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Hugo Grotius’s Remonstrantie

The book you have in your hands is one of Hugo Grotius’s lesser-known works, translated into modern Dutch, entitled: Remonstrantie betreffende de regelgeving die in Holland en West-Friesland moet worden opgesteld ten aanzien van de Joden (Remonstrance regarding regulations that should be drawn up in Holland and West Friesland regarding the Jews). Grotius was commissioned to write the text by the States of Holland, in his capacity as pensionary of Rotterdam. This request was prompted by unrest surrounding the settlement of Jews in towns in Holland after it transpired that a resident of Hoorn had converted to Judaism. Because Amsterdam and Rotterdam were, at that time, the only Holland towns with a Jewish community, their pensionaries were asked by the States to draw up a concept of regulations governing the settlement and residence of Jews.1

Today, the Remonstrantie is primarily of interest as a historical document, an illustration of the problems confronting the young Dutch Republic as a beacon of toleration and prosperity in a world where both were in short supply. As such, it sheds lights on the thinking and political relationships of early 17th-century Holland, at the beginning of the Golden Age. But it also holds up a mirror to our own time, in which to examine recurring issues like migration, identity and coexistence in diversity.


Around 1592/1593 groups of Sephardic Jews began settling in the towns of Holland. This was a new phenomenon for the time, though Jewish communities had existed in a number of towns in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages. As far back as the late 13th century, for example, there was a Jodenstraat (Street of the Jews) in Maastricht, and by the 14th century there is evidence of Jewish communities elsewhere. But after the devastation of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, Jews were persecuted in many places for being the supposed cause of the epidemic. By the 15th century the communities had seemingly vanished completely; there is, at any rate, no further mention of them in the historical record.

Following the Reconquista in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella (the ‘Catholic Monarchs’) increasingly turned against the country’s Jews, who had lived there for hundreds of years under the protection of Moorish rulers. In 1492 the Jews of Spain were presented with a stark choice: convert to Christianity or leave the country; in 1497 a similar ultimatum was issued in Portugal. Some of the Jews who chose exile ended up in Antwerp or in towns in the Rhineland. There, the pattern was repeated: in 1549 Charles V, the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, ordered Jews who had sought refuge in Antwerp to leave the city. This did not trigger Jewish migration to Holland, since Charles was the ruler of that province as well. Indeed many Jews simply remained in Antwerp; even then, the city fathers knew a thing or two about ‘toleration’. But once Antwerp fell into Spanish hands and the Dutch Republic seemed to be gaining the upper hand in its war with Spain, Jews who had initially fled elsewhere (especially Hamburg and Cologne), began to seek safety in Holland, attracted by the spirit of toleration in the Dutch Republic and the opportunities created by its economic boom. For example, in the 1590s a group of Sephardic Jews settled in Amsterdam, while a group of German Jews made their home in the area around Groningen.2 In the entry for 1598 in his Jaerboeken en Historiën (Annals and Histories) Grotius mentions the arrival of Portuguese Jews, citing fear of the Inquisition and the hope of setting up a profitable business in Amsterdam as the twin motives for their decision. To translate this into contemporary language: they were a mixture of asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Although we now talk about Jewish immigrants, contemporary sources describe them as ‘new Christians’; in any event they were not always open about their religion. According to Swetschinski3 it was not until 1602 that the first public expression of Judaism is found, in the form of a statement by a man accused of trafficking in stolen goods who gave his religion as Jewish. In the years that followed, other Sephardic Jews started coming ‘out of the closet’ and began looking into the possibility of opening their own synagogue. During that same period Lutherans and Mennonites were also pushing the bounds of toleration in the Republic, while a number of towns had substantial Roman Catholic minorities. It was chiefly the town authorities that were competent to decide on such matters. It therefore made sense for Jews to approach the towns with the most tolerant attitude. In his study of the Republic, Jonathan Israel notes how a group of Jewish families who had come to Amsterdam from Venice and Thessaloniki sought permission from the town council of Haarlem to establish a synagogue there.4 When that request was denied because of opposition from local Calvinist consistories (church boards), they tried their luck in Rotterdam in 1610. There they were initially granted permission, but when that permission was revoked a few years later they returned to Amsterdam, where the Jewish community had managed to organise itself without explicit permission from the authorities.5

The consistories’ opposition to the establishment of synagogues in the towns and cities was not rooted in antipathy towards the Jewish religion. The Republic had no tradition of being either for or against Jews,6 and Calvinism was not by definition hostile to them. Their standpoint should be seen in the context of the ‘confessionalisation’7 of the population, the struggle over the position of Calvinism within society and its political influence on government policy. The Dutch Revolt was accompanied by a revolutionary reform of the Roman Catholic Church and the introduction of a new (Reformed) ecclesiastical order.8 In that sense the new Church was now established as an institution, but Calvinists were still in the minority. Around the transition from the 16th to the 17th century, the Calvinists’ aim was to expand their position in society, in the face of competition from Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Although the States of Holland had recognised freedom of religion (and the freedom to practise one’s religion) at Dordrecht in 1572—to win over the public for the revolt against Spain and not to alienate anyone—the prevailing opinion among patricians and municipal authorities was that toleration of the public practice of other religions jeopardised social unity. Although the town councils were often accused of ‘free thinking’ by orthodox Calvinists, they too viewed toleration with great suspicion, not unlike those who look askance at multiculturalism today.

Why Did Grotius Write the Remonstrantie?

The background to the Remonstrantie can be found in Blom’s History of the Jews in the Netherlands.9 The sheriff of Hoorn had arrested a certain Hans Joostensz, who had converted to Judaism and together with his wife had begun making kosher cheese for Jews in Amsterdam. The conversion of Jews to Christianity was not a problem, but the same could not be said for the reverse. In this particular case the States of Holland and West Friesland decided to banish the couple from the province, but by then, the case had already touched off a debate about policy on the settlement and treatment of Jews. Against this backdrop the pensionaries of Amsterdam and Rotterdam—Adriaan Pauw and Hugo Grotius—were commissioned to draw up a set of regulations to which Jews ‘should adhere in order to prevent any scandal, nuisance or sanctions’. According to Swetschinski these two cities were chosen because they were the only ones with a Jewish community, though Van Eysinga suggests that Rotterdam was regarded as more liberal minded and Amsterdam as more Calvinist, so that the States may have hoped that a combination of the two would yield a ‘golden mean’.10

Hugo Grotius was appointed pensionary of Rotterdam in 1613. In practice this simply meant that he was the paid adviser to the municipal government, but holding a permanent appointment gave the pensionary a strong position vis-à-vis the town magistracy, which changed every year. With the help of his staff, which he was expected to pay out of his own pocket, the pensionary was the de facto head of the municipal civil service. At the time of his appointment Grotius was not yet 30 and already advocate general of the States of Holland. There had been talk of a possible appointment to the High Court of Holland and Zeeland, but in the end Grotius preferred a more political career.11

At the time of his appointment the Dutch Republic was embroiled in a heated politico-religious debate surrounding the disagreement between Arminius and Gomarus about predestination. In 1611 the States had adopted a resolution ordering the Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius) and the Counter-Remonstrants (those of Gomarus) to accept each other’s views, and as advocate general Grotius was involved in the implementation of that resolution. Grotius was also involved on a personal level. As a member of the Reformed congregation in Leiden he had supported calling Arminius as its minister; moreover he was a friend of Johannes Wtenbogaert, the future leader of the Arminians, and had lived in his house during his time in Leiden. It is important to note that this theological dispute had a political dimension as well, concerning the relationship between church and state. Arminians, who were well represented in municipal government, championed a role for the state in matters like Church governance and the appointment of ministers, partly as a counterbalance to the intolerance of orthodox viewpoints. Gomarists, who were more strongly represented in consistories, sought greater influence over government policy and thus a more popular (i.e. democratic) influence on the oligarchic municipal authorities.

Obviously, the dispute between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants had nothing to do with the issues that gave rise to the request to draw up a set of regulations governing the Jews in Holland and West Friesland. But the request was premised on the notion that the States had the power to adopt such regulations. The Amsterdam municipal authority was evidently of a different opinion. In 1616 it adopted ex proprio motu an ordinance that prohibited Jews from slandering the Christian faith, converting Christians to Judaism and having relations with Christian women, even if they were prostitutes.12 It is not clear if the Amsterdam authorities then regarded the matter as closed. According to Van Eysinga, Adriaan Pauw also submitted a proposal for a set of regulations, which was discussed by the States in 1619, together with the request (Remonstrantie) of Rotterdam. In so far as the Remonstrantie assumed that the States were competent to regulate religious matters, it bears on the question at the heart of the debate and a related issue that arose two years later, namely whether a synod could be convened by the States General, or only by the individual provinces, which was the standpoint of the States of Holland.

Peculiar or Shrewd?

The Remonstrantie consists of three parts: a general explanation, the articles themselves and explanatory notes to the individual articles. It is beyond the scope of this foreword to examine each of these parts in full, but the general explanation merits further attention. Seen through modern eyes, it will appear offensive, anti-Semitic and discriminatory. But it is informed by a rationale that led to regulations that were relatively liberal for the time. It remains unclear if the general explanation accurately reflects Grotius’s own views or whether it should instead be seen as a piece of advocacy, intended to persuade potential opponents with their own arguments. If the latter, it is an ingenious piece of rhetoric.

First, Grotius explains the need for these regulations by noting that Jews were starting to settle in the towns of Holland on a large scale, a state of affairs which was permitted by the municipal authorities with a view to the economic benefits these new residents would generate. Accordingly, he proceeds to examine the issue from the perspective of the common interest. To do so, it is first necessary to address two preliminary questions: should Jews be admitted to the country in the first place, and if so, should they be permitted to practise their religion? A third question is: what can be done to ensure that such practice does not undermine the Christian faith or disrupt public order?

Grotius begins by stating that there are two good arguments for not admitting Jews to the country. Admitting people of another religion weakens social unity. What is more, Jews hate Christians and could therefore pose a danger to public order and security. We hear echoes of these same arguments in the immigration debate of our own time: migrants are a danger to social cohesion and security. Grotius does not attempt to minimise the dangers to security; indeed he emphasises them by repeating alarmist stories about Jews that were then in circulation. Truly, he concedes, these are all good reasons not to let the Jews into the country, but on the other hand, he points out, Paul wrote that the entire Jewish people would eventually convert. And if that is the case, then surely they should be admitted—otherwise how can they embrace the true faith? Apart from this religious argument, there is also an obligation to extend hospitality on the basis of a shared humanity. On this point Grotius invokes a natural principle which he would develop into ‘natural law’ in later works, including De iure Belli ac Pacis. He also contends that even if Jews do hate Christians, they should not be treated in the same way, if only to ensure that Christians give no cause for such hatred (Grotius suggests that Jews actually have reason to hate). Furthermore, on the risks to security and the possibility that the faith of ‘weaker’ Christians might be undermined, he maintains that laws and official oversight should be sufficient.

If the conclusion is that Jews can and should be allowed into the country, the question arises of whether they should be permitted to practise their faith. Grotius identifies two possible objections to this: first, the Biblical prohibition on idolatry, and second, the paradox that Jews will then be permitted something that is denied to Catholics. But, he argues, if Jews are not permitted to practise, they must be forced to convert to Christianity or, failing that, society will have to accept a group of people with no religion at all. The first option would be improper, and the second wrong, since pure godlessness is even worse than Judaism. Besides, he claims, Judaism is not idolatry; Jews worship the same God, albeit with an admixture of superstition. In response to the second objection Grotius points out that Catholics do the same: allow Jews to observe their religion but deny that privilege to members of other Christian denominations. Moreover, Grotius notes, given their obedience to the Pope, the enemy of the Dutch Republic, Catholics are actually much more dangerous than Jews.

In this way Grotius uses the force of logic to convince his readers that Jews should be allowed into the country and permitted to practise their religion. In addition to invoking hospitality and the Christian duty to love one’s neighbour, his argument rests on two pillars: 1) a conviction that Jews would eventually convert of their own accord and that Holland was as good a place as any for them to do so, and 2) a belief that observing the wrong religion was better that having no religion at all, given that forced conversion was out of the question. The Biblical dimension of Grotius’s logic is difficult for modern-day readers to follow. But it also demonstrates that without a shared frame of reference, debates on fundamental questions never move beyond the stating of opposing viewpoints without ever bridging the differences between them. In any case, it must be acknowledged that Grotius himself ultimately offers no answer to the two main objections he raises: that allowing people to practise their faith freely undermines social unity and that by extending this right to Jews, they would be allowed something denied to Roman Catholics. And these were considerations that carried a great deal of weight with more liberal-minded patricians and municipal authorities. When the States eventually got round to debating the Remonstrantie, they could not resolve these contradictions either, and by resolution of 13 December 1619 they left the matter of the residency of Jews to the wisdom of the municipal authorities.13 By then, however, in a swift reversal of fortunes, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt had been beheaded, and Grotius was serving a life sentence in Loevestein Castle.

The Article-by-Article Explanatory Notes

Assuming that Jews should be allowed into the country and permitted to practise their faith, there was still the matter of what rules should govern them. The Remonstrantie is based on the principle that Jews should be treated the same as Christians, so that they may experience Christian love. The only exception to this policy is in cases where it could harm ‘the welfare of the Christian religion or of the state’.14 It is striking how Grotius situates the imperative of ‘equal treatment’ as an extension of the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbour. Earlier in the text he distinguishes between the ‘deeper love’ between Christians and the ‘neighbourly love’ we owe our fellow man, after the example of the good Samaritan. The latter form of love is also the source of the hospitality which he previously cited as a reason for allowing Jews into the country and of the duty to accord them equal treatment. In this way we can trace the evolution of his thinking about natural law.

When Grotius writes about equal treatment, he is referring to Jews as a group and not as individuals. The political and social concept of a society of equal citizens with inalienable rights still lay in the distant future. Hobbes’s Leviathan, the first work in which the state is derived from the individual, would not appear for nearly half a century after the Remonstrantie. At the start of the 17th century the conception of society was still very much rooted in the medieval notion of an assemblage of different groups and ‘estates’. Relations between these groups were regulated by public law, while the position of individuals was primarily determined by the group to which they belonged and their legal status within that group, in line with its own rules and customs.

These are the concepts that determine the form and content of the regulations proposed in part II of the Remonstrantie. They form the background for the compartmentalisation of society that is taken for granted: between Christian and Jew, between urban and rural. They are also the basis for two absolute prohibitions: Jews must not be allowed to live outside the towns (4) and marriage between Jews and Christians is forbidden, on penalty of death (27).15 It should be noted that Jews are defined in terms of their religion. Only two provisions concern Jews on the basis of religion and origin: the obligation to register with the authorities within eight days of arriving in a town (1) and the ban on holding public office (40). But because Jews are defined by their religion, the profession of faith is an essential part of public oversight and must be made in the presence of the municipal authorities (2). Opinions or statements incompatible with this profession of faith are subject to corporal or even capital punishment (13). This is also the reason that a Jew who has been excommunicated for ‘bad conduct or wicked opinions’ has the right to appeal the decision to the local authorities (20), since excommunication has direct consequences for his legal status.

Along with the profession of faith, Jews are required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Republic (3); being of a different faith made one’s patriotism suspect. Therein lies a difference in the treatment of Jews and Christians. Another distinction can be observed in the relationship between the religions. Blasphemous remarks or profanation of the Christian faith in speech (14) or in writing (16) are prohibited; according to the explanatory note accompanying article 16, this proscription also extends to the possession, use or printing of the Talmud. Jews are permitted to interact freely with Christians, provided they do not attempt to convert them (25). Conversely, ministers are allowed to visit gatherings of Jews, after notifying the authorities, and offer them instruction; those present are not allowed to leave (21). A Christian who converts to Judaism will be banished (33), but a Jew who converts to Christianity should be allowed to do so freely (34–37). A final key difference is the restriction on the number of Jewish families allowed to settle in a given town—200 (300 in Amsterdam) (4), so as to prevent them from becoming too numerous.

Modern readers of the Remonstrantie are struck by the numerous provisions allowing Jews to do one thing or another. The implicit principle here is that everything which is not explicitly allowed is forbidden. This constitutes a fundamental difference from modern law, which is premised on the principle that everything which is not explicitly forbidden is allowed. The article-by-article explanatory notes are also striking. Roman law and the writers of classical antiquity serve as authoritative sources for Grotius, given that he had no direct example on which to model his work. The towns had no regulations on the matter, and when he turned his gaze elsewhere he could find only repressive examples. Catholic countries and Rome were often held up as examples of what not to do, although Grotius is selective on that front. The fact that Jews were allowed to reside in Catholic countries and Rome is cited as proof that, with a few legal provisions in place, the presence of Jews need not be a problem. But on the matter of whether Jews should be forced to pay a special tax in order to practise their religion freely, Grotius denounces a similar tax in Rome as tyranny and greed and compares it to the practices of the ancient emperors (article 6).

What Happened Next

The Remonstrantie was never implemented, so we can only speculate as to whether it would have worked in practice. The States of Holland referred the question of regulation back to the municipal authorities with the sole restriction that Jews should not be forced to wear any distinguishing sign. In practice, though, few towns got around to taking regulatory measures. In 1632 Amsterdam tightened up its own rules by prohibiting Jews from engaging in occupations governed by guilds. But starting in 1672 the status of Jews in the towns was gradually liberalised, partially in recognition of the staunch support they had given to the Republic during that ‘year of disasters’, in contrast to the Roman Catholics, who, in various towns, had welcomed Louis XIV with open arms. Yet it was not until 1796 that Jews attained full equality in law with other citizens.

The Remonstrantie was not a central work in Grotius’s career as a jurist. Even his biographer gives it no more than scant attention.16 It was a product of his day-to-day duties as pensionary. Nevertheless, the Remonstrantie is one of his few works which deals with the lives of ordinary citizens. Working from a number of basic assumptions he arrived at a set of regulations that were exceptional for their time, but as it turned out, the work was merely an academic exercise. The problems it addressed were not a major concern in contemporary political life. Jewish communities flourished in a number of towns and cities, especially Amsterdam, even in the absence of official regulations governing their lives. In the early 17th century, moreover, the debate about the place of Jewish communities was almost entirely eclipsed by the political debate surrounding the convening of a national synod, the dispute between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants and the debate about continuing the war against Spain.

A Beacon at Sea

This brings me to my final question. Is the Remonstrantie more than a historical document, a phase in the development of Dutch society and a step in the evolution of Hugo Grotius’s thinking?

The Remonstrantie is based on a different conception of society than ours: a Ständestaat, a society of groups, collectives or ‘estates’, in which the status, liberty and duties of individuals depended on their position within their own group and the position of that group in relation to others. This society was assailed on all sides by religious disputes, which served to undermine intra-group solidarity. Hence the concerns about religious diversity and irreligion which permeated society and indeed underpinned the Remonstrantie itself. It sounds odd to modern ears, and we are more likely to see it as an illustration of the dangers of the intermingling of church and state. But is building social cohesion on the basis of a shared Dutch identity so different from pursuing the same end with religion as the binding factor? Is the fear of foreigners who do not respect our values or of Muslims who threaten our Judaeo-Christian culture so very different from the fear of religious diversity in the 17th century? And do we not continue to think in terms of groups when we talk about Moroccans, Turks, Muslims and ethnic minorities?

From within the social framework discussed above, the Remonstrantie attempted to find a rational solution to an age-old question: how can we, as members of different communities, live and work together in a single society? Over the centuries many solutions have been attempted: territorial separation, whether by street, neighbourhood, city or country (cuius regio, eius religio); cultural, religious or ethnic compartmentalisation, or apartheid. In Western Europe over the past half century we have tried to resolve the issue by eliminating it entirely, stressing instead individualism and equality. Against this backdrop, cohesive religious, cultural or ethnic communities are increasingly viewed with suspicion. With respect to the differences that remain, both toleration and tolerance are invoked as solutions. But as a rule, tolerance only extends to those differences that do not matter to us. Religious, cultural or ethical customs or views that strike us as objectionable or wrong must be altered swiftly by legislation to conform to majority opinion. But tolerance is only genuine if we are willing to put up with behaviours, opinions or customs that we regard as incorrect, wrong or objectionable. The Remonstrantie is Hugo Grotius’s attempt to find an enduring answer to that conundrum. To do so, he ingeniously employed the convictions and arguments of his opponents.

Before consigning the Remonstrantie to history, therefore, we should ask ourselves whether the questions Grotius sought to answer are truly no longer relevant and whether the answers we have come up with are so much better. Because if not, it might be useful to draw attention to the Remonstrantie from time to time, as the present publication does. Not because it offers a more appealing solution, but because we need to realise that with all the debate about identity politics, all the indignation about what deviates from the norm or is culturally different, and all the arguments that religion has no place in public life, sooner or later we revert to the thinking that forms the foundation of the Remonstrantie and the questions that text attempts to address. In that sense the Remonstrantie is a warning to us to learn from the experience of the past, or in the words of the Dutch proverb, it is a stranded ship that serves as a beacon to other vessels at sea.

Piet Hein Donner


Hans Blom, et al., Geschiedenis van de Joden in Nederland (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans, 2017), p. 85.


Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 376.


D.M. Swetschinski in Blom et al., Geschiedenis van de Joden in Nederland, p. 85.


Ibid., pp. 376–377. See also p. 74 et seq.


A.T. van Deursen, De last van veel geluk (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2004), p. 183 et seq.


D.M. Swetschinski, ibid. pp. 80–84.


See J.I. Israel, op. cit., p. 361 et seq. See also H.A. Enno van Gelder, Vrijheid en onvrijheid in de Republiek (Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zn, 1947).


H.A. Enno van Gelder, Revolutionnaire Reformatie (Amsterdam: Van Kampen & Zn, 1943).


Blom op. cit., pp. 78/79 and 85.


W.J.M. van Eysinga, Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Literature division, new series, vol. 13, no. 1 (1950), included in Sparsa Collecta (Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1958), p. 423 et seq.


H. Nellen, Hugo de Groot: Een leven in strijd om de vrede, (Amsterdam: Balans, 2007), p. 144 et seq.


Blom op. cit., p. 79.


Van Eysinga, as quoted in Sparsa Collecta p. 426.


In the modernised language of the text, Grotius’s original word politie (‘police’ in modern Dutch) has been replaced by staat (‘state’). However, something along the lines of ‘government and public order’ is presumably closer to what the author had in mind.


Van Eysinga (op. cit. 429) points out how this prohibition differs from the foundational principle articulated in De Iure Belli ac Pacis that marriage with foreigners is in principle permitted. Leaving aside the fact that the Remonstrantie is mainly concerned with the issue of ‘two faiths in one bed’, to quote a Dutch proverb, it should be acknowledged that the Remonstrantie is a political text. With these two prohibitions Grotius presumably aims to alleviate unease in both the countryside (about the possible settlement of Jews) and in the towns (about mixed marriages).


Nellen op. cit. mentions the Remonstrantie in the index of people and works, and once in the footnotes. The main body of the text only refers to it obliquely, in a subordinate clause on p. 99.

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