The Coming of the Jews to America
by Dr. William L. Pierce
THE FIRST 23 Jews to settle in what is now the United States landed as a group in 1654 at a small trading village at the tip of Manhattan Island. It is fitting that from the outset the destinies of American Jewry and of the little town that grew to be New York, America’s greatest city, should be linked, for it was through the portals of New York harbor that the great majority of the later Jewish immigrants to America would pass, and it was in New York that their children and grandchildren would amass the power which has made them the most influential minority in 20th century America. (ILLUSTRATION: Card commemorating Jewish immigration to America, 1909.)
No subsequent band of Jewish immigrants had a rougher journey, or a more difficult time in being admitted, than that first group of 23, who were refugees from Brazil. They were chiefly Sephardim, the Biblically derived name for the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, descendants of those Jews of the eighth century who had stealthily thrown open the gates of the Visigothic cities to the Moorish invaders and then, over the course of nearly eight centuries, battened on the glittering Islamic civilization of Toledo and Granada, Cordoba and Valencia.
The recrudescence of Spanish and Portuguese power on the peninsula, spearheaded by the crusading descendants of the Germanic Visigoths and Suebians who had fallen before the Moorish storm in the 700s, placed the Jews of Iberia in a precarious position. As city after Moorish city, redoubt after redoubt, capitulated to the Christian onslaught, the worldly and wealthy Sephardim were forced to throw themselves on the mercies of their Christian conquerors.
At first they enjoyed no small favor with the Spanish and Portuguese kings, who esteemed the Jews’ financial acumen and their uncanny ability to sweat money from their Christian subjects. Yet their power, and increasingly their very presence, grew ever more odious to the ordinary Spaniards and Portuguese. The people chafed under the onerous regime of the Jewish tax collector and Jewish usurer. For a century before 1492 the tide of popular discontent swelled to full flood: Mobs sacked the opulent Jewish districts, Jews were beaten, Jews were killed.
In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella, who had joined their realms of Aragon and Castile to form the first unified Spanish kingdom since the days of the Visigoths, acceded to the heartfelt demands of their subjects and decreed that the Jews of the land must depart. Five years later the king of Portugal followed suit. A great swarm of Jews departed Iberia forever, most of them fleeing to the African domains of the Muslims who had been their patrons in the Spain of the Moors.
Ominously for the West, not all the Jews who fled from Iberia went to Africa. A substantial minority headed north, where they found a ready reception in the Netherlands. Over the course of the 16th century, as the Reformation made progress in the land and as the Dutch embarked on their epic 80-year struggle for freedom from Spain, the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities became increasingly influential.
Spain and Portugal, to their later regret, failed to drive all Jews from their territory. The Achilles heel of the anti-Semitism of the time was the notion that the Jews might be cleansed of their ancestral vices by the regenerating flow of baptismal water. Upwards of 50,000 Jews in the two countries were allowed to feign conversion to Christianity (although doubtless a few of the conversions were genuine).
Not a few of these converted Jews (the polite usage for them was conversos or “new Christians”; their opponents called them Marranos, i. e., pigs) made their way to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, as soon as the commercial possibilities of these territories became evident. It was in Brazil that the ancestors of the immigrants to New York found a center for profitable activity.
In Recife, in the province of Pernambuco, on the northwest coast of Brazil, a large number of “new Christians” established themselves as merchants and businessmen. There were only two industries of note: the raising of sugar on large plantations and the importation and sale of Black African slaves. The Jewish converts to Christianity played a large part in each of these businesses and were prominent as tax farmers as well. For over a century they plied their various trades in Recife, unvexed by the Inquisition which had been instituted in Spain and Portugal to ferret out secret Jews in the ranks of the conversos.
The rise of the Netherlands as a maritime power at the start of the 17th century soon brought a change in the affairs of Brazil. During the course of their war with the Spanish, the Dutch had begun to resort to piracy on the high seas. Their successes encouraged the doughty burghers of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to embark on a more ambitious policy by which they would displace the Spanish and Portuguese as merchants to the Indies and to the Americas.
They made little headway against Spain’s overseas possessions, but Portugal, exhausted by its heroic efforts of the preceding two centuries, vitiated by an influx of Negro genes, and overrun by Spain, was an easy prey. One by one Portugal’s overseas possessions and trading factories fell to the Dutch: Java, Mauritius, the South African Cape, India’s Malabar and Coromandel coasts.
The Dutch followed up their conquests with a vigorous trade conducted by the Dutch East India and West India Companies. A good number of Sephardic Jews who had come from Spain and Portugal participated in these joint-stock companies. The Jews of Amsterdam and the other Dutch commercial centers brought more than capital to their ventures: through their ties to their Marrano kinsmen scattered around the world in Spanish and Portuguese colonies, they had access to commercial and military intelligence as well.
In 1630 the forces of the Dutch West India Company launched an invasion against Pernambuco. The Jewish “new Christians” promptly sided with the invaders, acting as a fifth column to frustrate the Portuguese defenders. During the subsequent 25 years of Dutch rule, Recife’s Marranos returned openly to Judaism, practicing in public what they had hitherto practiced in private.
The Jews of Recife maintained their activity in the slave trade, buying slaves imported by Dutch carriers and reselling them, at exorbitant profits, to the sugar planters. They also continued as tax farmers, collecting 63 per cent of Dutch-ruled Pernambuco’s revenues, and pursued their various other commercial interests. A synagogue was built, and the Jewish community flourished.
The Portuguese were not easily reconciled to the loss of Pernambuco and its capital city, Recife. They waged a bitter guerrilla war against the Dutch invaders and their Jewish allies which culminated in the Portuguese re-conquest of Pernambuco in 1654.
While one might have expected a condign and merciless settling of accounts with the Jewish false Christians of Recife, the Portuguese viceroy was most mild. Although he decreed that the Jews must depart Pernambuco, he allowed them to sell their property at good prices and to leave with their liquid assets. The Jews of Pernambuco disposed of their sugar plantations and slave pens, and set sail for the Netherlands, where their coreligionists would assure them a friendly reception.
All but one of more than 20 boatloads of Jews to sail from Brazil reached Holland. The Jews aboard one ship, however, were plundered by pirates in the Caribbean and then rescued by a French privateer, the St. Catherine, whose captain was bound for New Amsterdam. When the St. Catherine, with its 23 Jewish passengers, reached Manhattan Island sometime in early September 1654, the Jews applied for permanent residency in the little trading village.
Although the bourgeois Dutch were in general favorably disposed to the Jews, the governor of New Amsterdam, Pieter Stuyvesant, was an exception. Hardkoppige Piet (Hard-headed Pete), as he was known, had opposed Jews settling on the Caribbean island of Curacao when he was the Dutch West India Company’s governor there several years before. He was no less opposed to Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam.
In a long communication to his superiors in Amsterdam, Stuyvesant wrote: “The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant to the inferior magistrates, as also to the people having the most affection for you; the Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart.”
The little company of Jews was not so easily gotten rid of, however. While Stuyvesant awaited the directors’ permission to send the Jews on their way, the leaders of the would-be immigrants drafted their own letter to the directors of the West India Company, vaunting their sympathy for the Dutch in Pernambuco (“It is well known to your honors that the Jewish nation in Brazil has at all times been faithful and has striven to guard and maintain that place, risking for that purpose their possessions and their blood.”). A more potent talking point, however, was the position of some of their fellow Jews in the Company: “You should also please consider that many of the Jewish nation are principal shareholders in the Company.”
The response from the directors of the Dutch East India Company arrived at New Amsterdam the next spring. It is a classic of cowardice and equivocation, first conceding the threat posed by the Jewish presence to the colony, but then going on to justify that presence on the basis of the Jewish financial power in Amsterdam: “We would have liked to effectuate and fulfill your wishes and request that the new territory should be no more allowed to be infected by people of the Jewish nation, for we foresee therefrom the same difficulties which you fear. But after having further weighed and considered the matter, we observe that this would be somewhat unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss suffered by the nation, with others, in the taking of Brazil, as also because of the large amount of shares which they [the wealthy Jews of Amsterdam] still have invested in the Company. ”
For two years thereafter Stuyvesant fought a rearguard action against the alien interlopers, attempting to deny them citizenship as well as the privilege of plying their various trades in the colony. In a letter to the Company directors dated October 25, 1655, Stuyvesant pointed out that “to give liberty to the Jews will be very detrimental here, because the Christians here will not be able at the same time to do business” — a misgiving that has been borne out in so many fields of endeavor in America over the subsequent three centuries.
Stuyvesant’s efforts were all in vain. The directors of the Dutch East India Company granted the Jews of New Amsterdam one liberty after another, until by 1660 they were on an equal footing, in every respect, with the colony’s Dutch citizens. One of their number, Asser Levy, soon became one of New Amsterdam’s wealthiest traders and landowners. The Jews of what was to become, a few years later with the British conquest, New York, were on their way.
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From National Vanguard magazine, Issue No. 77, 1980
Source: National Alliance