The Problem of Slavery, the Problem of Peace – by Peter Eisenstadt

The Problem of Slavery, the Problem of Peace
Peter Eisenstadt

I have been reading, with much admiration, the recently published final volume of David Brion Davis’s magnificent trilogy on slavery (which took half a century to complete), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. And of course, like anything I read these days, it made me think a lot about the current situation of Israel.

This isn’t hard, actually. Davis is Jewish, and the volume is filled with analogies, reflections, and musings on various aspects of Jewish history. Davis devotes four large chapters to the colonization movement, the effort, primarily by whites, starting around 1820, to settle free blacks outside of the United States; in Africa, in Haiti, in Central America, anywhere else but home.

In recent decades historians have had nary a good word to say about the colonization movement, seeing it as a manifestation of anti-black sentiment in both the North and South, something reviled by most right-thinking abolitionists and most African Americans. The standard account is certainly true. But Davis’s account is surprisingly nuanced, and makes the case that the basic argument of the colonization movement was hard to deny: there simply was no place in the United States for free blacks. It was an argument that found favor with many anti-slavery activists (including, notoriously, until almost the end of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln) and many blacks.

There was, Davis argues, the problem of slavery, and the problem of free blacks, and in many ways, the latter problem drove the former, in part because it was more intractable. Most whites did not think there was a role or room for free blacks in the United States, and that the structures of oppression protected both races. An inferior race without the guiding paternal hand of whites would soon grind themselves towards extinction, while at the same time, without control, blacks would just strike out in a rage against their former oppressors. Do-gooding philanthropists were simply naïve to think black freedom would be anything but a disaster. America, after all, was a white man’s country.

On this last point, many blacks agreed. Emigration, often modeled on the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt made a lot of sense. The point of the exodus of the ancient Hebrews was that they did not try to work “within the system,” petition the Pharaoh for a redress of grievances, or find non-Hebrews with similar complaints against pharaonic oppression, they had to form their own country.

The fact that only a few thousand black Americans ever went to Haiti or Africa does not mean, David plausibly argues, that many more, probably numbering in the millions might have left if emigration ever became economically and politically viable, and transit became cheap and affordable.

Why, if there was a serious alternative, would American blacks have wanted to stay in the United States? As most people know, there was an abortive effort to establish a Jewish homeland in Uganda in the early 20th century.

Perhaps blacks could have returned the favor. Rather than Liberia, which rapidly became a mess, black Americans might have been better off if they had tried to settle, en masse, in Palestine, since as he shows, American blacks who returned to Africa did so confident that they were replicating in some fashion the journey of Joshua and the Judges to the promised land.

This brings us, sort of, to Israel today. The pseudo-question of the hour is whether the Palestinian Authority should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The debate turns on the myriad different ways in which “Jewish” and “Jewish state” can be defined. And of course, if ever Israel and Palestinians agree on this point, which seems increasingly unlikely, the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that both sides will have wildly divergent senses of what Israel being a “Jewish state” entails.

There are various motives for raising some issue. Some are merely interested in the talks collapsing and giving Israel a way to blame the Palestinians for the failure. But many others are genuinely worried—how can Israel and the Palestinians co-exist without the structures of domination? Just as there were many in ante-bellum America, like Abraham Lincoln, who were both committed to antislavery and equally convinced of the necessity of colonization, there are many who genuinely want peace and just as genuinely deeply fear the consequences.

What is needed, they argue, is some way to establish that, whatever happens in the future, maintaining the “Jewishness” of the Jewish state will remain paramount and trump other concerns. As I suggested above, these fears are not groundless. The only road to genuine peace will create radical uncertainty on both sides.

There’s a famous story told of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, which were captured by Union forces during the war, when a black soldier, guarding some Confederate prisoners, chanced upon his former slavemaster. He greeted him politely, “Hi Massa,” bottom rail on top now.” This, and not the end of slavery was what whites most genuinely feared, even though the fears were vastly exaggerated. And as a result, it was a century after the end of slavery that America finally began, in some small measure, to address the question of white dominance, a project that remains unfinished in many ways.

Both sides, Israel and Palestinian alike, will have to make major adjustments to the conditions of real equality. Palestinians will have to take responsibility for their own situation, in less than ideal conditions. And Jews will have to learn to live with Palestinians without the comforts of domination.

But if David Brion Davis has anything to teach us, it is just as the problem of slavery was really the problem of what happened after slavery, so the real problem of peace between Israel and Palestine is less how to achieve it, as arduous and complex as this will be, but what happens the day after.