The migration of the Jews from Spain and Portugal played a part (sometimes exaggerated) 19 in the passage of commercial leadership from those countries to the Netherlands. There the exiled Jews went first to Antwerp; but in 1549 Charles V ordered the expulsion from the Low Countries of all Marranos who had entered from Portugal in the preceding five years. The burgomasters of Antwerp pleaded for exemption from this edict; it was enforced, and the new immigrants resumed their search for a home. Antwerp lost its commercial prominence not from this partial migration but through the disasters that befell the city in the war of liberation and the Treaty of Westphalia, which closed the Scheldt to navigation.
The imperfect but growing freedom of religion in the United Provinces attracted Jews to the Dutch towns—The Hague, Rotterdam, Haarlem, and, above all, Amsterdam. Marrano Jews appeared there in 1593; four years later they opened a synagogue. Hebrew was their language in worship, Spanish or Portuguese in their daily life. In 1615, after a report drawn up by Hugo Grotius, the city authorities formally authorized the Jewish community, granting freedom of worship but forbidding intermarriage with Christians and attacks upon the Christian religion; 20 hence the trepidation of the synagogue leaders when the heresies of Uriel Acosta and Baruch Spinoza touched the fundamentals of the Christian creed.
The Jews included some of the wealthiest merchants in the thriving port. They managed a substantial segment of Dutch trade with the Spanish Peninsula, and with the East and West Indies. On one occasion, at the wedding of a Jewish girl, forty of the guests had fortunes totaling forty million florins. 21 In 1688, when Stadholder William III was planning his expedition to capture the crown of England, Isaac Suasso, we are told, advanced him two million florins without interest, saying, “If you are fortunate, you will repay them to me; if not, I am willing to lose them.” 22 Some of this wealth was made too conspicuous; David Pinto adorned his home so gaudily that the civic authorities reproved him; 23 we should add, however, that the Pinto family gave millions to Jewish and Christian charities. 24 Behind this economic front was a busy cultural life, with scholars, rabbis, physicians, poets, mathematicians, and philosophers. Schools provided education, and a Hebrew printing press founded by Manasseh ben Israel in 1627 issued a great number of books and pamphlets; for the next two centuries Amsterdam was to be the center of the Jewish book trade. In 1671–75 the Portuguese-Jewish community, numbering four thousand families, signalized its prosperity by building the beautiful synagogue that is still one of the sights of Amsterdam; Christians, we are told, took part in the dedication. It was a happy moment in the life of the modern Jews.
There were spots on this sun. About 1630 Ashkenazic, or Eastern, Jews* came into Amsterdam from Poland and Germany. They had their own dialect of German, and set up their own synagogue; they multiplied rapidly, and aroused much antipathy among the Sephardic Jews, who were proud of their superior language, culture, dress, and wealth, and looked upon marriage with an Ashkenazic Jew as almost apostasy. Within the Sephardic group itself a class division formed: the small trades and proliferating poor denounced the “millionaires” who controlled the politics and personnel of the synagogue. “The dollar binds and looses,” said a contemporary satire; “it raises the ignorant to the chief offices in the community.” 25 The intellectual leaders—Saul Levi Morteira, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, and Manasseh ben Israel—were men of ability and integrity; but they were cautiously conservative in politics, religion, and morals. They became as dogmatic as the Spanish persecutors of their forebears, and they exercised a watchful inquisition over potential heresies. 26
Manasseh ben Israel left his mark upon history by reopening England to the Jews. Born in La Rochelle of Marrano parents recently arrived from Lisbon, he was brought to Amsterdam in childhood, became a devoted student in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, and English, and at eighteen was chosen preacher of the congregation Neveh Shalom. He pleased Christians as well as Jews by writing El Conciliador to reconcile alleged discrepancies in the Bible. He had many Christian correspondents and friends—Huet, Grotius, Christina of Sweden, Dionysius Vossius, who translated his book into Latin, and Rembrandt, who etched his portrait in 1636. Above all he attracted the interest of Christian visionaries because he preached the early coming of a Messiah who would rule the earth.
For Manasseh was a Cabalist and mystic idealist, who dreamed that soon the lost ten tribes of Israel would be found and be united, that they were probably the American Indians, that the Jews would be readmitted to England and Scandinavia, and that the Holy Land would then be restored to Israel in full Messianic glory. Puritans of the Fifth Monarchy sect in England corresponded with Manasseh, and though their Messiah was not his they welcomed his views on the early coming of the Kingdom of God. So encouraged, he published (1650) a treatise, Esperança de Israel, pleading for the re-entry of Jews into England. For a Latin translation of this book he wrote a preface addressed to the English Parliament; he explained that according to Scriptural prophecies the return of the Jews to their homeland would be preceded by their dispersion into all countries; he begged the English government to help realize this preliminary condition by receiving the Jews into England and letting them freely exercise their religion and build their synagogues. He expressed the hope that he might be allowed to come to England to prepare the establishment of a Hebrew community.
Cromwell was favorably disposed. “Great is my sympathy with this poor people,” he said, “whom God chose, and to whom He gave His Law.” 27 Lord Middlesex, perhaps representing the Parliament, sent a letter of acknowledgment and thanks “to my dear brother, the Hebrew philosopher, Manasseh ben Israel.” The English ambassador in Holland visited Manasseh, and was received with Hebrew music and prayer (August, 1651). But in October Parliament passed a Navigation Act obviously aimed at Dutch trade; commercial competition led to the First Dutch War (1652–54), and Manasseh had to bide his time. “Barebone’s Parliament” (1653) received with favor his renewed plea; a safe-conduct was dispatched to him; when peace came Cromwell seconded the invitation; and in October, 1655, Manasseh and his son crossed to England.