6 August 2013
In a recent “From the Publisher,” Evan X Hyde raised an interesting comparison between ethnic Jews and ethnic Belize Creoles. His analysis, however, without being entirely false, did not go nearly far enough.
“Jews,” according to Mr. Hyde, “understood money; they used money as a tool of liberation and upliftment.” On the other hand, “the Creole people … appear to dislike money … always chasing money instead of having money work for us.” As an anthropologist and historian, and a Jew, I believe this is an oversimplification that lacks at least two vital ingredients: history and culture.
First, history. It is not unfair to say that over the past thousand years or so, the Jews as a communal group (but probably not most individual Jews most of the time) have become comfortable with and knowledgeable about, not so much money as finance. This is hardly surprising as, in both medieval Moslem and medieval Christian societies, which forbade their own members from lending for profit and closed most other economic avenues (professions, land-ownership) to Jews, Jews learned to become financial agents. Moreover, as a community with a great deal of internal coherence on account of both internal structure and external persecution, ethnic Jews often used individual resources to support community survival.
Next, culture. As people of “The Book” who valued literacy, ethnic Jews possessed the skills and habits required in commerce and banking. Further, the value placed on religious study readily diffused to secular education as well, preparing ethnic Jews to move into the “learned professions” as these became available to them. Finally, for all sorts of reasons, ethnic Jews have also valued the family as publicly created via marriage and given great weight to the training and education of offspring.
In these historical and cultural patterns, ethnic Jews are hardly unique. They are not much different from the various overseas Chinese communities (as today in Belize), Lebanese-Syrians in Mexico or Koreans in California. All these ethnic communities share at least three traits: a communitarian ethos with strong focus on family; high valuation of The Book (be it Bible, Koran, Confucius, Dao or any other) and education in general; international networks of credit and exchange. In addition, they have all experienced being distrusted, if not frankly persecuted, minorities—strangers in someone else’s land.
Belize Creoles obviously have a very different history and culture—any missing financial skills being only one piece, however valuable. For the most part, African slaves did not come from literate societies, whilst the slave owners took sometimes calculated, but probably mostly chaotic, measures to destroy oral traditions and the people who carried them. Some historians believe that wiping out the folk traditions and the old women who conveyed them was a key part of the witchcraft persecutions in 15th-18th century Europe. With two million Africans dying during the Atlantic crossing alone, disrupting the transmission of folk traditions, wouldn’t have been that difficult.
Further, in the Caribbean even more than North America, Europeans were almost always greatly outnumbered by Africans and rightfully frightened by the prospects. Any kind of community organization on the part of Africans could easily be interpreted, and often was, as the beginnings of mutiny or rebellion. It is amazing testimony to human needs and hearts that slave communities maintained as much integrity as they were able to muster, but communitarianism typically had to take place through activities “approved” by Europeans: community gardening to supplement inadequate diets, musical traditions that facilitated work gangs, practicing Christianity.
Finally, family structure, particularly the creation of families through public ceremonies of marriage and the continuation of families through emphasis on the training and education of children generally never became a strong institutional force in the Caribbean. Again, this is not surprising.
Africans were cut off from their traditional forms of marriage and marriage ceremonies when they were wrenched from their homelands and shipped west. The ratios of adult women to men were probably never sufficient to encourage widespread marriage under any traditions. When adults and children could be sold away indiscriminately, men and women could hardly solidify their own relationships let alone those with their children. This is not to suggest that adults would have loved each other or their children any less, but that they were fairly powerless to protect their family units.
Of course, Africans made numerous attempts to hold onto or recreate their histories and cultures. They rebelled; they escaped. In Haiti perhaps, through Voudoun and an early revolution and emancipation, Afro-Caribbean’s took one of their best shots at making their own world. They were reasonably successful, even if Europe punished them unmercifully with economics. Haiti’s history bears an uncanny resemblance to Cuba’s once the latter chose to go its own way.
Where do you start? Teach financial skills? Encourage communitarianism? Raise the value of literacy and education? Hell, improve the quality of education and increase its availability? Build families that can survive in the present and think about the future?
If I thought I could answer “Where do you start?” maybe I’d be a politician instead of an academic. I only know where I start and that’s with whatever small problem seems to be within arm’s reach and doesn’t look like it will go away unless I do something about it.
(Signed) Nathaniel Wander
(Ed. NOTE: We don’t agree with everything Mr. Wander states, but we surely appreciate his contribution. Specifically and for example, we see that the Creole people have slid backwards socio-economically since political independence, whereas we had been making slow progress over the two centuries before. What’s up with that? We, of course, expect our readers to be replying to Mr. Wander’s ideas and opinions.)