Persistent Perversity On Jews and Slavery

Ainsley Henriques

Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica, ought to know the African-Jamaican proverb, ‘Cock mouth kill cock’. If he doesn’t, I’d be very surprised.  After all, we’re one people.  We all know each other’s cultures intimately.  In any case, there must be a Jewish equivalent of this proverbial warning.  It’s not only black people in Jamaica who know that sometimes words have to be eaten. And they can be very, very bitter, even toxic.

 In a Gleaner article headlined, “Jews The Victims of Slavery, Too”, published on Friday, August 3, Ainsley gives a most peculiar response to my column, “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”, published on July 8. In his opening sentences, Ainsley launches a childish attack on the messenger, not the message:

 “Your columnist Professor Carolyn Cooper reminds me of the lines often given to recalcitrant school boys. I quote, ‘Persistent perversity provokes patient pedagogue producing particularly painful punishment’”.  Once you get past the tongue-twisting alliteration, what Ainsley seems to be saying is this:  my insistence that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in Jamaica is ‘persistent perversity’.  Apparently, I’m a recalcitrant schoolgirl who doesn’t know how to behave.

       Having been provoked, Ainsley, the ‘patient pedagogue’, threatens to produce ‘particularly painful punishment’. It all sounds rather sadomasochistic.  Telling the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica is a dangerous business. Truth doesn’t always set you free.  It sometimes imprisons you in other people’s fictions. Next thing you know, I’m going to be labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’.

It’s not kosher

Oddly enough, having tried to use schoolboy tactics to discredit the messenger, Ainsley does concede the truth of the message. He admits that I’m “correct” in asserting that the Museum of Jewish Jamaican History gives “an incomplete history of the Jews of Jamaica”.  Surprisingly, Ainsley justifies the gaps in the story with the bogus argument that “no history is ever complete”.

It is true that many histories are partial – in both senses of the word:  incomplete and one-sided. But some histories are more complete than others.  There is a lot of historical evidence to support the claim that Jews played a major role in plantation slavery in the Caribbean.  In the case of the incomplete history in the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History, it seems as if the truth has been deliberately concealed.  To what end?

      Ainsley serves up a big red herring in an attempt to explain why “no mention is made of the role of the Jews in Jamaica in the horror of enslavement”.  And it’s not kosher:  “this is because their history with enslavement is much more than just that – too much for a poster board”.  But how is this history different from the other long stories that are compressed and told on those same poster boards?

Furthermore, Ainsley shamelessly switches the topic from the role of Jews as agents in the enslavement of African people.  Instead, he rehearses the story of Jews as victims of slavery, as if that was ever in question.   And, again, Ainsley resorts to attacking the messenger.  He dismisses my call for the whole story to be told on the specious basis that I am ignorant of the history of Jews in Jamaica and I need to read the “eminent historians at places like the University of the West Indians”.  The same scholars, I suppose, who all fail to write ‘complete’ histories.

Setting the Record Straight?

I’m quite sure there are Jamaican Jews who are prepared to admit the truth about their history of participation in the slave trade.  I got an email from one of them.  He sent me looking for Eli Faber’s book Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade:  Setting the Record Straight which was published in 2000 by the New York University Press.  I haven’t read the book as yet.  But I’ve seen a most intriguing summary of its thesis posted on Amazon:

“Focusing on the British empire, Faber assesses the extent to which Jews participated in the institution of slavery through investment in slave trading companies, ownership of slave ships, commercial activity as merchants who sold slaves upon their arrival from Africa, and direct ownership of slaves. His unprecedented original research utilizing shipping and tax records, stock-transfer ledgers, censuses, slave registers, and synagogue records reveals, once and for all, the minimal nature of Jews’ involvement in the subjugation of Africans in the Americas”.

How, in Jehovah’s name, could the word ‘minimal’ be appropriate in this context? Having sold their human ‘cargo’ and counted the profit, Jewish traders simply washed their hands of the whole sordid affair, just like Pontius Pilate.  And then there were those Jews who did own slave plantations.

‘Playing Fool Fi Ketch Wise’

The final paragraph of Ainsley Henriques’ response to my column is rather disturbing.  Its smugness suggests a complete failure to acknowledge the complexity of our history on this rock: “We must not wring our hands in despair nor hang our heads in shame, but hold them high and rejoice in the chance that we have been given in this life to redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come”.

Who is the “we” for whom Ainsley speaks with such rhetorical flourish?  The enslaved or the enslavers?  The naked mad people in Emancipation Park?  Or the distinguished panel of judges, clothed in their right mind, who selected that bestial image to brand black people? And how can we really ‘redeem ourselves in the present and create a future for the generations to come’ if we can’t manage to speak the truth about our past?

‘Cock mouth kill cock’.   Ainsley’s own words produce ‘persistent perversity’.  Like the Jewish trickster Joha, a distant relative of Anansi, Ainsley is desperately ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’.  It would be so much easier for him to just speak the plain truth about Jews and plantation slavery in the Caribbean.

Pontius Pilate

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3 thoughts on “Persistent Perversity On Jews and Slavery

  1. I find this desire to pretend history away to be disturbing (and tiresome). How can you be labelled anti-semetic for speaking a fact (does he deny that what you’ve said is factual?), and how can if be anything but disingenous for them to gloss over that same fact (as if pretending it away will make it so). When it comes to the admittedly uncomfortable history of African people and the suffering we have endured and in some instances still endure at the hands of others and in some cases our own, the default setting seems to be forget, move on, or worse yet, pretend. It serves no one. We must know and talk about our history even the bits of it that make us uncomfortable; it is one way to understand the journey that has brought us to this point (including the fortitude that has enabled us to survive the worst that could have been done to one person by another), to appreciate the gravity of the decisions we must make in this present, and to avoid repeating the missteps of the past and valuing each other in the process. I would have had more respect for his position if rather than chastising you and seeking to put you in your place, he had stepped up to the discussion and moved the conversation forward. For my part, I will not let anyone shame me into forgetting my people’s past, because it’s because of their will to survive that I am here.

  2. I understand your point, and appreciate the dialogue. This whole subject, however, seems to me a subject designed to create and maintain a status of victim-hood and animosity. Almost ALL races of people have been enslaved by others at some point in their history, sometimes by their “own” people.” Yes, blacks enslaved blacks, and also sold their fellow man to others including to other blacks, whites, arabs, etc. What exactly is the point of your article? What did you intended to accomplished by it? How does it move people people beyond victim-hood and toward reconciliation? Is reconciliation and progress truly wanted? Sadly, in the US, many, many have abandoned Dr. King’s dream of judging one by character and not skin color, trading it for for special status, continuing victim-hood and government dependency (the “new” slavery). Regards, and be kind, David

  3. I agree with David.

    Too many descendants of the honoured enslaved have made a solid choice to be victims of history. All cultures/races have re-presented historic narrative, trying to omit or trivialize the sordid and troubling aspects. This is not only the omission of white or Jewish men nor does it make the omission acceptable but not recognizing this repeated flaw in human judgment is skewed logic. In understanding each other, we should recognize that omitting painful history is not always of hateful intent – individuals repackage the history of their own personal lives minutely.

    One of the big lessons in all of human history is that it does NOT come down to race consciousness but rather is an accounting of humanity and its cruelty – a lesson we ceaselessly fail to learn because the focus is on the victimized group vs the hated oppressor. Jamaicans do live with the displacement of their human dignity and the majority do not give a fig about human rights or justice in contemporary Jamaica even as they curse long dead people and their descendants for having ignored this very premise. Exactingly, the connection is not made because we do not learn from the events of history and therefore fail to see ourselves repeating the same cruel mindsets! It is always easy to blame others and not see ourselves.

    There are different accounts that declare over 20 million to 43 million humans live enslaved today but a race of persons who curse the past and blame the living of lighter pigment for unfairly inheriting the bounties of history and present advantages have never declared ‘because our ancestors suffered and so have we – we lend our hands to the global cause of helping those who live now in enslavement’ Not your problem? Then imagine why the rest of the world appears not to care enough about the angry descendants whose ancestors were victims of the awful TAST?

    Folks like Cooper demand that the white world account for their unfair advantages but appear unwilling to give to the word that which they demand from it and the universe DOES NOT work that way. Give away what you want to receive. See the humanity in other races and cultures and not merely from the focal point of your own victimized soul.

    There is a much larger conversation to be had here and Cooper and her ilk are not having it.

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