1092) extended the prohibition to Hungary, Ghent (1112), Narbonne (1227), Béziers (1246). It was part of Saint Benedict's rule that Christian slaves were not to serve Jews.
Despite the prohibition Jewish participation in slave trading during the Middle Ages existed to some extent. Jews were the chief traders in the segment of Christian slaves at some epochs and played a significant role in the slave trade in some regions. According to other sources, Medieval Christians greatly exaggerated the supposed Jewish control over trade and finance, and became obsessed with alleged Jewish plots to enslave, convert, or sell non-Jews. Most European Jews lived in poor communities on the margins of Christian society; they continued to suffer most of the legal disabilities associated with slavery. Jews participated in routes that had been created by Christians or Muslims but rarely created new trading routes.
During the Middle Ages, Jews acted as slave-traders in Slavonia North Africa, Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal, and Mallorca The most significant Jewish involvement in the slave-trade was in Spain and Portugal during the 10th to 15th centuries.
Jewish participation in the slave trade was recorded as beginning in the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius permitted Jews to introduce slaves from Gaul into Italy, on the condition that they were non-Christian. In the 8th century, Charlemagne (ƒ 768-814) explicitly allowed Jews to act as intermediaries in the slave trade. In the 10th century, Spanish Jews traded in Slavonian slaves, whom the Caliphs of Andalusia purchased to form their bodyguards. In Bohemia, Jews purchased these Slavonian slaves for exportation to Spain and the west of Europe. William the Conqueror brought Jewish slave-traders with him from Rouen to England in 1066. At Marseilles in the 13th century, there were two Jewish slave-traders, as opposed to seven Christians.
Middle Ages historical records from the 9th century describe two routes by which Jewish slave-dealers carried slaves from west to east and from east to west. According to Abraham ibn Yakub, Byzantine Jewish merchants bought Slavs from Prague to be sold as slaves. Similarly, the Jews of Verdun, around the year 949, purchased slaves in their neighborhood and sold them in Spain.
Jews continued to own slaves during the 16th through 18th centuries, and ownership practices were still governed by Biblical and Talmudic laws. Myriad Hebrew and other sources indicate that owning slaves—particularly women of Slavic origin—was uniquely prevalent during this period among the Jewish households of the urban centres of the Ottoman Empire.
Jewish laws governing treatment of slaves were restated in the 12th century by noted rabbi Maimonides in his book Mishneh Torah, and again in the 16th century by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his book Shulchan Aruch.
The legal prohibition against Jews owning Jewish slaves was emphasized in the Middle Ages yet Jews continued to own Jewish slaves, and owners were able to bequeath Jewish slaves to the owner's children, but Jewish slaves were treated in many ways like members of the owner's family.
The Hebrew Bible contains instructions to redeem (purchase the freedom of) Jewish slaves owned by non-Jews (Lev. 25:47-51). Many Jews were taken to Rome as prisoners of war. In response, the Talmud contained guidance to emancipate Jewish slaves, but cautioned the redeemer against paying excessive prices since that may encourage Roman captors to enslave more Jews. Josephus, himself a former 1st century slave, remarks that the faithfulness of Jewish slaves was appreciated by their owners; this may have been one of the main reasons for freeing them.
In the Middle Ages, redeeming Jewish slaves gained importance and—up until the 19th century—Jewish congregations around the Mediterranean Sea formed societies dedicated to that purpose. Jewish communities customarily ransomed Jewish captives according to a Judaic mitzvah regarding the redemption of captives (Pidyon Shvuyim). In his A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson wrote, "Jews were particularly valued as captives since it was believed, usually correctly, that even if they themselves poor, a Jewish community somewhere could be persuaded to ransom them. ... In Venice, the Jewish Levantine and Portuguese congregations set up a special organization for redeeming Jewish captives taken by Christians from Turkish ships, Jewish merchants paid a special tax on all goods to support it, which acted as a form of insurance since they were likely victims."
Jews participated in the European colonization of the Americas, and owned slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean, most notably in Brazil and Suriname, but also in Barbados and Jamaica. Especially in Suriname, Jews owned many large plantations. Many of the ethnic Jews in the New World, particularly in Brazil, were "New Christians" or "Conversos", some of which continued to practice Judaism, so the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish slave owners is a difficult distinction for scholars to make.
In the 17th century, Jews were treated more tolerantly by the Muslim states of North Africa than in Christian Britain and Spain, and consequently many lived in or had close business contacts with Barbary. The Jews of Algiers allegedly were frequent purchasers of Christian slaves from Barbary corsairs. Meanwhile, Jewish brokers in Livorno, Italy were instrumental in arranging the ransom of Christian slaves from Algiers to their home countries and freedom. Although one slave accused Livorno's Jewish brokers of holding the ransom until the captives died, this allegation is uncorroborated, and other reports indicate Jews as being very active in assisting the release of English Christian captives. In 1637, an exceptionally poor year for ransoming captives, the few slaves freed were ransomed largely by Jewish factors in Algiers working with Henry Draper.
The Atlantic slave trade transferred African slaves from Africa to colonies in the New World. Much of the slave trade followed a triangular route: slaves were transported from Africa to the Caribbean, sugar from there to North America or Europe, and manufactured goods from there to Africa. Jews and descendants of Jews converted to Christianity participated in the slave trade on both sides of the Atlantic, in Holland, Spain, and Portugal on the eastern side, and in Brazil, Caribbean, and North America on the west side.
After Spain and Portugal expelled many of their Jewish residents in the 1490s, many Jews from Spain and Portugal migrated to the Americas and to Holland. Jewish participation in the Atlantic slave trade increased through the 17th century because Spain and Portugal maintained a dominant role in the Atlantic trade and peaked in the early 18th century, but started to decline after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 when England obtained the right to sell slaves in Spanish colonies, and England and France started to compete with Spain and Portugal. By the time the worldwide slave trade and European sugar-growing reached its peak in the 18th century, Jewish participation was dwarfed by the enterprise of British and French planters who did not allow Jews among their number. During the 19th century, some Jews owned some cotton plantations in the southern United States but not in meaningful numbers.
The role of Jewish converts to Christianity (New Christians) and of Jewish traders was momentarily significant in Brazil and the Christian inhabitants of Brazil were envious because the Jews owned some of the best plantations in the river valley of Pernambuco, and some Jews were among the leading slave traders in the colony. Some Jews from Brazil migrated to Rhode Island in the American colonies, and played a significant but non dominant role in the 18th-century slave trade of that colony; this sector accounted for only a very tiny portion of the total human exports from Africa.
The New World location where the Jews played the largest role in the slave-trade was in the Caribbean and Suriname, most notably in possessions of Holland, that were serviced by the Dutch West India Company. The slave trade was one of the most important occupations of Jews living in Suriname and the Caribbean. The Jews of Suriname were the largest slave-holders in the region.
According to Austen, "the only places where Jews came close to dominating the New World plantation systems were Curaçao and Suriname." Slave auctions in the Dutch colonies were postponed if they fell on a Jewish holiday. Jewish merchants in the Dutch colonies acted as middlemen, buying slaves from the Dutch West India Company, and reselling them to plantation owners. The majority of buyers at slave auctions in the Brazil and the Dutch colonies were Jews. Jews allegedly played a "major role" in the slave trade in Barbados and Jamaica, and Jewish plantation owners in Suriname helped suppress several slave revolts between 1690 to 1722.
In Curaçao, Jews were involved in trading slaves, although at a far lesser extent compared to the Protestants of the island. Jews imported fewer than 1,000 slaves to Curaçao between 1686 and 1710, after which the slave trade diminished. Between 1630 and 1770, Jewish merchants settled or handled "at least 15,000 slaves" who landed in Curaçao, about one-sixth of the total Dutch slave trade.
The Jewish role in the American slave trade was minimal. According to historian and rabbi Bertram Korn, there were Jewish owners of plantations, but altogether they constituted only a tiny proportion of the industry. In 1830 there were only four Jews among the 11,000 Southerners who owned fifty or more slaves.
A table of the commissions of brokers in Charleston, South Carolina, shows that one Jewish brokerage accounted for 4% of the commissions. According to Bertram Korn, Jews accounted for 4 of the 44 slave-brokers in Charleston, three of 70 in Richmond, and 1 of 12 in Memphis.
Historian Seymour Drescher emphasized the problems of determining whether or not slave-traders were Jewish. He concludes that New Christian merchants managed to gain control of a sizeable share of all segments of the Portuguese Atlantic slave trade during the Iberian-dominated phase of the Atlantic system. Due to forcible conversions of Jews to Christianity many New Christians continued to practice Judaism in secret, meaning it is impossible for historians to determine what portion of these slave traders were Jewish, because to do so would require the historian to choose one of several definitions of "Jewish".
Historians' assessment of Jewish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade have varied, with corrections and revisions added over time as new research comes to light. Some pseudohistorians diatorted the available research to write anti-Semitic polemics.
In 1991, the Nation of Islam (NOI) published The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which alleged that Jews had dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Volume 1 of the book claims Jews played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade, and profited from slavery. The book was heavily criticized for being anti-Semitic, and for failing to provide any objective analysis of the role of Jews in the slave trade. Common criticisms included the fact that the book used selective quotes, made "crude use of statistics," and was purposefully trying to exaggerate the role of Jews. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) criticized the NOI and the book. Henry Louis Gates Jr criticized the book's intention and scholarship.
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Historian Ralph A. Austen heavily criticized the book and said that although the book may seem fairly accurate, it is an anti-Semitic book. However, he added that before the publication of The Secret Relationship, some scholars were reluctant to discuss Jewish involvement in slavery because of fear of damaging the "shared liberal agenda" of Jews and African Americans. In that sense, Austen found the book's aims of challenging the myth of universal Jewish benevolence throughout history to be legitimate even though the means to that end resulted in an anti-Semitic book.
The publication of The Secret Relationship spurred detailed research into the participation of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade, resulting in the publication of the following works, most of which were published specifically to refute the thesis of The Secret Relationship:
Most post-1991 scholars that analysed the role of Jews only identified certain regions (such as Brazil and the Caribbean) where the participation was "significant". Wim Klooster wrote: "In no period did Jews play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. They possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean. Even when Jews in a handful of places owned slaves in proportions slightly above their representation among a town's families, such cases do not come close to corroborating the assertions of The Secret Relationship".
David Brion Davis wrote that "Jews had no major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery." Jacob R. Marcus wrote that Jewish participation in the American Colonies was "minimal" and inconsistent. Bertram Korn wrote "all of the Jewish slavetraders in all of the Southern cities and towns combined did not buy and sell as many slaves as did the firm of Franklin and Armfield, the largest Negro traders in the South."
According to a review in The Journal of American History of both Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight and Jews and the American Slave Trade: "Faber acknowledges the few merchants of Jewish background locally prominent in slaving during the second half of the eighteenth century but otherwise confirms the small-to-minuscule size of colonial Jewish communities of any sort and shows them engaged in slaving and slave holding only to degrees indistinguishable from those of their English competitors."
According to Seymour Drescher, Jews participated in the Atlantic slave trade, particularly in Brazil and Suriname, however in no period did Jews play a leading role as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. He said that Jews rarely established new slave-trading routes, but rather worked in conjunction with a Christian partner, on trade routes that had been established by Christians and endorsed by Christian leaders of nations. In 1995 the American Historical Association (AHA) issued a statement, together with Drescher, condemning "any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave trade".
According to a review in The Journal of American History of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight (Faber) and Jews and the American Slave Trade (Friedman), "Eli Faber takes a quantitative approach to Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade in Britain's Atlantic empire, starting with the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the London resettlement of the 1650s, calculating their participation in the trading companies of the late seventeenth century, and then using a solid range of standard quantitative sources (Naval Office shipping lists, censuses, tax records, and so on) to assess the prominence in slaving and slave owning of merchants and planters identifiable as Jewish in Barbados, Jamaica, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and all other smaller English colonial ports." Historian Robert Austen, however, acknowledges "Sephardi Jews in the New World had been heavily involved in the African slave trade."
Slavery historian Jason H. Silverman describes the part of Jews in slave trading in the southern United states as "minuscule", and wrote that the historical rise and fall of slavery in the United States would not have been affected at all had there been no Jews living in the south. Jews accounted for only 1.25% of all Southern slave owners.
Jewish slave ownership practices in the southern United States were governed by regional practices, rather than Judaic law. Many southern Jews held the view that blacks were subhuman and were suited to slavery, which was the predominant view held by many of their non-Jewish southern neighbors. Jews conformed to the prevailing patterns of slave ownership in the South, and were not significantly different from other slave owners in their treatment of slaves. Wealthy Jewish families in the American South generally preferred employing white servants rather than owning slaves. Jewish slave owners included Aaron Lopez, Francis Salvador, Judah Touro, and Haym Salomon.
Jewish slave owners were found mostly in business or domestic settings, rather than on plantations, so most of the slave ownership was in an urban context - running a business or as domestic servants. Jewish slave owners freed their black slaves at about the same rate as non-Jewish slave owners. Jewish slave owners sometimes bequeathed slaves to their children in their wills.
A significant number of Jews gave their energies to the antislavery movement. Many 19th century Jews, such as Adolphe Crémieux, participated in the moral outcry against slavery. In 1849, Crémieux announced the abolition of slavery throughout the French possessions.
In England there were Jewish members of the abolition groups. Granville Sharp and Wilberforce, in his "A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade," employed Jewish teachings as arguments against slavery. Rabbi G. Gottheil of Manchester, and Dr. L. Philippson of Bonn and Magdeburg, forcibly combated the view announced by Southern sympathizers, that Judaism supports slavery. Rabbi M. Mielziner's anti-slavery work "Die Verhältnisse der Sklaverei bei den Alten Hebräern", published in 1859, was translated and published in the United States. Similarly, in Germany, Berthold Auerbach in his fictional work "Das Landhausam Rhein" aroused public opinion against slavery and the slave trade, and Heinrich Heine also spoke against slavery. Immigrant Jews were among abolitionist John Brown's band of antislavery fighters in Kansas, including Theodore Wiener (from Poland); Jacob Benjamin (from Bohemia), and August Bondi (1833-1907) from Vienna. Nathan Meyer Rothschild was known for his role in the abolition of the slave trade through his part-financing of the £20 million British government compensation paid to former owners of the plantation industry's freed slaves.
A Jewish woman Ernestine Rose was called “queen of the platforms” in the 19th century because of her speeches in favor of abolition. Her lectures were met with controversy. Her most ill-received lecture was likely in Charleston, West Virginia, where her lecture on the evils of slavery was met with such vehement opposition and outrage that she was forced to exercise considerable influence to even get out of the city safely.
In the civil-war era, prominent Jewish religious leaders in the United States engaged in public debates about slavery. Generally, rabbis from the Southern states supported slavery, and those from the North opposed slavery.
The most notable debate was between Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall, who defended slavery as it was practiced in the South because slavery was endorsed by the Bible, and rabbi David Einhorn who opposed its current form. However, there were not many Jews in the South, and Jews accounted for only 1.25% of all Southern slave owners. In 1861, Raphall published his views in a treatise called "The Bible View of Slavery". Raphall, and other pro-slavery rabbis such as Isaac Leeser and J. M. Michelbacher (both of Virginia), used the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) to support their arguments.
Abolitionist rabbis, including Einhorn and Michael Heilprin, concerned that Raphall's position would be seen as the official policy of American Judaism, vigorously rebutted his arguments, and argued that slavery – as practiced in the South – was immoral and not endorsed by Judaism.
It has been suggested[by whom?] that "the majority of American Jews were mute on the subject, perhaps because they dreaded its tremendous corrosive power. Prior to 1861, there are virtually no instances of rabbinical sermons on slavery, probably due to fear that the controversy would trigger a sectional conflict in which Jewish families would be arrayed on opposite sides. ... America’s largest Jewish community, New York’s Jews were overwhelmingly pro-southern, pro-slavery, and anti-Lincoln in the early years of the war." However, as the war progressed, "and the North’s military victories mounted, feelings began to shift toward[s] ... the Union and eventually, emancipation."
In contemporary affairs, Jews and African-Americans have cooperated in the Civil Rights movement, motivated partially by the common background of slavery, particularly the story of the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, as told in the Biblical story of the Book of Exodus, which many blacks identified with. Seymour Siegel suggests that the historic struggle against prejudice faced by Jews led to a natural sympathy for any people confronting discrimination. Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial during the famous March on Washington in 1963 where he emphasized Jews how identify deeply with African American disenfranchisement "born of our own painful historic experience," including slavery and ghettoization.
"John Hope Franklin and I ... were condoning a benign historical myth: that the shared liberal agenda of twentieth-century Blacks and Jews has a pedigree going back through the entire remembered past. ... Jewish students of Jewish history have known it was untrue and ... have produced a significant body of scholarship detailing the involvement of our ancestors in the Atlantic slave trade and Pan-American slavery. [The scholarship] had never been synthesized in a publication for non-scholarly audience. A book of this sort has now appeared, however, written not by Jews but by an anonymous group of African Americans associated with the Reverend Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam."