Of the many migrants who began to arrive in the Dutch Republic from the late 16th century, the Sephardi Jews of Spain and Portugal and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe were the most noticeably different. Here they found the freedom to practice their faith as they wished.

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Living in freedom

Interior of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Emanuel de Witte, 1680

The first Jews to settle in the Republic came from Spain and Portugal. Many were wealthy and maintained commercial contacts in the Mediterranean region. Although some settled in other cities, most lived in Amsterdam. At first they were prohibited from practising their faith openly. They gathered in each others homes to worship. Eventually, they built a modest synagogue by an obscure canal. The municipality turned a blind eye, since the Portuguese Jews were a major asset to the city.

In the mid-17th century, toleration was raised to the level of right. In 1670, work started on a major new Portuguese synagogue. A prominent location was selected, on today’s Mr Visserplein. It was a gigantic structure that dominated the neighbourhood: a Jewish cathedral. The Esnoga is still a functioning synagogue and retains its original 17th-century interior.

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Rich and poor

Interior of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam (detail). Emanuel de Witte, 1680

In the first half of the 17th century, the Jewish community expanded further as Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Eastern Europe. They sought a refuge from war and persecution. They were numerous and poor, and many came to Amsterdam having to start completely afresh.

For the Portuguese Jews this represented a burden. They could not afford to allow Jews to beg in the street. It would lead to trouble, and the whole community would suffer. So the Portuguese established an internal tax. With this they ensured that indigent Jews would at least have sufficient food. They continued to support the Eastern European migrants until the latter were able to organise their own Ashkenazi community and support themselves.

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Leading philosopher

The 17th century produced the greatest Dutch philosopher: Baruch de Spinoza, a Portuguese Jew. In fact he was expelled from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656 due to his heretical ideas. Henceforth Spinoza called himself Benedictus. He took Latin lessons and read the work of René Descartes, a leading French philosopher. Spinoza’s radical philosophical system had a major impact on subsequent philosophical enquiry in Europe. He postulated a rational interpretation of the Bible, was a fervent republican and attacked the established Church. His ideal was complete religious freedom and a state that promoted the welfare and freedom of expression of its citizens. Although the Republic allowed critical thinkers plenty of leeway, Spinoza still had to be careful. Much of his work remained unpublished, or appeared under a pseudonym. His magnum opus, Ethica, was published posthumously.