The Lost Autonomous Jewish Community of Suriname

April 2, 2024 | Anshel Pfeffer
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 The Israel Antiquities Authority frequently makes newsworthy archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem or the Judean desert. Last summer it went a bit farther afield, sending an unusual expedition to Suriname, a tiny country on South America’s Atlantic coast, to seek out physical remains of a self-governing Jewish community there known as the Jodensavanne. Anshel Pfeffer reports:

Like the other Jews who arrived in America in the centuries after Columbus, the Jews of Suriname descended from Jews banished from Spain and then Portugal. They settled first in the West Indies, Brazil, and Guiana, but Catholic persecution continued there. Suriname, however, was under Anglican English rule, and in 1656, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell overturned Edward I’s 1290 expulsion of the Jews. This policy extended to the colonies; in Suriname, Jews were granted equal rights with other colonists in 1665. Those rights remained in effect after the English handed Suriname to the Dutch two years later in exchange for New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York.

The Jewish families arriving in this new land brought experience growing sugarcane and refining it into the sugar, much sought after in Europe, that became the colony’s main source of revenue. There are records by the early-18th century of at least 115 Jewish plantations—more than half of all those in Suriname—extending upriver over hundreds of square miles.

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