Three hundred years ago and more, a controversy flared up in New York City as a new group of immigrants pushed to build a house of worship. Still known as New Amsterdam, a province of the Netherlands, the city was governed by Peter Stuyvesant, who wrote vividly about his fears. In his eyes, the alien minority looking to construct a new holy space were “deceitful,” “repugnant,” “hateful enemies” of other citizens. If they were going to be allowed in the colony at all, he felt, the outsiders ought to worship quietly and unseen, instead of making trouble by trying to set up a public temple.
It was 1654 when Stuyvesant objected to the presence of a new community of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in New York, asking his superiors in the Netherlands to allow him to bar them completely from settling. While that proposal was refused, Stuyvesant was able to uphold his ban on a synagogue, and meanwhile pursued his vision of a strictly Calvinist Protestant colony still further, persecuting and arresting Quakers and Baptists as well.
Even when the city changed hands from Dutch rule to British some decades later, freedom of faith remained limited. As historian Jonathan Sarna writes in “When Shuls Were Banned in America,”
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.”
Although the community dates the formation of its first congregation, Shearith Israel, to 1655, it took until 1730 for the Jewish people of New York to gain official permission an build their first synagogue. As Sarna recounts, that first landmark was only a starting point in a longer struggle. Long after the American Revolution and the passage of the Bill of Rights appeared to place Jews on the same footing as other citizens, many Jewish congregations found around town ordinances and zoning laws deployed against them when the time came to build new temples.
The trigger for Sarna’s excavation of this past phase of history is this year’s controversy over the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque,” the Park 51 Muslim Community Center in lower Manhattan. Delving into the history behind New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-known speech on the controversy, Sarna points out:
In distancing himself from Peter Stuyvesant and the many others who have defined American religious liberty in narrowly restrictive terms, he reminds us that if today’s target is the mosque, yesterday’s was most assuredly the synagogue.
Sarna’s parallel has met with disagreement from many. Some argued that because the terrorists
destroyed the World Trade Center in the name of radical Islam, the building of a new Islamic
center near Ground Zero would offend the families of the victims of 9/11.
But echoes of these objections and suspicions can be found in past episodes of distrust and suspicion surrounding religious difference in New York City’s history.
In Stuyvesant’s case, his distrust of religious dissent extended well beyond the Jews and included several groups of Christians. Under the Governor’s rule, for example, Baptists and Quakers were arrested, fined, or exiled for practicing their beliefs. Stuyvesant’s intolerance finally led a group of New Amsterdam citizens to create a public petition—the “Flushing Remonstrance (1657)—which became one of the first appeals in early American history for religious freedom. In it, the petitioners called for an end to persecution on the basis of faith:
The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered the sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.
And because our Saviour saith it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as wee desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour saith this is the law and the prophets.