The Surprising Tale of the Stabbing of Spinoza

In his influential Historical and Critical Dictionary, the 17th-century French philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote that an unnamed Jew stabbed Benedict Spinoza—and that this apparent attempt on his life precipitated his break with the Amsterdam Jewish community. The story is given some credibility in an early biography of the Jewish apostate thinker, published in 1705, even if some of the details differ in the two accounts. But, unlike previous biographers of Spinoza, Steven Nadler believes that, if the stabbing happened at all, it was provoked not by the philosopher’s heretical beliefs but by the anger of a debtor from whom Spinoza had attempted to collect:

The Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community [to which Spinoza then belonged] was fairly cosmopolitan. To be sure, one was not free to proclaim whatever one wanted; . . . there were clear limits not just to what one could do but also to the ideas one could voice. But many members of the community, including its rabbis, engaged in wide-ranging philosophical and theological discussions. Even if Spinoza went too far—and he clearly did—to see the attempted murder as a reaction to his heretical views and rejection of communal authority now seems to me a little far-fetched. In fact, there is a more readily available and plausible, if mundane, explanation. . . .

When Spinoza’s father Miguel died in 1654, Spinoza and his brother Gabriel took over the family importing firm. Several notary records from April and May 1655 provide an interesting glimpse into Spinoza’s character and business acumen. There were three Portuguese Jewish brothers, Anthonij, Gabriel, and Isaac Alvares, who . . . were jewel dealers and apparently rather shady characters. Spinoza had a bill of exchange—basically an IOU—for the amount of 500 guilders to be paid by Anthonij Alvares. . . .

There was certainly bad blood between Spinoza and the Alvares brothers, who appear to have had a tendency to physical violence. Not only were they giving Spinoza the runaround [when he tried to collect the debt], but they would have been angered by his resort to the legal authorities to have them arrested. It is a classic tale, from a competitive mercantile city in the Dutch golden age where trade disputes were frequent and where it was essential to one’s business to maintain a good reputation for fair dealing. With notarized complaints and arrests, Spinoza publicly put the Alvares brothers under suspicion of being untrustworthy. It would not be surprising if one member of this . . . trio responded with an attack on Spinoza’s life.

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More about: Amsterdam, Benedict Spinoza, History & Ideas, Jewish history


By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria