Wednesday, August 22, 2012

First Jew in New Amsterdam Had to Fight to Stand Guard

A modern illustration imagines Jacob Barsimson taking his turn at guard on the walls of New Amsterdam.

On August 22, 1654 Jacob Barsimson became the first known Jew to take up residence in what is now the United States.  Barsimson disembarked a ship from The Netherlands that day in Nieuw-Amsterdam (New Amsterdam), the capital of the colony of New Netherlands.  The city was still more of a raw frontier trading post huddled next to the protective parapets of a fort for protection from both the local natives and the voracious English. 
Barsimson, an Ashkenazi, was sent as an emissary by wealthy Dutch Jews to check out the suitability of the North American colony for settlement by Jews being persecuted in earlier attempts to establish new world foothold in Brazil and the West Indies. 
The Dutch Republic had become a place of refuge for all sorts of religious dissenters and outcasts once it had finally thrown out the Hapsburgs and with them the Inquisition.  During the same years the Netherlands was harboring Unitarian refugees from Poland and other persecuted minorities.  Of course, no one in Europe was more persecuted than the Jews.
A sizable community, mostly from Portugal where the Inquisition was still going strong, had established itself in Amsterdam and was prospering.  But Jews had prospered here and there in Europe before and had the tides of prejudice rose against them time and time again.  The merchants of Amsterdam were looking for escape routes for themselves, as much as for their cousins in Brazil.   

Despite being less than welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, Barsimson saw promise in the new city.  On October 22 he was on hand to welcome the first group of 23 settlers from Recife, Brazil.  Together they started the first Jewish community in North America, four years before the founding of another enclave at Newport, Rhode Island.
Others joined them along with some from the Dutch sugar islands in the Caribbean.  Stuyvesant became increasingly alarmed by the influx and imposed harsh restrictions on their occupations and trade opportunities.
Barsimson, the acknowledged leader of the community, found himself in an ongoing game with the governor to secure rights and privileges for his people.  Jews were barred from most trades, shop keeping, public office, conducting religious services, and participation in the militia.  When Stuyvesant turned down a simple request to allow Jewish burials on the grounds that it was “premature”—no Jews had yet died—Barsimson appealed over his head to the directors of the West India Company which controlled New Amsterdam and in which several wealthy Jews were large investors.  The company ordered their governor to reverse his decision.
It was a pattern Barsimson would repeat.  He shrewdly observed that among the many restrictions placed on Jews was service in the militia and taking their turns at arms guarding the walls for the fort.  He understood that the rights of citizenship were tied to the responsibility to defend the colony.  Despite the continued threat of Indian attack and the growing menace from the English and from a new Swedish colony established in what is now Delaware by former New Amsterdam governor Peter Minuet, Stuyvesant refused the appeal for Barsimson and another Jew, Asser Levy for the right to take their turn at guard duty.  Once again an appeal was made to the Company and once again the Governor was over ruled.
Barsimson and other Jews proudly took their turns on the walls and in Militia musters, thus securing the rights of citizenship in 1655.
In 1658 the Governor drew charges against Barsimson and had him summoned to court.  The Jewish leader refused to attend because he had been summoned on the Sabbath.  The court, in a curt slap in the face to the Governor ruled that, “though defendant is absent, yet no default is entered against him, as he was summoned on his Sabbath.”  It was the earliest court case in any colony establishing any level of religious acceptance for Jews.
When New Amsterdam fell to the British in 1664, the thriving community of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews retained full citizenship in the newly named colony of New York.

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