The History of the Jews in the Netherlands

By Jan, G. | Shofar, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The History of the Jews in the Netherlands


Jan, G., Shofar


edited by J. C. H. Blom, R. G. Fuks-Mansfeld, and I. Schöffer, translated from Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002. 508 pp. $69.50.

The History of the Jews in the Netherlands is a very good compendium that will prove to be of lasting value to scholars and interested laymen. In a free translation, this volume spans the entire history of Jews in the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to today. Its contributors have produced a work of considerable depth, detail, and scope: important trends and events affecting European Jewry elsewhere are incorporated in broad strokes but also in terms of specific consequences in the Netherlands, e.g., the Iberian Inquisition. Such comparative strands add considerably to the book's value.

In the first chapter, for example, B. J. M. Speet provides a concise rendering of the Christian origins of antisemitism across Europe but also notes the social antisemitism stemming from the upheaval of the social order in the early Middle Ages. We also learn that Dutch antisemitism was tempered by the protection provided by ruling nobility who -- while considering Jews as "personal property" -- were crafting the beginnings of a legal construction of secular society in the Middle Ages and beyond. Of particular importance in this regard is the Religious Peace tract of 1578, and the protection extended by William of Orange, the father of the Dutch nation. Daniel Swetschinsky concludes that the position of the Jews at the beginning of the seventeenth century was one of "unprecedented trust" among Christian authorities, although this trust co-existed with a degree of separation that would become tragically problematic in the modern era.

Jonathan Israel's chapter about the Dutch Golden Age goes even further. Well positioned in brokering, staple markets, and in the (rudimentary) exchange market, Jews in the Netherlands "from the early seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century constituted one of the most influential Jewish communities in the world, and by far the most prominent in non-western Europe" (p. 86). Moreover, that influence grew elsewhere as Dutch global expansion led to thriving Jewish colonies in Curaçao, Surinam, and other South American and Caribbean locations.

In the eighteenth century, the reversal of fortune in the Dutch Republic had an impact on the situation of Dutch Jews (with immigrants from the east also having joined the Sephardim): Jews were both discriminated against and tolerated, with a range of nuances among Calvinists more divergent than the perception among Catholics of a continuous threat from Judaism. Yosef Kaplan concludes that Jews were better off than anywhere else in Europe, with non-Jewish attitudes complex and wide-ranging, "from radical hostility to a fairly tolerant and even philosemitic attitude" (p. 159).

Trends toward assimilation from the middle of the eighteenth to the late nineteenth century continue under the influence of Enlightenment, emancipation, and the French revolution -- the Batavian Republic extended full civil rights to Jews in 1796. Renate Fuks-Mansfeld notes that gradual emancipation also had two peculiar effects on Dutch Jewry, i.e., the lessening control of old leadership but also more internal strife, as free(er) access to gentile society made Jews more susceptible to outside influences than was the case in other parts of the Diaspora. …

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