Let's honor America's tradition of tolerance

September 30, 2004

The beginning of Jewish history in America began 350 years ago, when two ships arrived in New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island within a few weeks of each other - providing an important history lesson in the origins of our country's long and difficult tradition of tolerance.

The first Jews disembarked on Aug. 22, 1654, from the Peartree, which had sailed from Amsterdam via London. They were Ashkenazim - originally High German and Polish Jews - who had found refuge in Amsterdam following religious and ethnic persecution elsewhere in Europe. Their departure from Amsterdam was due to the end of the first Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654), which had reduced Holland's economic prospects. Choosing Manhattan as their destination for a better life, those Ashkenazic Jews had traveled on passports issued by the Dutch West India Company. Among them was Asser Levy, the first known Jew to be buried in New Amsterdam (now New York City).

Shortly after their arrival, in September, a large group of Sephardic Jews - originally Iberian and North African Jews - arrived in Manhattan on the Dutch ship St. Catrina from Dutch Brazil. They left Recife because Dutch Brazil had surrendered to the less tolerant Portuguese in 1654. The Sephardim had played an important role in the West India Company's sugar trade with Brazil. Back then, the profit from one shipload of sugar was more than that from 50 shiploads of salt.

The arrival of those first Jewish groups in North America had its roots in the enlightened culture and the legal-political condition of the Dutch Republic. There, the first Sephardic community, Beth Jacob, was founded in 1602. Later, in 1675, the grand Portuguese Synagogue was opened in Amsterdam, which remained the largest in Europe for nearly 200 years.

In New Amsterdam, the unexpected arrival of this sizeable group of "Portuguese Israelites" wasn't viewed favorably by the local company director Petrus (aka Peter) Stuyvesant, because they had no passport and were not of a reformed religion. He also feared they would become competition. He tried to expel them, but he was overruled by the West India Company directors who wrote him that "they shall be allowed to sail and to trade in New Netherland and also be allowed to reside and settle there" on the basis of "reason and equity." In fact, all Stuyvesant's attempts at religious intolerance were overruled by the West India Company's directors.

That right to religious tolerance - then in its elemental legal form - had been planted in 1624 on Governors (then "Noten") Island by the first settlers from the Dutch Republic to land in the New Netherland territory (they would move to Manhattan later). They had received specific instructions that "by example" they were to attract the natives and non-believers to God's word "without however to persecute someone by reason of his religion and to leave everyone the freedom of his conscience." Those instructions also incorporated the laws and ordinances of the States of Holland, whose 1579 founding document stated "that everyone shall be free in religion and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of religion." That "rule of law" and the legal-cultural tradition of tolerance thus became the basis of ethnic diversity in New Netherland.

Those rights did not disappear, even after the English had taken over New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. The diversity embodied in the colony there inspired the Virginian, William Byrd, to comment on his visit to New Amsterdam in 1682 that "they have as many sects of religion there as at Amsterdam."

Over the intervening centuries, prejudice and intolerance toward minority religions and races never went away in New York. But the spirit of tolerance never died out, either. It culminated in the First Amendment of the Constitution in 1791 - upon the insistence of New York's Gov. George Clinton.

To honor the source of America's ultimate virtue, we should recognize Governors Island as the only existing historic American symbol of 17th-century tolerance. We could turn this little island between Brooklyn and Manhattan, now partly a national monument, into a model exhibit to remind the world that tolerance is a precursor to liberty-for-all. Preserving this ideal condition remains an ongoing struggle - and only awareness and vigilance will sustain it. Looking back to 1624 we can see that Governors Island is the actual source of American pluralism. From the first arrival of Jews 350 years ago to the inauguration of Abe Beame in 1974 as New York City's first Jewish mayor lie profoundly important lessons that are no less relevant today.

Tolerance is a fundamental cultural asset, a defining element of what makes America. We would do well to honor that tradition by turning Governors Island into a natural beacon of this human right.

Joep de Koning is the founder and CEO of the Foundation for Historic New Amsterdam, which hopes to build a museum park on Governors Island.