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In one area of what used to be Dutch Guyana, 40 Jewish-owned plantations were home to a total population of at least 5,000 slaves, he says. Known as the Jodensavanne, or Jewish Savannah, the area had a Jewish community of several hundred before its destruction in a slave uprising in 1832. Nearly all of them immigrated to Holland, bringing their accumulated wealth with them.
Some of that wealth was on display last year in the cellar of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, part of an exhibition celebrating the riches of the synagogue’s immigrant founders. Van de Kamp says the exhibition sparked his interest in the Dutch Jewish role in slavery, which was robust.
On the Caribbean island of Curacao, Dutch Jews may have accounted for the resale of at least 15,000 slaves landed by Dutch transatlantic traders, according to Seymour Drescher, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh. At one point, Jews controlled about 17 percent of the Caribbean trade in Dutch colonies, Drescher said.
Jews were so influential in those colonies that slave auctions scheduled to take place on Jewish holidays often were postponed, according to Marc Lee Raphael, a professor of Judaic studies at the College of William & Mary.
In the United States, the Jewish role in the slave trade has been a matter of scholarly debate for nearly two decades, prompted in part by efforts to refute the Nation of Islam’s claim that Jews dominated the Atlantic slave trade. But in Holland, the issue of Jewish complicity is rarely discussed.
“This is because we in the Netherlands only profited from slavery but have not seen it in our own eyes,” van de Kamp said. “The American experience is different.”
The slavery issue is not van de Kamp’s first foray into controversial territory. In Jewish circles, he has a reputation as a contrarian with a penchant for voicing anti-establishment views.
That image was reinforced last year when he spoke out against a compromise the Dutch Jewish community had reached with the government over kosher slaughter. Designed to avert a total ban, the compromise placed some restrictions on kosher slaughter that Holland’s chief rabbis said did not violate Jewish law. Van de Kamp denounced the deal as an unacceptable infringement on religious freedom.
More recently, he angered Dutch activists by suggesting that vilifying Dutch Muslims helped generate anti-Semitism. He also advocated dialogue with professed Muslim anti-Semites at a time when Jewish groups were calling for their prosecution.
But his reputation as a maverick rabbi in a consensus–oriented community has also endeared van de Kamp to some supporters.
“He is in a league of his own,” says Bart Wallet, an Amsterdam University historian and expert on Jewish history. “From the sideline, he is free to criticize and does not have to conform to anything.”