Jews in Amsterdam

Amsterdam became a haven for Jewish refugees from the Inquisition.

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In 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population. The sizable Jewish community was given three months to liquidate its’ property and leave. Meanwhile, the “New Christians” who had converted to Christianity by force or by choice, were stuck in Spain, a class apart, subject to the long arm of the Inquisition. Where did the exiled Jews go? Where could New Christians find peace?

Two places offered immediate relief: Portugal and the Ottoman Empire. However, over time, as the political situation across Europe shifted, new opportunities for Jewish settlement materialized. Chief among these was Holland (particularly Amsterdam), which emerged from the 80 year Wars of Spanish Succession as an independent nation in 1648.  Jane Gerber recounts the formation and development of the Jewish community there. It is reprinted with permission from The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (The Free Press).

The Dutch: Tolerant Traders

Dutch principles of religious toleration were born out of the exigencies of warfare and the need to establish peace among her religiously heterogeneous population. New Christian skills and contacts were welcomed during the protracted warfare with Spain. Article XIII of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ratified the union of the northern provinces, declared that no one was to be prosecuted for his religious beliefs. Although this clause was intended to benefit the Protestants and keep peace among Christians, it provided the legal basis upon which Jews immediately began to take up residence and seek recognition in Holland. There the Sephardim would find the ideal conditions to create a New Jerusalem.

jewish amsterdamThe Dutch capital was the emporium of seventeenth century Europe, her harbor teeming with ships brimful of goods from the Americas and the Far East. Her people eagerly invented themselves as a new nation; beguiled by commerce and its possibilities, they were nonetheless characterized by sobriety of behavior and distaste for both superstition and any pretension of nobility. The city’s great wealth was based on three factors: her fleet, her thriving trade, and a policy of tolerance that attracted some of the most enterprising and ambitious souls on the Continent….

Amsterdam: A New Jerusalem

In this newfound mercantilism, marranos [crypto-Jews; Jews who converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret] became especially prominent. In 1604 a certain Manuel Rodrigues de Vega petitioned the city’s burgomasters to be allowed to establish silk mills there along with two other Portuguese Jews. In short order, the Sephardim would develop not only the domestic silk industry but also the silk trade, much of the tobacco trade, and commerce in sugar, corals and diamonds. Eventually, Sephardic poets, dramatists, calligraphers, and copper-etchers would also be found alongside the customary merchants, bankers, and physicians.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.