17th Century Jews: Carving a Place in the New World
|The Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam|
Historian Christopher Hill described 17th-century England as “a world turned upside down”. The expression is taken from a ballad popular during the English Civil War. Hill and other historians have described in detail how the 17th century was a time when people sought to free themselves from authoritarian bonds: separatists broke from the English church, the middle class refused to continue to bow down to the propertied class, merchants exploiting the resources of the New World amassed fortunes that rivaled those of their landed betters, and women took to the stage, replacing male performers dressed in drag.
Another important, though quieter, change in the 17th century was the establishment of Jewish communities in the New World and key locations in Protestant Europe. During the 16th century, Iberian Jewish refugees of the Catholic Inquisition poured into the few European cities that granted them entry. The largest of these was Amsterdam. During the 17th century, hundreds of Jews left the crowded Jewish neighborhoods in Amsterdam for Dutch settlements such as Recife in Brazil, Manhattan in New Amsterdam, and the Caribbean islands of St. Martin, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Eustatius, Aruba, Saba, and Tortola.
However, Jews did not only settle in Dutch lands. A small, secret community of Jews lived in London during the 17th century under the protection of Oliver Cromwell. By 1677, there is evidence of a Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, the English colony established by Roger Williams as a safe haven from the theocratic rule of Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut.
Why should these Jewish settlements matter to a 17th-century historian? Because it is in moments of social upheaval that the ‘other’ has a chance of gaining a foothold in a new order. With their vast European contacts, Jewish merchants created valuable trade networks throughout the Atlantic world. They challenged civil injustices in colonial courts, established relationships with politicians and preachers, and risked everything they had to preserve their new freedoms and their old traditions. During a century of great change, European Jews carved a place for themselves in the New World and as well as the old one.
|Oliver Cromwell with his secretary, John Milton|
In 1656, Oliver Cromwell spoke of the debt England, newly Protestant, owed the Jews. In England, he said, the Jews would finally see Christianity in its true form and embrace it. Despite Cromwell’s prediction, there was no mass conversion of Jews to Christianity in England or in any other Protestant region. The Protestant quest to convert the Jews seemed less urgent in the New World. In fact, in 1790, George Washington, in assuring the Jews of Newport their place in the United States, wrote:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
The century that turned the world upside down was the century in which Jews began their journey from a persecuted people to a tolerated minority. But it wasn’t until the end of the subsequent century that Jews were promised full rights in a nation that welcomed them with no expectation other than that they “demean themselves as good citizens.”
You can read about the 1656 readmission of the Jews to England in Patricia O’Sullivan’s Hope of Israel, about the 17th-century Jewish communities in New Amsterdam and Newport in Legend of theDead, and about how the Jews of St. Eustatius helped the Americans win their War of Independence against the British in A Notable Occupation. Visit Patricia's website for more details by clicking HERE.