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5. Amsterdam: the meeting of two diasporas

Towards the end of the 16th century, the migratory flux of Spanish and Portuguese Jews and New Christians, until then mainly around the Mediterranean rim, shifted towards western and northern Europe.

Vue de la salle Juifs d'Amsteram

From the Iberian Peninsula to northern Europe  

Berckheyde, Synagogues séfarade  et ashkénaze à Amsterdam

Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde (Haarlem, 1638 - 1698), Gezicht op de Grote en Portugese Synagoge te Amsterdam (Vue de la grande synagogue et de la synagogue portugaise d’Amsterdam), Amsterdam, 1682, huile sur toile, 58,5 × 73,1 cm, dépôt du musée de Picardie, Amiens

In the very last years of the 16th century, groups of Portuguese merchants established themselves in Hamburg, Amsterdam and southwest France, where the New Christians received letters patent from King Henri II in 1550. The establishment of these Sephardi communities marked the beginning of the return of the Jews to Western Europe after the expulsions in the late Middle Ages. The revival in the 16th century of the concept of raison d’État (reason of state) and the emergence of mercantilism can explain this change in western attitudes towards the Jews. The legal terms of this return varied. In the localities in southwest France where they were officially admitted as New Christians, the Jews gradually resumed overt practice of Judaism. In Amsterdam, the so-called "Portuguese" jews gained complete freedom of conscience and organisation. In Hamburg, the practice of Judaism was tolerated but tensions with the senate and the Lutheran clergy ran high throughout the 17th century. In England, the unofficial readmission of the Jews under Cromwell provided a liberal framework for the development of the Portuguese nation. From the mid-17th century, the Sephardi diaspora spread to the New World with the establishment of large communities in Curaçao, Surinam and Jamaica.

Due to its religious, intellectual and artistic vitality and economic prosperity, the Portuguese community in Amsterdam, called Talmud Torah, acquired an authority and prestige acknowledged by the entire the Jewish world. To structure the return to the normal practice of Judaism by New Christian refugees from the Iberian Peninsula, it founded numerous educational and charitable institutions. But the orthodoxy that this created explains the exile of thinkers who criticised rabbinic Judaism such as Ouriel da Costa  and the young Baruch Spinoza. Amsterdam became the capital of the western Sephardi diaspora. Its institutions, based on the Venetian model, served as a template for Judeo-Portuguese communities as far afield as the New World. The city’s rabbinic seminary, Ets Hayyim, produced rabbis for the entire Sephardi diaspora. Although dispersed far and wide, these “Portuguese nations” maintained close ties with Amsterdam via a vast mutual aid network and numerous family and commercial ties. In the principal ports of Western Europe, Portuguese Jewish merchants played a key role in the growth of trade with the Americas and the East and West Indies. The success of family businesses such as the Gradis in Bordeaux, and the aristocratic lifestyle by a minute portion of the Sephardic elite (the Lopes Suassos, Belmonte and Nunes da Costa families in Amsterdam) publicly symbolized this prosperity, but the social reality of these communities was infinitely more varied.

Menasseh Ben Israel and Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza, Estampe, XVIIe siècle

Born into a family of converted Lisboans Jews who had settled in Amsterdam, Menasseh ben Israel published his first book, a grammar manual, when he was seventeen. He founded the first Hebrew printing works (1626), publishing books in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese. His book El Conciliador (1632-1651), an attempt to reconcile apparently contradictory passages in the Bible, established his considerable reputation in Christian circles. His works and his discourses presenting Judaism in a positive light, his knowledge of several languages and his extraordinary erudition made him the representative of Judaism and intermediary with the Christian world par excellence, even travelling to London to advocate the return of the Jews to England before Cromwell.

Baruch Spinoza, also born into a family of Portuguese Jews established in Amsterdam, received an orthodox Jewish education before studying Latin and Jewish and Christian philosophy. An admirer of Descartes, he adopted a freethinking, critical attitude, advocating rationalist modernity in religious thought. This position soon incurred the wrath of the rabbis of his time, who regarded him as an atheist or heretic, ordered his excommunication (herem) in 1656 and exile in 1660. Many regarded his Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) and his magnum opus, Ethics (published posthumously in 1677), as a threat to Judaism and a negation of its fundamental principles.