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As a result of the Inquisition, many Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews) left the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century, in search for religious freedom. Some of them found their way to the newly independent Dutch provinces: independent from the reign of Spain, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian peninsula were free to come. Many of the Jews who left for the Dutch provinces were actually crypto-Jews, Jews who had converted to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret. Many of them 'returned' to the Jewish religion after they had settled in the Netherlands.
Many of the Jewish refugees came from Portugal, where many Spanish Jews had fled to after the Inquisition had been introduced in Spain in 1492. The Inquisition was however also established in Portugal in 1536, and descendants of Jews who had converted to Catholicism were looked upon with great suspicion. Many of them left for Brazil and France; a couple of decades later, groups of crypto-Jews started arriving in the Dutch Republic.
Amsterdam became one of the most favored destinations for Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands; and because many of the refugees were traders, Amsterdam benefited greatly from their arrival. However, the reason to settle in Amsterdam was not merely voluntary; many crypto-Jews, or Marranos, had been refused admission in trading centers like Middelburg and Haarlem, and because of that ended up in Amsterdam. Under the influence of Sephardic Jews, Amsterdam grew rapidly. Many Jews supported the House of Orange, and were in return protected by the stadholder. Because of the international trading relations many Jewish families had because of the dispersal of their families throughout Europe, the Levant and Northern Africa, trading connections were established with the Levant and Morocco. For instance, the Jewish-Moroccan merchant Samuel Pallache (ca. 1550-1616) was sent to the Dutch Republic by Sultan Zidan Abu Maali of Morocco in 1608 to be his ambassador at The Hague.
In particular, the relations between the Dutch and South America were established by Sephardic Jews; they contributed to the establishment of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1621, of the directorate of which some of them were members. The ambitious schemes of the Dutch for the conquest of Brazil were carried into effect through Francisco Ribeiro, a Portuguese captain, who is said to have had Jewish relations in Holland. As some years afterward the Dutch in Brazil appealed to Holland for craftsmen of all kinds, many Jews went to Brazil; about 600 Jews left Amsterdam in 1642, accompanied by two distinguished scholars — Isaac Aboab da Fonseca and Moses Raphael de Aguilar. In the struggle between Holland and Portugal for the possession of Brazil the Dutch were supported by the Jews.
With various countries in Europe also the Jews of Amsterdam established commercial relations. In a letter dated Nov. 25, 1622, King Christian IV of Denmark invites Jews of Amsterdam to settle in Glückstadt, where, among other privileges, the free exercise of their religion would be assured to them.
Besides merchants, a great number of physicians were among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam: Samuel Abravanel, David Nieto, Elijah Montalto, and the Bueno family; Joseph Bueno was consulted in the illness of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (April, 1623). Jews were admitted as students at the university, where they studied medicine as the only branch of science which was of practical use to them, for they were not permitted to practise law, and the oath they would be compelled to take excluded them from the professorships. One of the most famous Dutch Jews of this time was Baruch Spinoza, whose intellectual contributions were very important in his time and continues to influence thinkers to this day. Neither were Jews taken into the trade-guilds: a resolution passed by the city of Amsterdam in 1632 excluded them. Exceptions, however, were made in the case of trades which stood in peculiar relations to their religion: printing, bookselling, the selling of meat, poultry, groceries, and drugs. In 1655 a Jew was, exceptionally, permitted to establish a sugar-refinery.
In 1675, the Esnoga (Sephardic synagogue) in Amsterdam was inaugurated. The synagogue is still in use today. The Sephardic cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, a village on the outskirts of Amsterdam, has been in use since 1614 and is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands. Another reminder of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam is the Huis De Pinto, a residence for the wealthy Sephardic family de Pinto, constructed in 1680.
On the eve of the Holocaust, there were approximately 4,300 Sephardic Jews living in the Netherlands, on a total Jewish population of some 140,000 (3%). After the war, the community had declined to some 800 people, one-fifth of the pre-war population. The Holocaust meant the end of the Sephardic community in The Hague; it was abolished immediately after the war because most of the community members had perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
Nowadays, the Sephardic community in the Netherlands, called the Portugees-Israëlitisch Kerkgenootschap (PIK) (Portuguese-Israelite Religious Community), has a membership of some 270 families (translating in approximately 600 persons), and is concentrated in Amsterdam. They constitute now some 2% of the Dutch-Jewish community. The PIK also has a youth movement, J-PIG (Jongeren Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente - Youngsters Portuguese-Israelite Community).