Commentary Magazine


Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, by Ronald Sanders

Race & the New World

Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism.
by Ronald Sanders.
Little, Brown. 443 pp. $15.00.

This book, Ronald Sanders tells us, was first conceived in 1968 during the New York City teachers’ strike, when tensions between blacks and Jews erupted in ugly expressions of anti-Semitism and racism. A liberal New York Jew who had grown up with the conventional notion that all victims of prejudice share similar perceptions of their place in society, Sanders now had to confront the inadequacy of that idea. This study of the “origins of American racism” is the product of his educational odyssey.

The Iberian peninsula is the start of Sanders’s book and at the center of much of it. For many centuries the crossroads of world civilization, it was the locus where Jews, Arabs, and Christians intermingled and transmitted the heritage of their diverse cultural traditions. There the great explorations of the 15th century originated, not only to search for westward and southeastward passages to the fabled East, but also to find a shortcut sea route to Guinea, the source of supply for the lucrative slave trade. At the end of the 15th century, just when Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Inquisition were expelling the Jews from Spain, Christopher Columbus presented the Spanish monarchs with a proposal for a voyage of discovery to find a western route to the Indies. With this plan, which had been rejected by John II of Portugal a few years earlier, Columbus was to launch Spain on a course of colonial and imperial expansion in the New World that soon outrivaled that of Portugal. It was the Portuguese who had initiated the Atlantic slave trade, our country’s most bitter heritage. It was the Spanish Conquistadors who destroyed the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations they encountered, setting the pattern for subsequent European contacts with the colored natives of the New World.

As the Portuguese and Spaniards enriched themselves with the resources of the New World, the English, French, and Dutch entered the competition for wealth and empire. They too encountered New World natives of color—in their instance, the North American Indian. A few among the early colonists looked upon the Indian with awe and admiration, the embodiment of the European’s romantic notion of the Noble Savage. But most white men regarded the Indians as barbarians—primitive, treacherous, and cruel creatures—and harbored the same superstitions about their skin color as Europeans attributed to blacks. At least in one respect, however, the English colonists differed from the Spanish. The Conquistadors enslaved the Aztecs and other South American Indians, but the English found the North American Indians too untrustworthy and too warlike to be safely used as slaves. Consequently, when they captured Indians, the English traded them off to the West Indies in exchange for supplies and Negro slaves. As Sanders says, this was “another of our history’s fateful configurations.”

Though Sanders’s story centers on the encounter of the European with the black man or the Indian, an unexpectedly large Jewish presence pulsates in this book. It opens with a prologue which vividly describes the Catalan world atlas, made about 1375 by Abraham Cresques, the Jewish cartographer of Majorca, and closes with an account of the early Jewish settlement in New York. A few chapters sketch the fate of the Jews in Christian Spain from the 14th century onward as the first victims of racial—not just religious—prejudice. Although Sanders does not develop an explicit connection between Christian Spain’s persecution of its Jews and Spain’s treatment of the Indians in the New World, he uses the Jewish victims of Spanish intolerance and their descendants as an auxiliary illustration of European racism and also as a medium for his own “intuitive views” on the history of race relations. The Jews appear in this book less as flesh-and-blood individuals than as exemplars of a state of mind, representing a historic experience of persecution, an intellectual influence, a religious tradition of messianic hope—all of which find expression, according to Sanders, in historical and literary works about the colored races in America.

Throughout this book, Sanders’s emphasis is on the common humanity as well as the differences in skin color and culture between white men and men of color. He celebrates, when he finds them, protests against the treatment meted out by whites to Indians and blacks, expressions of revulsion against the white man’s destructiveness and cruelty in the New World. Out of his own passionate wish for a multiracial society in which all people may live together in dignity and mutual respect, he scours the historical record for those few evanescent moments of the past when explorers and colonizers, writers and thinkers captured a glimpse of such a utopian possibility. The Lost Colony at Roanoke, Sanders believes, might have been just such a possibility—a community in which whites, blacks, and Indians may have lived together in harmony.

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Lost Tribes and Promised Lands is a brilliantly written narrative, developed in a sequence of loosely connected episodes which succeed admirably in conveying the intellectual excitement and moral engagement of the author. Yet the book is not without serious problems, chief among them Sanders’s treatment of the Jews. The Jewish presence in this exploration of the origins of American racism is both intriguing and disquieting. Are the Jews a race? And if they are not, exactly what are they doing, as victims or as oppressors, in a history of American racism?

Sanders anticipates this question in his preface and justifies himself on grounds of common linguistic usage and on historic evidence. The word “race,” he argues, has been loosely defined, having been applied to Jews in the past, by both Jews and Gentiles, “with no unfavorable connotation intended.” In this he is correct, for since the 16th century at least the word “race” has been commonly used in the sense of “people,” “nation,” and even of sex (the “race of males”), without any biological, anthropological, or ethnological import, without reference to skin color or skull shape. Winston Churchill used always to speak of “the English race.”

But since nowadays we require a more rigorous definition of race, Sanders proceeds to defend his own racial classification of Jews by citing two historic instances of how Jew-haters have seen Jews: Nazi Germany and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. Sanders holds that the Inquisitors persecuted the Jews not only as a religious community but also as a racial group, and he cites as evidence the Inquisitorial concept of limpieza de sangre, “purity of blood.” This criterion was used to distinguish the “New Christians,” descendants of Jews whom the Inquisition had forcibly converted in an earlier generation, from the “Old Christians,” whose lineage was “pure” in the sense that it was uncontaminated by Jewish ancestors. Furthermore, the Inquisition identified children of mixed marriages as “Half New Christian,” or “Quarter New Christian,” terms which conjure up the racial categories under Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which led inexorably to the Final Solution.

On the surface, the Inquisition’s resort to “purity of blood” to search out heresy does appear to justify Sanders’s treatment of the Jews as a racial group, at least in this particular historical context. But on closer scrutiny the evidence is, and always has been, ambiguous. For one thing, as Professor Martin A. Cohen has pointed out, the criterion of limpieza de sangre was applied only selectively. At the very same time that some New Christians were being persecuted because of their “impure” lineage, others rose to eminence, often with the protection of persons in high places. Also at the same time, Jews were being assiduously converted and absorbed into Christian Spain. Even the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was characterized by the late Yitzhak Baer as arising out of a “curious blend of racial and religious motives”; its purpose, he writes, was ostensibly to excise a “foreign racial element which the Spanish Christians were unable to assimilate,” but in fact it was “a means of religious coercion.” Indeed, while the expulsion was being carried out, the Franciscan monks intensified their proselytizing and managed to convert and baptize large numbers of Jews. Finally, even when the criterion of purity of blood was enforced, the New Christian was not persecuted for being what he was biologically (that was Nazi Germany’s innovation), but for allegedly or actually retaining loyalty to the tenets and practices of Judaism. All of these considerations cast doubt on the validity of Sanders’s argument for a racial component in the anti-Semitism of the Inquisition.

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There are other problems. Nowadays we understand racism—a relatively new addition to our lexicon—to refer to the doctrine or assumption that people’s social and cultural characteristics and abilities are determined by biological race, and that races can be ranked hierarchically, along a scale ranging from superior to inferior. By this definition, within the scope of Sanders’s book, blacks and Indians were the victims of racial—that is, racist—prejudices held by European and, later, by American whites. But how can Jews—who may have been slave traders, slave owners, or opponents of slavery—be distinguished racially from other white European or American slavers or anti-slavers? What validity can there be in defining the Jews as a racial category, when in historical fact they were never treated as such except by the Nazis?

According to Sanders, Jews and New Christians distinguished themselves from Christians and Old Christians by their humanist vision of a society based on brotherhood and justice and by their attachment to messianic beliefs which may have been derived from apocalyptic ideas long afloat in Sephardic Judaism. He limns a collective portrait of the New Christians as a group whose experience of persecution and whose position of marginality in Iberian Christian society presumably shaped them into a particular cultural mold, with a heightened sensitivity to the Sufferings of other peoples and races, and a messianic expectation for the redemption of the world.

Thus, for instance, Sanders attributes a New Christian identity to Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish missionary in whose extraordinary protest against the Spanish destruction of the Indians, published in 1552, Sanders finds resonances of the Hebrew prophets and words that might have been those of “a Marrano dying at the stake.” Pondering the writings of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, missionary and historian of the Indians in Mexico, Sanders concludes that in Sahagún’s admiration for the culture of the Aztecs, and in his tragic awareness of the destruction brought upon them by the Spanish conquest, “one may discern the personality of the New Christian.” The Dominican friar Diego Duràn’s History of the Indies in New Spain, which asserts that the Indians were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, Sanders epitomizes as the “most ambitious of the tributes by 16th-century New Christians to peoples who have been crushed under the Spanish onslaught.”

This composite portrait of the New Christians is surely attractive, yet one wonders if it is a true likeness. Sanders regards nearly all New Christians as secret Judaizers, yet many, though often segregated from Old Christian society and from the Jews as well, were in fact what they appeared to be: sincere and devout Christians. The records of the Inquisition which attest to a widespread Judaizing heresy among the New Christians have long been known for their unreliability, as Ellis Rivkin has pointed out. Indeed, much of the evidence of heresy and backsliding which the Inquisition produced against the New Christians was as spurious and trumped-up as the evidence presented in our time in the Moscow purge trials.

As for those New Christians who really were secret Judaizers, or who returned to Judaism, is it likely that they all conformed to a particular type of personality, that they all shared a messianic outlook shaped by the apocryphal books of Esdras? One remains skeptical. Among the New World Jews and Marranos were some slave traders and slave owners. Historical evidence indicates that not all Jews and New Christians shared the vision of a world to be redeemed, a world of universal brotherhood.

The suspicion raises itself that Sanders has conceived of the Jews as a racial category in this book not so much to serve historical accuracy as to satisfy a literary necessity. In his final chapter, which describes the beginnings of the Jewish community in New York, he in fact more or less undoes the racial argument with regard to the Jews. The Jews alone, he concludes, “among the racial outsiders”—his term—found fulfillment in the promise of the New World. Why? Because the Dutch and Anglo-Saxons regarded them not as a race but as a religious minority. The story of religious freedom in America, he thus acknowledges, is an altogether different matter from the history of race relations. And it is in terms of the former rather than of the latter that the Jewish experience in the New World is to be understood.

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