Was Columbus a Jew? and Other Tales of Political In-Correctness in American TextbooksHistorians/History
October 12th, the Discovery. It was nice to have known America, it might have been better not to.--Mark Twain, Puddenhead Wilson
Twain was too early to have to deal with "political correctness," but we must now say it is 513 years since Columbus "encountered" America. The recent death of Simon Wiesenthal, the great Nazi hunter, who was a famous fan of the view that Cristobal Colon was a Jew, reminded me of my own views on that theory, which occurred along with my own first "encounter" with political correctness.
In 1975, I was asked by Robert Hoffman, a publisher himself, and the son of Sylvan Hoffman, the originator of an American history in the format of a newspaper, News of the Nation, to become the Associate Editor of a new edition of the book. The first edition, published in 1953 had been a Book-of-the-Month selection, the subject of high praise in a "My Day" column by Eleanor Roosevelt, and had sold widely as a textbook as well.
The publisher, Prentice-Hall, sent me a book containing all of the politically correct grammar already in vogue by then. I cut out about a third of the old edition, added new pieces on cultural and social history, as well as bringing the book up to date, I had, beyond Bob, about a half dozen various editors at P-H, who were looking over all of the hundreds of articles I produced.
Amazingly, there were only two of my articles that caused a bit of a controversy. One detailed how after the War with Mexico, Hispanics in the southwest had been deprived of their property, and the efforts of the Justice Dept. to rectify that injustice. It was deemed too permeated with notions of Marxism and class conflict. I gave in to the majority when it became clear that they had no understanding of libertarian class theory and property rights.
The second involved Colón. The first edition carried a story entitled, "Fourteen Italian Cities Claim Columbus," which I suggested be replaced by a piece called "Was Columbus a Jew? I was especially excited by the opportunity this offered in the Teacher's Guide to introduce the teachers to some of the exciting literature that existed on this subject. Most of the editors were themselves Jews, but I was again overridden, not because my research was wrong, but because no one wanted to offend any Italian-American readers. Oh well, 2 out of maybe 400 ain't bad!
For those in doubt about the question of Columbus, I recommend, especially, Salvador de Madariaga's classic, Christopher Columbus; Being the Life of the Very Magnificent Lord, Don Cristóbal Colon (1940), but, these days try Googling "Columbus+Jews" as well, along with other variations. In the turmoil of the Inquisition, Colón's family had left Spain for Genoa, but he continued to use Spanish and as a young man fought with the French against Genoa.
He began his diary at the time of the expulsion of the Jews early in 1492, and his log was later kept in the Jewish calendar. It was the Jewish bankers around Ferdinand, himself of Jewish ancestry, who financed the expedition with a motive of finding some opportunity for the Jews. Sephardics did come to the New World, and it is perhaps no accident that the Cubans were known as the Jews of the Caribbean.
My point is not to attempt to build that case here, that has been done in a number of books, but to ask, why has this information, even as controversy, not made its way into American textbooks? I am less concerned with political correctness than with correct accuracy.
The same thing is true, for example, with one of the central events in our history, the American Revolution. David McCullough has just published a book, 1776, detailing the military events of that year. In testimony before the Congress, and in a number of radio and television appearances, he has complained about the poor quality of American textbooks, arguing that we need more good, narrative history to catch the interest of our students.
I would not argue with that, assuming the facts are correct, but would only add that the real problem is a lack of perspective. McCullough needs to begin by examining his own statements and assumptions. It is a trivial error to refer to Abigail Adams and the historian, Mercy Otis Warren, as "good friends," when they were actually also cousins, but one expects accuracy from someone who wrote a book on Abigail and her husband.
In each of those same appearances, and in his recent book, he noted, one time mentioning John Adams's name, that only a minority of the American people supported the Revolution. Nowhere does he ever document that statement. If that were true, then the Revolution was simply an elite coup. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest otherwise, but McCullough is just plain wrong in attributing that one-third notion to John Adams, although it is found in a number of American books, even recent ones.
In News of the Nation we devoted an article to refuting that idea, based upon an article I had done earlier, "The American Revolution and the Minority Myth."
In short, there is a great deal more deplorable about American textbooks than how they deal with Evolution! We might start by dealing honestly about who Colón really was, as well as the nature of the American Revolution. Until historians begin to do so, it is useless to complain about the historical ignorance of a public that is susceptible to the incredible historical mendacity of so many of our political leaders.
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Erick Louis Giuliano - 5/12/2007
An instructive article by William Marina—and interesting comments too.
But why isn't there as much case around previous discoverers: Vikings, possibly Africans, not to mention the Native-Americans themselves?
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/9/2006
I have thought so since reading (about 50 years ago) the memoirs of Oscar Straus, a member of Woodrow Wilson's cabinet. He deals with the matter at some length, and he thought the evidence convincing.
Jason Blake Keuter - 10/9/2006
I cannot recall the article name, but sometime last year I read an article speculatingg that Columbus may have been a Spanish nobleman posing as a Genovese in order to escape from some trouble he was having somewhere in Spain.
Of course, if he was a Spanish nobleman, he was probably part Jewish and Arab too.
Mitch E. Milo - 10/20/2005
I started reading your points on PC and before I knew it I was on an anit-BUSH site hearing rhetoric. When will history get some balance again?
It's all very sad.
Jon Oliphant - 10/16/2005
Just out of curiousity do you think your editors would have been offended if the title were "Was Columbus a Budhist ?"
Jonathan Dresner - 10/15/2005
That's not too different from the way I teach Columbus in World History, actually.
Perhaps the problem with Columbus is that there are so many ways to be PC about it... I prefer to be historically correct.
Frederick Thomas - 10/14/2005
After all, many Jesuits surely were, likewise Torquemada among other inquisitors.
This would have been more interesting if it expanded a bit on the fate of the "Conversos," both Jewish and Moorish, not just CC. That is a piece of history not regularly investigated.
Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 10/13/2005
I am less interested in Don Cristobal´s nationality, than on the issue of American Revolution. Reading Mr Marina linked article "The American Revolution and the minority myth" I wonder why you never used the term "New Class", so proper of neocon lexicon to make more clear his position (and his bias). Citing Robert Nisbet and Irving Kristol is obvious, I agree, but not honest enought.
I also wondered about the supposed non elite status of the American Revolution, that produced a constitution that ratified slavery and and almost recognized no rights to women and indians. Or the result in many states constitutions that clearly discriminaed in favor of property owners, to get acess to such things as voting rights...
In contrast I will suggest reading radgeek exceent post: " International Ignore the constitution day", but he, like me, is to much politically correct, I am affraid to note...
William Marina - 10/12/2005
Dear Prof. Sarna,
Thank you for the bibliographic suggestion which I will check out. We are preparing new editions of NoN as well as News of the World, which was also a Bk-of-the-Month selection & in 15 languages. It amazes me that I get letters from schools around the country asking when a new ed. will be out, asking to xerox pages, and replying that they still use a 30 or 50 year old text because it is the most readable text around.
Regards, Bill Marina
Roderick T. Long - 10/12/2005
For my own comments on Columbus and political correctness, from a few years ago now, see here.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/12/2005
Columbus' legacy has become so complex that it's possible to see him as a hero and a villain almost simultaneously. He exemplifies many of the best and worst aspects of European history (more worst than best) and the legacy of the colonization of the Americas doesn't start looking like a good idea until quite a long time after Colombus's direct legacies have died out.
The evidence is interesting, and if he was Jewish then that's one more interesting aspect of the history. Actually, I often teach about the explusion of the Jews from Spain along with Columbus; now I can say that they may be linked so it'll be less forced.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/12/2005
Could you summarize a few of the points here? That book doesn't seem to be in the UH library system, so I imagine that I'm not the only person who'd benefit from a bit of explication.
Jonathan Daniel Sarna - 10/12/2005
Mr. Marina's views on the Jewishness of Christopher Columbus do not reflect more recent scholarship. For another view, see my “The Mythical Jewish Columbus and the History of America’s Jews,” Religion in the Age of Exploration, ed. Bryan F. Le Beau & Menahem Mor (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1996), pp. 81-95.
Jonathan D. Sarna
James W Loewen - 10/12/2005
Simply a brilliant article!
Marina concisely puts his finger on what has gone wrong with the high school American history textbook industry. He might add one more issue: textbook authors seem unable to tolerate ambiguity. They have to provide "the answer." Thus, if the correct answer to the title question, given our current knowledge, is "maybe," this they cannot say.
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