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  • Making Jews: Race, Gender and Identity in Barbados in the Age of Emancipation
  • Laura Arnold Leibman (bio) and Sam May (bio)

From the 1810s through the 1830s, calls for Jewish emancipation swept the Americas. In addition to Maryland’s so-called “Jew Bill” (1819–1826)—a move to allow Jews to hold public office by modifying the state constitution’s requirement that public officials take a Christian oath—Canada, Jamaica, Suriname, Curaçao and Barbados all experienced legislative attempts in the first three decades of the nineteenth century to change the status and rights of Jewish residents. Jewish reactions to the drive for emancipation varied. In Canada, the United States and Jamaica, Jews tended to respond positively to the proposed changes. Yet, in the Dutch Caribbean, Jews resented the fact that the Dutch government had tied emancipation to the elimination of Jews’ previous privileges. In Barbados, the Jewish community’s response to emancipation was mixed. Emancipation became a lightning rod for defining Jewish communal identity, and it threatened to rip the community apart. Class tensions ran beneath discussions of race and gender, and class was the greatest factor in encouraging the Jews of Barbados to argue against emancipation.

Our analysis differs from many previous discussions of Jewish emancipation in early America that have relied upon non-Jewish sources—most commonly, the minutes from various state legislatures or letters exchanged with colonial governments. In this article, we turn instead to the records of the Congregation Nidhe Israel of Barbados and look at how Jews presented their own path to emancipation, both internally and to outsiders. In doing so, we reveal the important role Jews played in defining who and what is a Jew, even in an era in which Jewish identity was increasingly racialized. By focusing on Jewish perceptions of the emancipation, we challenge the way scholars have previously understood the construction of Jews as a “race” during this era. Previous histories of the racialization of early American Jews by historians Matthew Jacobson, Leonard Rogoff and Aron Rodrigue have tended to [End Page 1] see antisemitism as something done to Jews.1 In contrast, we argue that Jews played an important role in creating their own identities. To be sure, Jews did not construct these identities in a vacuum, nor were they immune to the attempts made by others to posit who and what is a Jew. As author Michele Elam puts it, “Autonomy is always limited.”2 Yet, Barbados’ Jews were not helpless victims of the machinations of others. Rather, Barbadian Jewish identity was the dynamic product of social transactions among Jews and a wide range of people and institutions, some of whom were Jewish, some of whom were not. Poor Jews had more to lose from the blurring of boundaries between Jews and people of African descent; hence, they were more protective of white privilege.

Our Barbados example has wide implications for the study of the relationship between Jewishness and the rise of nations more generally. Since emancipation marks the point at which nations debated whether Jews—and other minorities—were deemed capable of becoming fully assimilated into the body politic, the nature of the bodies to be assimilated was often highly contested. In Barbados, Jewish emancipation was tied to the synagogue. Jews sought emancipation through the Jewish Vestry Bill of Barbados, which sought to provide them with access to civil rights previously held only by members of the island’s vestries. Prior to the bill only Anglican churches had vestries (legislative assemblies of parishioners), but the Jewish Vestry Bill of Barbados changed this by relabeling the legislative meetings of the island’s synagogue as vestries. This subtle change allowed Jews to participate in island politics more fully without having to convert first.

Jewish emancipation in Barbados reflected the larger changes throughout the Americas in the status of Jews, women, and people of African [End Page 2] descent. When the bill appeared, the Jewish community of Barbados had recently undergone radical changes, and the debates surrounding emancipation reveal internal dissent about whether to redefine or retain the Jewish community’s previous hierarchical structure. As a consequence whiteness, manhood, and class were key factors in the emancipation debate. Rather than...