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Religious Freedom under the Dutch

The freedom of the Jews in Nassau's Brazil

Reproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654Jew Street in RecifeReproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654

With great pragmatism and astuteness, the priest Vieira said, about the Jews, resorting to an argument from Saint Augustine: “Manure, when out of place, dirties the house, but put in its place, fertilizes the fields. The same is true of Jews, who abroad help the heretics, but at home provide the capital to keep the Empire going. Why transform useful vassals into powerful enemies?”. The same practical view was established in Brazil during the period  it was under the commercial and military rule of the Dutch, from 1630 to 1644, in Pernambuco, where an unprecedented environment of religious tolerance reigned, especially as regards the Jews. “The capital of Pernambuco was a veritable ‘colonial Jerusalem’ thanks to the utopia of reconstructing the Jewish world of the Diaspora. It was a cultural Babel. Recife, for a while, was the only city in the world that was the home of people espousing three religions (Sephardic Jews, Roman Catholics and Calvinists) in a single environment of religious tolerance”, states the historian Ronaldo Vainfas, a professor at Fluminense Federal University(UFF) and the author of Jerusalém colonial: judeus portugueses no Brasil holandês [Colonial Jerusalem: Portuguese Jews in Dutch Brazil](Civilização Brasileira), based on research conducted with funding provided by Faperj, the Rio de Janeiro State Research Support Foundation. “Never before had the Jews enjoyed so much religious freedom as in Dutch Brazil, especially during the administration of Maurice of Nassau”, he analyzes.

In the case of the Jews, there were, as Vieira preached, concrete reasons for Dutch goodwill. “The Dutch of the colonial government or the representatives of the West Indies Company (WIC) emphatically supported the Jews, who were the intermediaries, par excellence, of colonial business deals”, observes Vainfas. “The ‘tolerance’ of the State of multiple religions was considered by many governments at that time as the shortest path to disloyalty and to internal dissidence. It was no easy feat for Nassau to implement this policy and he had to struggle constantly against the wrath of the bulk of the local Calvinist clerics and against the pressures of a less tolerant policy in the colonies, dictated by the directors of the WIC”, states the American historian Stuart B. Schwartz, a professor at Yale University and author of Cada um na sua lei [Each man according to his own law] (Companhia das Letras). “This period offered a limited opportunity to imagine the possibilities of tolerance that might have existed in Portuguese society if the power and authority of the Church and, above all,  the inquisition,  have been weaker”. After all, it was the first time that the Jews were able to reorganize after more than a century of the prohibition of Judaism in Portugal. The process dated back to 1478, when the Catholic monarchs instituted the Inquisition in Spain, which led to the converts, seen as heretic because they practiced their faith in secret, to flee to the neighboring kingdom. The large inflow of Spanish Jews led the nobility and the Church of Portugal to clamor for measures equal to the Spanish ones. Consequently, in 1496, the Portuguese king, who had nothing against his Jewish subjects, decreed that all Semites were required to convert to Catholicism, which led to the community of New Christians. In 1536, when the Inquisition reached Lisbon, once again the Sephardim initiated a Diaspora, this time toward the Low Countries. Amsterdam thus became the “Jerusalem of the North.”

Reproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654Jews at the synagogue, by RembrandtReproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654

“The immigrants had been disconnected for more the 100 years from the Judaism of their forebears; they knew no Hebrew and only engaged in certain domestic rituals. They knew nothing, or little, about Judaism. For most of the converts, the first Jewish community that they knew was this one, which  they themselves created. They were ‘new Jews’ who, deep down, were Christian in terms of their background”, explains Vainfas. Their language was Portuguese, hence their being known among the Dutch as the “people from the Portuguese nation”, resorting to Spanish for their prayers and ceremonies in the synagogues. Little by little, they expanded their rights, although they were a minority limited to an Amsterdam ghetto. “When the Dutch installed themselves in Brazil, the Jews came into the country, as from 1635. This protection of Jews was not a decision taken by Nassau: it was a WIC policy”, notes the researcher. “The Company lacked the funds to finance its operations and was obliged to encourage the migration of Portuguese Jews, who became operators and intermediaries, providing money, credit and the necessary supplies to put sugar production region back in working order”, states the American historian Jonathan Israel, a professor at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study and author of The expansion of tolerance: religion in Dutch Brazil.

“They were the only ones who spoke both Portuguese and Dutch, which enabled them to control the colony’s trade, an advantage that was combined with in-depth understanding of the sugar industry. Additionally, unlike what happened in Amsterdam, where they were merely allowed to live, in Pernambuco they were free to own shops and engage in business in general”, says the American professor. “This tolerance, however, wasn’t freely granted, but resulted from need. Most of the Recife sugar plantations had been decimated during the conquest and WIC lacked the funds to recover the economy. It was a special case, which was not seen in any other area under Dutch control, such as the Caribbean or New Amsterdam”, highlights Israel. “They were the great tax collectors in Dutch Brazil. They loaned money against payment of interest to Dutch or Portuguese Brazilians and to New Christians who were less well off. The chief Jewish tradesmen loaned money even to the WIC. They also distributed slaves”, Vainfas tells us. With the financial aspects settled, there was room for faith. The Kahal Kadosh Zur Israel congregation was the first to be established in the Americas. “It was unimaginable for a Roman Catholic Portuguese colony and Nassau was heavily pressured by the Calvinist pastors”, says the UFF professor. “Though the Dutch government protected the Jews, the Calvinists preachers turned out to be more intolerant over here, because the visibility of Judaism was greater and the privileges enjoyed by the Jews were huge. The small and midsized Dutch tradesmen hated the Jews because they lost space to them and saw their expectations of getting rich in the colonies come to nil. The Calvinists also embraced the cause of the Dutch tradesmen in this regard”, adds Vainfas. Nassau, however, liked to remind the WIC directors that the Jews, contrary to the Catholics, were loyal allies. This community spawned others.

Reproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654Ceremony at Dutch synagogue in AmsterdamReproduction from the book O Brasil e Os Holandeses / 1630-1654

“The presence of declared Jews led to tension and a variety of feelings among the local New Christians. Many of them made use of the relative religious freedom to become openly Jewish”, analyzes the historian Bruno Feitler, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and author of the book Nas malhas da consciência [In the meshes of conscience] (Alameda). “However, many New Christians who went through the process of ‘returning’ to their faith had no knowledge or practice of the Jewish religion or habits”, he notes. “It made the Catholics most uncomfortable to witness the daily accession of New Christians to the synagogue, these men and women who previously had announced themselves as Christian and went to Mass. The willingness of many of the New Christians to ‘return’ to Judaism seemed to confirm the warning of the Inquisition against the danger of Jewish ‘heresy’ that ran through the blood of the New Christians”, assessed Vainfas. During the Portuguese restoration struggle, the Portuguese also turned to the Jews, on the advice of the clergyman Vieira, an odd conflict of interest. “In the case of Portugal, Jewish cash was essential for victory over Spain. In the Dutch case, it was extremely important for the investments of the WIC. The Dutch Jews invested in both sides of the dispute. The performance of the Sephardic mercantile networks expressed the rationale of advanced commercial capitalism, able to operate between rival monopolistic systems, setting aside reasons of a political and religious nature”, recalls the researcher. Supporting Portugal meant investing in the chance of the Portuguese recovering Brazil from the Dutch. The latter, in turn, were responsible for the freedom that the Jews experienced here. When they were expelled, most of the Sephardim who left Brazil moved to areas under WIC control, which enabled them to overcome the Pernambuco experience.

“Some moved to North America, but it is a myth that they founded New York. The Manhattan Dutch were afraid that the Jews would accomplish there what they had accomplished in Brazil: to take over trade. This didn’t happen, because speaking Portuguese was of no use in New Amsterdam”, says Vainfas. “One study of Brazilian culture showed the legacy of the New Christians, with their ideas of tolerance and freedom, and the advocacy of the notion that ‘each one should have the freedom to love God in accordance with his own conscience’. For their criticism of the Church, dogmas and  fanaticism, they can be regarded as the precursors of Brazilian education. The Jews were closely interwoven with the ethnic make up of our people, a decisive element in the formation of our mentality and the heterodoxy of Brazilians”, states the historian Anita Novinsky, a professor at the University of São Paulo and author of the book Cristãos-Novos na Bahia [The New Christians in Bahia](Perspectiva).