Michael Bloomberg and Peter Stuyvestant

Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of Jewish History at Brandeis, reminds us that Jews were not always welcome in New York City He draws a comparison between 17th century Jews and 21st century Muslims:

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood on Governors Island, in sight of the Statue of Liberty, and forcefully defended the right of Muslims to build a community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, he expressly made a point of distancing himself from an earlier leader of the city: Peter Stuyvesant, who understood the relationship between religion and state altogether differently than Bloomberg does.

As governor of what was then called New Amsterdam, from 1647-1664, Stuyvesant worked to enforce Calvinist orthodoxy. He objected to public worship for Lutherans, fought Catholicism and threatened those who harbored Quakers with fines and imprisonment. One might easily imagine how he would have treated Muslims.

When Jewish refugees arrived in his city, in 1654, Stuyvesant was determined to bar them completely. Jews, he complained, were “deceitful,” “very repugnant” and “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He wanted them sent elsewhere.

Stuyvesant’s superiors in Holland overruled him, citing economic and political considerations. He continued, however, to restrict Jews to the practice of their religion “in all quietness” and “within their houses.” Being as suspicious of all Jews as some today are of all Muslims, he never allowed them to build a synagogue of their own.

In 1685, with the British in control of the city, 20 Jewish families petitioned to change Stuyvesant’s precedent so that they might establish a synagogue and worship in public. They were curtly refused. “Publique worship,” New York City’s Common Council informed them, “is Tolerated… but to those that professe faith in Christ.”

Eventually around the turn of the 18th century, Jews in New York won the right to worship in public, and Congregation Shearith Israel opened America’s first synagogue. Subsequently, in Rhode Island, what is today known as the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building still extant in North America, was dedicated in Newport in 1763.