The American Historical Assn., in what was termed a "very rare" action, has passed a resolution condemning as false statements claiming that Jews played a major role in the black slave trade.
"The AHA deplores any misuse of history that distorts the historical record to demonize or demean a particular racial, ethnic, religious or cultural group," the brief resolution said.
"The association therefore condemns as false any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the exploitation of slave labor or in the Atlantic slave trade."
Robert Townsend, an AHA spokesman, said Wednesday that the action marked only the second time in the 111-year history of the Washington-based group that it had taken a position on a specific historical issue.
"This is very rare for us," he said.
The only other time that the AHA--which represents 18,000 historians and groups involved in the study of history--took similar action was in 1991, when it passed a resolution labeling as false the statements of those who say the Holocaust either never happened or has been greatly exaggerated.
The resolution on slavery and a longer statement on the issue by historians David Brion Davis of Yale University and Seymour Drescher of the University of Pittsburgh--both experts on the pre-Civil War South and slavery--will be published in the March issue of Perspectives, the AHA monthly newsletter.
The resolution was passed by the AHA's council, meeting in Chicago last month.
According to Davis and Drescher, statements claiming major Jewish involvement in the slave trade "so misrepresent the historical record . . . that we believe them only to be part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history.
" . . . Unfortunately, the media have given the latest charges wide currency, while failing to dismiss them as spurious. As professional historians, who have closely examined and assessed the empirical evidence, we cannot remain silent while the historical record is so grossly violated."
Neither the resolution nor Davis and Drescher noted the source of the false statements. However, Eunice Pollack, a doctoral student in American social history whose letter to the AHA prompted the resolution, blamed the Nation of Islam and some African American historians for what she called "this travesty of history."
Pollack, who lives in Oklahoma City and is Jewish, said she acted because "the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan and his supporters are still spreading these distortions on college and high school campuses. I did this as an historian, not as a Jew."
A 1991 Nation of Islam book, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," claims "irrefutable evidence" of heavy Jewish involvement in black slave trade. The book states that Jews were more involved than "any other ethnic or religious group in New World history."
Jewish groups have called "The Secret Relationship" part of the Nation of Islam's "anti-Semitic agenda."
Nation of Islam spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.
Davis and Drescher, noting the persecution of Jews in Europe during much of the four centuries that the slave trade flourished, said, "It was impossible for Jews to play more than a marginal role in a vast system that attracted tens of thousands of pagans, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants."
In the American South, they added, Jews "played only a nominal role in the slave system. . . . Never more than a tiny fraction of the white population, they never formed more than a minuscule proportion of slaveholders."
In a statement, American Jewish Committee legal director Samuel Rabinove said his organization was "gratified that the AHA, one of the most highly respected professional societies . . . has spoken out to set the record straight."