A couple of weeks ago I was in Amsterdam on a weekend break with a couple of friends, and we engaged in one of the quintessential tourist tropes, a guided Amsterdam bike tour. I was impressed by our guide, one of the gems of the huge number of twenty-somethings who seem to be adrift in the city.
Amsterdam’s nickname is “mokum”, Hebrew for “safe place”, and that is how these millennials seem to regard the city – a safe port in the storm of the early twenty-first century, a place where they can escape from judgemental attitudes and unrealistic demands they may have faced in their home countries.
Our guide led our guided Amsterdam bike tour expertly around the city, navigating the mayhem of its bicycle lanes, and we stopped off at a variety of interesting places to receive a surprisingly in-depth discussion on Amsterdam’s history. But it was what we learned in the Jewish district that I found most interesting when our guide made the controversial move of attacking the city’s historic tolerance of immigrants.
Our guide’s argument was that Amsterdam’s historically tolerant attitude was heavily influenced by the per capita wealth of the particular group of immigrants. I was so interested in this argument, one I had not expected to hear on a guided Amsterdam Bike tour, that when I got home, I looked into it a little more myself. What I found challenged my ideas about the role of morality in liberalism, and my perception of Amsterdam’s historically liberal and tolerant attitude toward immigration and social issues.
Amsterdam’s reputation for being a haven for those fleeing religious or political persecution began in 1492, when Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Alhambra decree, ordering the expulsion of all practising Jews from Spain. In 1496 a similar edict was passed by King Manuel I of Portugal, and the following two-decade saw a huge diaspora of Jews from Portugal and Spain to Amsterdam.
Many histories of the city tout Amsterdam’s liberal principles in taking in Jewish refugees during these difficult years, affording them all rights besides full citizenship, including the right to worship publically.
But closer inspection of the greater geopolitical and economic situation developing in the Netherlands in the 16th century, and the character of the Sephardic (Iberian) Jewish population. One of the major reasons for the unpopularity of Jews in Spain and Portugal was their social and economic success. Until the beginning of serious persecution in the 14th century.
The Jews that Amsterdam welcomed with open arms were not impoverished refugees – they were affluent traders and property owners who had been able to finance the long and difficult journey from Spain and Portugal to Amsterdam. The city’s tolerant attitude toward the Seraphim contrasts starkly with the welcome offered to Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution and famine caused in Eastern Europe by the Thirty Years War.
Amsterdam initially refused them entry – it was only after the Sephardic community in Amsterdam made serious promises, including funds pledged to feed and house the refugees, that the city permitted them entrance. Even Ashkenazi was encouraged to move on if they could not quickly find employment.
Over the next few articles, we’ll explore further the limits of Amsterdam’s tolerant attitude toward immigrants, and how this has translated into the 21st century.