On August 28, 1655, the governing council of colonial New Amsterdam decreed that the Jews of the town would not be permitted to serve beside other residents in the local defensive militia. The principal reason given, as expressed in the ruling issued on this date, was the alleged “disgust and unwillingness” of Gentile members of the citizens bands to “to be fellow-soldiers with the aforesaid nation and to be on guard with them in the same guard house.”
The ruling was one of a series of insults meted out to the Jews of New Amsterdam by the council, which was headed by none other than Peter Stuyvesant (circa 1612-1672), the director general of the New Netherland colony.
'Shut your eyes'
The colony, today known as New York, was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1624. The first Jews arrived in 1654, exiles from the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil, after the Portuguese recaptured it from the Netherlands and expelled the Jews.
From the beginning, Stuyvesant, who, it should be said, was equally opposed to “papists” (Catholics) and Lutherans settling in New Amsterdam, tried to have them banned. He was rebuffed, however, by the owners of the colony, the Dutch West India Company, some of whom were themselves Jews. They advised him, in a letter, to "Shut your eyes, at least [do] not force people's consciences, but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government."
The prohibition on participating in guard duty may not sound like an onerous condition to live under, but the waiver came with a price tag: In lieu of service, Jews were required to pay a monthly fee to the town of 65 stivers (approximately 3 guilders).
The Jews balk
On November 5, Jacob Barsimon and Asser Levy, the two most prominent members of the tiny Jewish community of New Amsterdam, attempted to have the prohibition reversed. They petitioned the council to permit them “to keep guard with other burghers, or to be free from the tax that others of their nation pay, as they must earn their living by manual labor.”
Not only was that petition denied, but the council, in its response, added the following slap: “[A]s the petitioners are of the opinion that the result of this [the tax] will be injurious to them, consent is hereby given to them to depart whenever and whither it pleases them."
It is not known precisely when the council of New Amsterdam was prevailed upon to reverse its position, but in April 1657, when Asser Levy was petitioning to be recognized as a burgher of the colony – a citizen with full economic and political rights -- he noted that, among his other attributes, he could say that he “keeps watch and ward” with the town’s other burghers.
Not surprisingly, Levy’s initial application to be recognized as a burgher was also turned down. But the stubborn Levy appealed the decision, doing so with the support of wealthier Jewish merchants who had arrived more recently. They were able to cite promises made to them by "the Worshipful Lords" of the Dutch West India Co., Stuyvesant’s employers. The director general got the hint, and the initial rejection was reversed.
Asser Levy and Jacob Barsimon are the only two among the original group of Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam who are known to have lived out their lives there, and to have remained after the British took possession of the colony, in 1664. In October 1660, Levy received a license to operate as a butcher – one of six in New Amsterdam, and the only kosher butcher among them – and when he died, in 1682, this upstanding citizen was owed money by some 440 fellow residents.