At its height in the 17th century, the Sephardi community of Amsterdam was composed largely of descendants of conversos: Jews who had entered the Catholic Church during successive waves of persecution in Spain and Portugal. Many of these “New Christians” reverted to Judaism—sometimes generations after converting—upon coming to the Netherlands. In his book The Origins of Democratic Zionism, Gregory Kaplan explores the thought of three members of this community—Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the philosopher and apostate Benedict Spinoza, and the poet Miguel de Barrios—and argues that their historical memory of persecution and their ex-converso milieu led them to develop distinctly democratic ideas. Samuel Goldman explains in his review:
[In Iberia], New Christians were persecuted for their heredity rather than their beliefs. It was not obvious, therefore, that escape to a more tolerant society should be accompanied by a return to Judaism. In order to attract conversos, Jewish leaders had to justify a choice for Judaism. This imperative, Kaplan argues, explains Morteira’s presentation of the so-called Hebrew Republic [of Moses’ time] as a democracy.
Perhaps so, writes Goldman, but less convincing is the next part of Kaplan’s argument:
Jumping to 1896, [Kaplan] contends that Theodor Herzl’s assessments of democracy built on Spinoza. If Spinoza was adapting Morteira’s ideas, there is a line of argument from the converso problem to the founder of modern Zionism. This proposal is intriguing, but there are too many intervening steps to justify any significant conclusion. For Germanic readers like Herzl, Spinoza’s influence was filtered through the Idealist and Romantic traditions.
We have become accustomed, [however], to regard biblical argumentation as a source of narrowness and intolerance. Kaplan shows how we might again read the Hebrew Bible as a justification for liberty.