In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews and Black People

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies and Exhibits
  • Jews and Judaism in Africa
  • African American Judaisms
  • Black people Adopting Traditional Judaism
  • Cultural Interchange

Atlantic History Jews and Black People
Jonathan Schorsch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0254


Relations between Jews and Black people holds inherent interest for scholars of the Atlantic world. Defining the terms themselves remains fraught with complications, however (i.e., black, sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, people of color, Afroiberian, African American?) and the experience of these groups in the Atlantic world likewise attests to the complexities and ambiguities of the region’s history (i.e., tensions between Black people and mulattos or between slaves and free Black people; should Judeoconversos be considered Jews? what about syncretistic black Jews? how do we categorize those who are both black and Jewish?). Beyond historical parallels as subaltern groups in the Euro-American sphere of influence, the question of how Jews and Black people (the latter term is used merely as the most efficient shorthand) related to one another—one group non-Christian but considered monotheistic and white, the other increasingly Christianized but seen as nonwhite and of pagan origin—gained significance with recent transformations in scholarship connected to identity politics, ethnicity, and postcolonial thought. Until the eighteenth century, more plausibly the nineteenth, with the rise of Old Testament–oriented Protestantism among Black people in the Caribbean and the United States and the growing awareness among Jews of the perceived parallel experience of Black people under slavery, Black people and Jews held no sense of anything particularly special about their relationship. Clearly conditions changed dramatically over the course of five centuries since the beginning of European expansion into Africa and the expansion of European commercial activities spanning four continents. Black Africans, the diverse population of the larger part of an entire continent, were not subaltern at home, and, even under rising colonialism, they were certainly not dominated in the way slaves in the Americas were subjugated. Jews, a relatively tiny group of immigrants in Christian lands who were numerically small but laden with disproportionate significance due to the rise of Christianity, faced legal and social discrimination in the medieval and Early Modern periods; however, with gradual emancipation beginning in the eighteenth century, they faced fewer instances of legal exclusion. The exception is Jews in Dutch territories, who found a relatively hospitable and oppression-free climate as early as the seventeenth century. In European territories Jews were frequently massacred, expelled, and discriminated against as religious “others,” and they were exploited economically. However, after the medieval period they also participated in real and significant ways as tolerated members of white society. Kidnapped or captured Africans, on the other hand, despite some few exceptions, made up the overwhelming majority of the slave population throughout the Americas, living often in a state of near total lack of freedom. This disparity was lessened somewhat for manumitted individual slaves and in the post-emancipation world of the nineteenth century, though legal discrimination against people of color continued far longer than against Jews. The above examples are merely selective; it is impossible here to cover all the shifting nuances of the pertinent historical situation. This article is not a treatment of the vast and mostly independent histories of Black people or Jews in the Atlantic world but of the intersection of these two sets of peoples. The field of Jewish-black relations can be divided roughly into several periods: ancient and medieval precedents, colonization during the Early Modern period, and slavery, abolition, and post-emancipation. Given the often marginal place occupied by this topic in several vast fields of scholarly literature, works listed in this article include only those that directly address the intersection of the Jewish and black experiences. Most such works emphasize 20th-century topics, putting them beyond the scope of this article. Researchers wishing to dig deeper will have to follow the textual trail via the bibliographies found in the listed works, leading ultimately back to the archival sources, many of which could use further scrutiny or remain surprisingly unexamined. Because the bibliographic project of which this article is a part focuses on the Atlantic world, coverage of important subjects, such as Judaism and the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the black Jews of Cochin, and the experience of the Ethiopian Jews and black Hebrews in the State of Israel, has perforce been excluded.

General Overviews

No published work covers the whole field, certainly not in its transoceanic historical scope. Brackman 1977, a still unpublished dissertation, constitutes the first effort to offer an overview of the topic from ancient times to modernity. Bracey and Meier 1993 offers a synopsis of aspects of the topic pertaining to the United States, almost exclusively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it needs greater review as of the time of writing. Though not necessarily meant as an overview, Lapierre 2011 brings to the subject possibly the most ambitious and theoretically informed conceptual sweep, taking in parallel often cross-pollinated meditations by late modern Jewish and black thinkers and artists on slavery, the Holocaust, subaltern identity, and collective redemption.

  • Bracey, John, and August Meier. “Towards a Research Agenda on Black people and Jews in United States History.” Journal of American Ethnic History 12.3 (Spring 1993): 60–67.

    Though somewhat dated and limited in scope to the United States, the substantive and methodological questions posed here remain highly relevant.

  • Brackman, Harold D. “The Ebb and Flow of Conflict: A History of Black-Jewish Relations through 1900.” PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1977.

    The first comprehensive attempt to provide a global treatment, but without access to the wealth of extant primary sources when it comes to matters beyond the United States.

  • Lapierre, Nicole. Causes communes: Des juifs et des noirs. Paris: Stock, 2011.

    Using a variety of thinkers such as Fanon, Said, Paul Gilroy and Deleuze and Guattari, Lapierre considers, from a heavily Francophone perspective, Jews and Black people as colonized peoples and postcolonial self-reinventors. Treats many theorists and portraitists of Jewish and black identity, such as Cesaire, Memmi, André Schwarz-Bart, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and their cross-fertilization.

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