Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands

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As a result of the Alhambra Decree and the Inquisition, many Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews) left the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century, in search of religious freedom. Some migrated to the newly independent Dutch provinces which welcomed the Sephardic Jews. Many of the Jews who left for the Dutch provinces were crypto-Jews, persons who had converted to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret. After they had settled in the safety of the Netherlands, many of them 'returned' fully to practice of the Jewish religion.

Many Jewish refugees came from Portugal, where Spanish Jews had fled after the Spanish Inquisition had been introduced in Spain in 1478 followed by the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In 1497 the Portuguese forcibly converted all Jews in Portugal, including many who had returned to Judaism after fleeing Spain and its Inquisition. Following the establishment in 1536 of the Portuguese Inquisition, descendants of Jews who had converted to Catholicism dating back to a forced conversion in Spain in 1391 through the Portuguese forced conversion were looked upon with great suspicion. Many left for Brazil (where Europeans were Portuguese speaking) and France. A couple of decades later, groups of crypto-Jews started reaching the Dutch Republic (founded 1581).

Interior of the 1675 Esnoga (Sephardic synagogue) in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam became one of the most favored destinations in the Netherlands for Sephardic Jews. Because many of the refugees were traders, Amsterdam benefited greatly from their arrival. However, the reason to settle in Amsterdam was not merely voluntary; many crypto-Jews, or Marranos, had been refused admission in trading centers like Middelburg and Haarlem, and because of that ended up in Amsterdam. Under the influence of Sephardic Jews, Amsterdam grew rapidly. Many Jews supported the House of Orange, and were in return protected by the stadholder. Because of the international trading relations many Jewish families had because of the dispersal of their families throughout Europe, the Levant and Northern Africa, trading connections were established with the Levant and Morocco. For instance, the Jewish-Moroccan merchant Samuel Pallache (ca. 1550-1616) was sent to the Dutch Republic by Sultan Zidan Abu Maali of Morocco in 1608 to be his ambassador at The Hague.

In particular, the relations between the Dutch and South America were established by Sephardic Jews; they contributed to the establishment of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1621, of the directorate of which some of them were members. The ambitious schemes of the Dutch for the conquest of Brazil were carried into effect through Francisco Ribeiro, a Portuguese captain, who is said to have had Jewish relations in Holland. As some years afterward the Dutch in Brazil appealed to Holland for craftsmen of all kinds, many Jews went to Brazil; about 600 Jews left Amsterdam in 1642, accompanied by two distinguished scholars — Isaac Aboab da Fonseca and Moses Raphael de Aguilar. In the struggle between Holland and Portugal for the possession of Brazil the Dutch were supported by the Jews.

With various countries in Europe also the Jews of Amsterdam established commercial relations. In a letter dated Nov. 25, 1622, King Christian IV of Denmark invites Jews of Amsterdam to settle in Glückstadt, where, among other privileges, the free exercise of their religion would be assured to them.

The Jewish community of Amsterdam was self-governing, with the Imposta board overseeing communal and individual conduct until the establishment of the unified Mahamad committee in 1639, seven prominent individuals who had final say over all that happened among the Jewish community. The Mahamad was self-sustaining, with members appointing their own successors, thus keeping the communal power in the hands of the merchant elite among the Portuguese Jews. Besides providing for and overseeing the institutions of Sephardic Jewry in Amsterdam, the Mahamad also closely controlled the process of re-judaization - that is helping those whose families had been secretly living as Jews while being outwardly Catholic return to a full Jewish life. In this process several individuals rejected Rabbinic Judaism or advanced ideas outside of the norms of Judaism at that time and were disciplined by the Mahamad through the process of herem which could be anything from denial of Torah honors to an outright ban on the individual. The most famous of those to receive a full ban herem was philospoher Baruch Spinoza.

Besides merchants, a great number of physicians were among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam: Samuel Abravanel, David Nieto, Elijah Montalto, and the Bueno family; Joseph Bueno was consulted in the illness of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (April, 1623). Jews were admitted as students at the university, where they studied medicine as the only branch of science which was of practical use to them, for they were not permitted to practise law, and the oath they would be compelled to take excluded them from the professorships. One of the most famous Dutch Jews of this time was Baruch Spinoza, whose intellectual contributions were very important in his time and continue to influence thinkers to this day. Neither were Jews taken into the trade-guilds: a resolution passed by the city of Amsterdam in 1632 excluded them. Exceptions, however, were made in the case of trades which stood in peculiar relations to their religion: printing, bookselling, the selling of meat, poultry, groceries, and drugs. In 1655 a Jew was, exceptionally, permitted to establish a sugar-refinery.

In 1675, the Esnoga (Sephardic synagogue) in Amsterdam was inaugurated. The synagogue is still in use today. The Sephardic cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, a village on the outskirts of Amsterdam, has been in use since 1614 and is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands. Another reminder of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam is the Huis De Pinto, a residence for the wealthy Sephardic family de Pinto, constructed in 1680.

By the 1680s the Portuguese Sephardic Community of Amsterdam was on the decline. With the Netherlands experiencing economic difficulty (in part due to loss of New World colonies) some Jews left and immigration slowed while the Ashkenazi community became the larger Jewish community in Amsterdam, even as the Sephardic Jews kept positions of power and remained the significantly wealthier community. The process of emancipation, granting Jews full citizenship in the late 18th and early 19th century continued the erosion of power the Mahamad held over the community.


On the eve of the Holocaust, there were approximately 4,300 Sephardic Jews living in the Netherlands, of a total Jewish population of some 140,000 (3%). After the war, the Sephardic community had declined to some 800 people, 20% of the pre-war population. The Holocaust meant the end of the Sephardic community in The Hague; it ended after the war because most of the community members had perished in the Nazi concentration camps.


Nowadays, the Sephardic community in the Netherlands, called the Portugees-Israëlitisch Kerkgenootschap (PIK) (Portuguese-Israelite Religious Community), has a membership of some 270 families (translating to approximately 600 persons), and is concentrated in Amsterdam. They constitute now some 2% of the Dutch-Jewish community. The PIK also has a youth movement, J-PIG (Jongeren Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente - Youngsters Portuguese-Israelite Community).

Notable Dutch Sephardic Jews[edit]

Persons of partial Dutch Sephardic Jewish descent[edit]


  • Bodian, Miriam, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam: Indiana University Press 1999
  • da Silva Rosa, J. S., Geschiedenis der Portugeesche Joden te Amsterdam 1593-1925 (History of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam 1593-1925): Amsterdam 1925 (Dutch)
  • Katchen, Aaron L., Christian Hebraists and Dutch Rabbis: Seventeenth Century Apologetics and the Study of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah: Harvard University Press 1985
  • Swetschinski, Daniel M., Reluctant Cosmopolitans: The Portuguese Jews Of Seventeenth-century Amsterdam: Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 2004

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