I’m not even going to mince words here: I’m deeply ashamed by what I am posting about tonight. This has to do with the presence of slavery on the mainland of the Netherlands, which technically was never legal, but nevertheless seems to have actually occurred. And the community in which it occurred — at least the earliest one — was the Portuguese Jewish community in the early 1600s.
This post builds on the history and research of Dienke Hondius of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam that I began in a previous post. So if you haven’t yet, you may want to back up and read about the first recorded history of black Africans on Dutch mainland soil. It’s not entirely necessary to understand the following, but it provides some context and backdrop.
Once again, what I am about to relate comes from Hondius’ paper, Black Africans in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam. Again, to get the fullest understanding, I urge you to read the full paper yourself. But I’ll do my best to relate parts of it here.
Researchers have found evidence, both in the old Jewish cemetery of Oudekerk aan de Amstel just outside Amsterdam and in the local Sephardic records, that people of African descent were part of the Portuguese Jewish community. Some of them were described as slaves, others as servants and some were free. As members of the Portuguese Nation (“Nação Portuguesa”) in Amsterdam, they were Jews. But as Jews, they were not always treated as they should have been. Distinctions were made on the basis of their skin and their heritage, and racism clearly played a major factor in their status and treatment within the Sephardic community in Amsterdam.
A hidden legacy of slavery
Though Jews were officially admitted into Amsterdam in 1596, the city didn’t permit them to have their own cemetery, Beth Haim, in Oudekerk aan de Amstel until 1614. Records of the burials there have been meticulously kept since that time, including the burials of the African servants and slaves who arrived in Amsterdam with the Portuguese families. That made it possible to excavate many headstones that had sunk into the soft peat ground of the cemetery, leading to a new understanding to the beliefs and day-to-day operations of that society.
One of those headstones belongs to an African man known only by his first name: Elieser. On March 27, 1627, “bom servo Elieser” was buried at Oudekerk. “Servo” is a maddeningly ambivalent word in Portuguese. It can mean servant, or it can mean slave. But the burial register gives more detail: “Moreno que foi de Paulo de Pina,” or “The brown person belonging to Paulo de Pina.” Whether “bom servo Elieser” was a slave or a paid servant may not be certain.
We can debate the legal status of Elieser, who wasn’t given the benefit of a last name even in death. But there are others in the register who are outright described as “escrava/escravo,” which clearly denotes a slave status.
In any case, the word escrava/escravo vanishes after 1617. Maybe the Portuguese community caught on that the Dutch had outlawed the practice of slavery and decided to keep it on the downlow. Or maybe they had concluded that the law of the land is the law and freed their slaves. So far, there’s no evidence to say.
Death: not the great equalizer
But let’s go back to the Jewish cemetery at Oudekerk for just a moment. At first, when the Nação Portuguesa was granted the right to its own cemetery, it buried everyone in the community who passed away in the same area. That would soon change.
People have forever displayed a dizzying aptitude for creating division and distinction amongst and between themselves, so it’s really not surprising that the Portuguese Jewish community was any different. It’s just so depressingly familiar.
The community soon designated certain sections of their cemetery — along the fence, against the fence or just outside it — as places where pessoas indignas, or unworthy people, could be buried. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Slaves, black people and people of mixed race weren’t the only ones deemed unworthy in the early decades of the 1600s, however. Joining them in the outskirts of eternity were uncircumcised men, men and women who hadn’t taken the mikve (a ritual bath), those who hadn’t officially converted to Judaism and people without a Jewish mother.
Even then, among the misfits, there was an in-group and an out-group. Among the black people who were buried, they were further divided into two categories: Jews and non-Jews. After 1622, the distinction became more rigid — black people who did not have a Jewish mother were buried outside the fence. This changed again in 1647 when black and mixed-race people were given their own section of the cemetery inside the fence.
Interesting to note, the Portuguese Jews thought that there was one category even worse than being black — “mais inferior que o dos negros,” or “more inferior than that of the blacks.” And that was a man who had converted to Christianity. So that gives you an idea of what they thought the natural order of things was. Yikes.
The original Tiago Corvo
Centuries before Jim Crow laws took hold in the American South, the Portuguese Jewish community was drafting up their own rules and regulations designed to let people of African descent who lived among them know in no uncertain terms that the community around them thought they were less than human.
And I mean that quite literally.
Hondius relates research from Jonathan Schorsch, a professor of history and religion at the University of Postdam, that both Rabbi Saul Levi Mortiera and Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel considered black Jews to be … well, not Jews. Their opinions held considerable weight. Mortiera was the spiritual leader of the community, a rabbi from Venice who had been brought in to teach these people from Iberia how to be proper Jews after a century of living secret lives. And ben Israel was the public face of the Jewish community to the rest of Amsterdam — in his time, he was perhaps the best-known Jew in all Europe because plead with countries like Sweden and England to let Jews settle there.
So if these guys didn’t think black Jews were kosher, well. Why would anyone?
What happened next should be easy to guess. Here are some of the rules and regulations that black people in the Sephardic community of Amsterdam were subjected to:
- Black women were relegated to sitting no closer than the eighth row in the women’s gallery of the esnoga (synagogue).
- After 1644, it was declared that black, circumcised Jews were no longer allowed to carry the Torah scrolls or to be given an aliyah (called to read from the Torah), or to carry out any other ceremonial acts in the esnoga.
- In January 1650, it was decided that only people of Spanish or Portuguese descent could enter the mikveh or be circumcised, and the rule expressly forbade people of African or mixed ancestry from either.
- By 1657, entry to the medras (boys’ school) is closed to mixed-race, Italian and Ashkenazi boys. (I am uncertain if black boys were ever enrolled.)
- However, black Jews in the community were eligible for help from the Imposta, the tithe-supported fund that helped the unfortunate in the Sephardic community. Records show that the Imposta fund helped lower-income black members of the community pay for funerals, for economic support, and even in one case, to buy the freedom of a black man.
These points are particularly painful for me because they cut against what it means to be a Jew, which about community at least as much as it is about theology.
For instance, once someone converts, you are to never mention that to them or to anyone else again. Ever. Much less humiliate them by denying them the honor of carrying and reading from the Torah, having a mikveh and finally burying them somewhere else. That is shameful.
And I will never. EVER. Understand how a Jew can sit at a Seder table and talk about captivity and redemption while being waited on by a slave. The whole idea is an outrage. Slavery itself is an outrage, of course. But this makes a mockery of both it and the faith. It is a grotesquery on top of a monstrosity.
A fraught history
Flash forward four hundred years and jump over an ocean. The relationship between black people and Jewish people is often tense when the talk turns to history. I’ve experienced this myself, both in speaking with some fellow Jews and with some black people.
Overall, I’d venture to say the relationship between our two groups is generally good. Jewish-Americans are demographically among the most progressive in the country, which is likely why so many (and I’d hazard to say just about all) of us are proud of our historic involvement in the founding of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement. And in the interest of disclosure here, I am married to a black woman.
But there are areas of strain. The Nation of Islam, for instance, makes a claim that Jews are responsible for financing and organizing the bulk of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There have been whole volumes written to show why this isn’t so, but to sum up: most Jews at the time were dirt poor, but huge nation-backed companies like the Dutch East India Co., the biggest company the world has ever known, were getting involved in the slave trade. To lay the bulk of the trade at the feet of a small group of people who generally had little power or wealth is to miss the big picture and let the real culprits off the hook.
On the other hand, I’ve talked with several Jews who flat-out refuse to even consider the role earlier Jews might have had in the slave trade, large or small. Too often it comes down to the fall back of “but it’s not my fault/my great-great-grandfather’s fault,” which is tired and unhelpful. Or they say that it was the Sephardic community to blame, not the Ashkenazic. Or whatever they can say just to stop the conversation. But this is not about blame. It is about understanding.
A Jewish or a Portuguese problem?
When it comes down to it, the attitudes and rules the Portuguese Jewish community subjected their black neighbors to was more a matter of their Portuguese-ness than their Jewishness. That said, this characteristic fundamentally affected how they behaved — or misbehaved — as Jews.
The Portuguese Jews came to Amsterdam with a confident sense of of self worth as a community. They may have been fleeing torture and persecution, they may have been refugees, but by god, they were cultured. They felt no need to give up their language, and continued to speak Portuguese for at least 100 years. It wasn’t just their faith that held them apart from the Dutch around them — in part, it was also their choice.
Further proof: As the 1600s wore on and word spread that Amsterdam was a safe haven for Jews, Ashkenazim started to pour into the city and soon outnumbered the Sephardim. Do you think the Nação Portuguesa welcomed their co-religionists with open arms? Oh, good heavens no. Anyone who dared to shop at the Ashkenazi butcher shop was excommunicated, even though it was a kosher shop. And intermarriage with the Ashkenazi was forbidden. Also, membership to the Portuguese esnoga was closed to the Ashkenazi.
The Portuguese Jewish community was incredibly chauvinistic, though perhaps no one bore the brunt of that as much as the black people living among them.
The Portuguese nation — the actual one, with the capital of Lisbon — had accepted the practice of African enslavement since the mid-1400s. This topic was already old hat to the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, who perhaps wondered why the Dutch even objected to it at all. In bringing slaves to Amsterdam, they were continuing the practices and traditions their homeland had already been practicing for 150 years: A Portuguese practice, not a Jewish one.
To underline that point, I’m not aware of any Ashkenazi Jew in Amsterdam who had a slave, or who was involved in the slave trade — though I will follow up if I find out differently.
Look. History is fascinating. Personally, I think it’s fun. But sometimes, you come across facts that challenge you to re-arrange your ideas and values. Sometimes, the people and communities we take pride in really got it wrong. Through the course of history, that’s happened countless times, in ways great and small.
II serves no one to slip into denial, or to downplay the facts, or to change the subject. One, you haven’t changed the history anyway. And two, the people who were harmed by that history still deserve to have their story told.
I am ready to listen.