From the 1810s through the 1830s, calls for Jewish emancipation swept the Americas. In addition to Maryland's so-called "Jew Bill" (1819-1826)--a move to allow Jews to hold public office by modifying the state constitution's requirement that public officials take a Christian oath--Canada, Jamaica, Suriname, Curasao and Barbados all experienced legislative attempts in the first three decades of the nineteenth century to change the status and rights of Jewish residents. Jewish reactions to the drive for emancipation varied. In Canada, the United States and Jamaica, Jews tended to respond positively to the proposed changes. Yet, in the Dutch Caribbean, Jews resented the fact that the Dutch government had tied emancipation to the elimination of Jews' previous privileges. In Barbados, the Jewish community's response to emancipation was mixed. Emancipation became a lightning rod for defining Jewish communal identity, and it threatened to rip the community apart. Class tensions ran beneath discussions of race and gender, and class was the greatest factor in encouraging the Jews of Barbados to argue against emancipation.
Our analysis differs from many previous discussions of Jewish emancipation in early America that have relied upon non-Jewish sources--most commonly, the minutes from various state legislatures or letters exchanged with colonial governments. In this article, we turn instead to the records of the Congregation Nidhe Israel of Barbados and look at how Jews presented their own path to emancipation, both internally and to outsiders. In doing so, we reveal the important role Jews played in defining who and what is a Jew, even in an era in which Jewish identity was increasingly racialized. By focusing on Jewish perceptions of the emancipation, we challenge the way scholars have previously understood the construction of Jews as a "race" during this era. Previous histories of the racialization of early American Jews by historians Matthew Jacobson, Leonard Rogoff and Aron Rodrigue have tended to
see antisemitism as something done to Jews. (1) In contrast, we argue that Jews played an important role in creating their own identities. To be sure, Jews did not construct these identities in a vacuum, nor were they immune to the attempts made by others to posit who and what is a Jew. As author Michele Elam puts it, "Autonomy is always limited." (2) Yet, Barbados' Jews were not helpless victims of the machinations of others. Rather, Barbadian Jewish identity was the dynamic product of social transactions among Jews and a wide range of people and institutions, some of whom were Jewish, some of whom were not. Poor Jews had more to lose from the blurring of boundaries between Jews and people of African descent; hence, they were more protective of white privilege.
Our Barbados example has wide implications for the study of the relationship between Jewishness and the rise of nations more generally. Since emancipation marks the point at which nations debated whether Jews--and other minorities--were deemed capable of becoming fully assimilated into the body politic, the nature of the bodies to be assimilated was often highly contested. In Barbados, Jewish emancipation was tied to the synagogue. Jews sought emancipation through the Jewish Vestry Bill of Barbados, which sought to provide them with access to civil rights previously held only by members of the island's vestries. Prior to the bill only Anglican churches had vestries (legislative assemblies of parishioners), but the Jewish Vestry Bill of Barbados changed this by relabeling the legislative meetings of the island's synagogue as vestries. This subtle change allowed Jews to participate in island politics more fully without having to convert first.
Jewish emancipation in Barbados reflected the larger changes throughout the Americas in the status of Jews, women, and people of African descent. When the bill appeared, the Jewish community of Barbados had recently undergone radical changes, and the debates surrounding emancipation reveal internal dissent about whether to redefine or retain the Jewish community's previous hierarchical structure. As a consequence whiteness, manhood, and class were key factors in the emancipation debate. Rather than making all Jews equal to white Christians, the vestry bill selectively elevated elite Jews. In other words, "equality" underscored and retrenched long-standing inequalities in the Jewish community. Barbados vestry debates highlight the ways in which early American Jews questioned the geographic, cultural, racial and legal boundaries of what is an American Jew.
Jewish emancipation did not happen in a vacuum, but rather reflected larger geopolitical changes in the Americas. In Europe, Jewish emancipation reflected the emergence of modern nation states and the attempts of Jews and non-Jews to expand the rights of Jewish people and to recognize them as citizens of those states, rather than as foreign residents. In the Americas, this process of incorporation was complicated by the fact that the states into which Jews were being admitted were often either themselves quite new (such as the United States), or were technically still colonies of other nations (such as Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, Suriname and Curasao). Given this reality, many early American Jews did not become citizens when they were emancipated, but instead became colonial subjects. Moreover, Jewish emancipation usually occurred contemporaneously with the emancipation of other disenfranchised minorities, such as Catholics in Canada and people of African descent in Jamaica and Barbados. Thus, the process of creating equal citizens and subjects often challenged long-standing patterns of social difference that already existed within communities. In Barbados, the debates about Jewish vestries coincided not only with changes within the Jewish community and changes in the legal status of Jews in England, but also with changes in the social and legal status of people of color and poor whites on the island. As Barbadian Jews debated the terms of their belonging, they often did so in relation to these disenfranchised "others." Thus, the vestry debate reflected anxieties about shifts in power within the community.
The vestry bill appeared at a time when the Jewish community of Barbados had recently undergone radical changes, and the debate reveals internal attempts to redefine the community. The wars that ravaged the American colonies during the mid-to-late eighteenth century disastrously impacted the Caribbean economy in general and Jewish merchants in particular. Like Jews in other American ports, most of Barbados's Jewish community depended upon trade for their livelihood. Even planters like Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, one of the island's wealthiest Jews and the owner of the Hopeland plantation, (3) needed partners in other ports to refine sugar byproducts. The disruption of trade routes spelled economic disaster. As economic historian Richard Sheridan has noted, thousands of slaves in the Caribbean "literally starved [during the Revolutionary war] as a result of the cessation of North American trade." The Sugar Act of 1764 further cramped trade and threatened to topple the careful networks of trade upon which the Jewish ports of the Americas rested. (4) After the war, Anglo-Jewish communities in the Caribbean floundered as many individuals returned to England or moved on to other ports. As the Barbados Mahamad (synagogue governance board) noted, those who remained were "very much reduced in numbers and wealth." (5) Thus, in the first decades of the 1800s, the makeup of the Barbados Jewish community changed. Whereas the community had previously been made up of numerous wealthy merchants, landowners and manufacturers, by 1791, most were "little more than retailers." (6) Moreover, the decrease in available Jewish marriage partners, as well as local sexual practices, increased the number of mixed-race descendants of Jews, some of whom had Jewish ancestry from both their fathers and their maternal grandfathers. (7) As people of mixed descent converted to Judaism, these descendants legitimately entered the community's halakhic (religiously legal) boundaries.
In addition to internal changes, external forces sought to change the legal status of Jews on the island and in England. The British government had earlier attempted to augment the status of Anglo-Jewry in 1753 with the Jewish Naturalization Bill (the "Jew Bill"). Although this bill did allow a number of prominent Jews in the American colonies to be naturalized, it proved highly controversial in England, and it was eventually repealed. Unlike the controversy surrounding the Jewish Vestry Bill of Barbados, the dispute regarding Anglo-Jewish naturalization was primarily between Christians. Those in favor of the English "Jew Bill" argued that it would lead to Jewish conversion and assimilation. Those opposed argued that Jews were subjects of the Devil, not Christ, and, as such, " [I]t was foolhardy and dangerous to try to incorporate them into the English nation." Opponents believed that as long as Jews practiced Judaism, they were separate, distinct and utterly alien. (8) As we will see, the question of whether Jews could and should be assimilated into the English nation would also be a central concern raised by Jews in Barbados. By the 1820s, Anglo-Jews did push for their own emancipation, even though Jews enjoyed enough rights that they had "little to complain of," other than not being admitted to Parliament. (9) That said, full emancipation wasn't achieved in England until 1858, when Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in the House of Commons. (10) In contrast to England, Barbados remained a plantocracy whose government was controlled by the planter elite and organized around the parishes and vestries of the Anglican Church. As outsiders to Anglican parishes, Jews had few avenues for impacting...