Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Daf Shvui No. 172

Parashat Tezaveh 5757

From "Turquoise, Sapphire and Diamond" to "Mazal U'brachah": Jews in the Diamond Trade in Modern History

Professor Dan Michman

Department of Jewish History

Parashat Tetzaveh tell us that in the second row of the precious stones in the breastplate worn by the High Priest there was one called "yahalom" (Exodus 28,18). The commentators differ as to the identification of this gem, but in the course of time the name yahalom has been irrevocably linked with the diamond (the word diamond originates in the Greek word adamas which means: untamable). The diamond industry has been one of modern Israel's most important export industries for many years - not that there are diamond mines in Israel - but rather due to the ready availability of high level professional expertise in the various techniques of diamond polishing and bold commercial initiative in the field. All this is another link in the long chain of Jewish activity in the diamond trade over the course of modern history, activity which has its roots in Western Europe.

It all began in the 16th century. Merchants from the marranos community in Portugal traveled into Northern Europe: Some came to Antwerp, still under Spanish rule but having a milder form of the religious oppression than that which characterized the Iberian Peninsula, more refugees reached the Republic of the Netherlands (Holland) which had rebelled against Spain in the 1570's, won its freedom and given its citizens considerable opportunity for financial maneuvering and profit. When the Spanish government in Antwerp became aware, during the latter half of the 16th century, that the Marranos were secretly observing the commandments of Judaism, and determined to expel them, they met with opposition from the municipal authorities on the grounds that: "The spices and fruits, the large quantities of pearls, the precious stones and other objects of value which they (the Jews) brought into Antwerp bring us great profits".[1]

The commercial successes of the Marranos in Holland were even more dramatic. While at the same time making their gradual return to Judaism they brought with them a whole network of commercial links to the Portuguese colonies abroad. The Anglo-Jewish historian Jonathan Israel points out that during the period between 1595 and 1620 almost all the commerce in which these "Dutch" Jews engaged was with Portugal and her colonies. Through Operate and Lisbon they imported sugar, lumber from Brazil and diamonds from India (mainly from the province of Goa). In this way they contributed to the prosperity of their city Amsterdam and they themselves became rich rather quickly since the diamond trade had been lacking in the economic structure of Amsterdam up to that point. The brisk pace of commerce gave rise to a demand for the development of a local industry of processing the diamonds. This need was filled in the early 17th century when Christian diamond polishers immigrated from Antwerp to Amsterdam. [2]

How did the Jews come to learn diamond polishing from these Christian craftsmen? A contract for "professional training" from 1662 gives us the following picture:

Ishak Mocadt and Coenraed Windus, a certified diamond polisher, agree

that Windus will instruct Aron Mocata, son of the aforementioned Ishak

Mocadt, in the art and knowledge of polishing and cutting diamonds, until

such time as he is able to instruct others in this profession as a teacher.

Windus undertakes to come every weekday to work at the diamond-works

(diamantmolen), literally: diamon-mills which the aforementioned Ishak Mocadt will erect and equip in his home, with the exception of the Jewish Sabbath and holidays; he also undertakes to bring the diamonds with him by himself. Windus willreceive a salary of 90 gold coins....

This is the story of a well-to-do Portuguese-Jewish family, who desired that their son should learn the diamond-polishing trade in his own home. In other cases - examples of which can be found as early as 1611 - young Jewish men learned this profession outside their homes, working alongside Gentile fellow-apprentices. [3]

Gradually the Ashkenazic Jews, who began arriving in Amsterdam in large numbers during the course of the 17th century, also entered the diamond trade, mainly as polishers but also as merchants. The Jews so completely took control of the diamond trade that in 1784 the Christian diamond polishers attempted to create a "diamond-polishers guild" which could prevent Jewish participation thereby forcing the Jews out of the industry, however the Amsterdam municipal authorities rejected their request. [4]

During the 18th century the diamond trade became a significant part of the activities of the "court Jews", those Jews who served as financial advisors, agents and bankers to many of the crowned-heads of Central Europe. Supplying diamonds to the royal and imperial courts was crucial to the enhancement of the opulence and grandeur which prevailed there. [5]

In the year 1865 the diamond industry in Amsterdam employed around 1400 workers, most of them Jews. The employers - diamond and jewelry merchants - numbered 50, 43 of them Jews. During this period of the mid-19th century there occurred great fluctuations in the profitability of the industry, with widespread unemployment being prevalent during the 1860's. Just at that point a turn for the better took place. In the years 1867 and 1870 rich diamond mines were discovered in South Africa and because of the special relationships which existed between Holland and South Africa the Dutch diamond industry enjoyed an unprecedented growth ("the Cape Era", so called for the Cape of Good Hope). Initially the workers earned salaries of legendary proportion, but by 1875 new crises arose (supply outreaching demand) - and salary levels sank sharply. This development gave rise to the fact that the diamond workers were the first Dutch workers to express a strong sense of social consciousness and the demand for trade-unionism. Later on the diamond workers' union (the ANDB) became the cornerstone of the Dutch Socialist Party and its leader, Henri Volk, was one of the most important figures in the social-democratic movement in Holland (later becoming a member of parliament where he also was a supporter of Zionism). The merchants who operated on a small scale were pushed out of the market in a very short time, and the great capitalists among them formed a syndicate based in London (1890). [6] Even so Amsterdam remained the most prominent "city of diamonds": just prior to the Holocaust there were still 3000 Jewish diamond workers in the city as well as a number of large polishing houses. [7]

The diamond trade in Belgium was at a low ebb during the 18th century and the early part of the 19th. After Belgium attained independence in 1830 several diamond polishers from Amsterdam settled there, maintaining a limited level of market activity. Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe (Austrian Galicia and Russia) after the pogroms of the early 1880's, a policy of industrial encouragement adopted by the Antwerp municipal government and the crisis in Holland brought about a reawakening in the Belgian diamond industry later on. [8] Between the neighboring countries of Holland and Belgium and between the Jews in both countries permanent links were established in this regard which became even stronger during World War One, when many Belgian Jews fled to Holland following the German conquest of their own country. Thus once again, Antwerp became a major diamond center in which the Jews played a significant part.

The Nazi occupation of Holland and Belgium was obviously seriously damaging to the diamond industry in both countries, though the Nazis initially gave some leeway for continued activity of the industry because of their need for diamonds (mainly for industry). However several of the diamond merchants of Antwerp managed to escape and to smuggle out quantities of merchandise just in time - to the United States and other countries. During the 1930's Jews who were expert in diamond polishing arrived in the Land of Israel and began to develop the industry locally on a very limited scale. They thus laid the foundations for the diamond polishing industry in Israel which grew dramatically after the establishment of the State. The economic realities of the young State of Israel dictated giving high priority to the development of industries in which the element of importation was relatively simple and their added value, after expert professional processing, was high. Thus Israel became an important center of a profession which already had a long, glorious Jewish heritage. [9]

The dominant role of Jews in the diamond trade introduced a rich Jewish flavor into its daily activity. Yiddish and Jewish expressions have become an integral part of the professional jargon of the diamond merchants and still today deals are closed between them - even between two non-Jews - with the words "mazal u'brachah".

Notes:

1. E. Schmidt, L'Histoire des Juifs a' Anvers (Antwerpen), Antwerp, 1969, p. 95.

2. J. Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750, Oxford, 1989, (2nd edition), p. 62.

3. D. Michman, "Joodse diamantbewerkers in Amsterdam in de 17e en 18e eeuw", Hakehilla, Rosj Hasjana 5737/ September 1976, pp.7-8.

4. ibid.

5. L.G. Yogev, Diamond and Coral. Anglo-Dutch Jews and Eighteenth Century Trade,1978, pp. 124-160.

6. Y. Michman, H. Beam, D. Michman, Pinkas Hakehillot: Holland, Jerusalem, 1985, pp. 35-36 (Hebrew).

7. S. Idelman, "Yehudei Ir Hayahalomim Amsterdam: 400 Shnot Yetzirah", in the catalogue: Yehudei Ir Hayahalomim Amsterdam, The Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum, Ramat Gan, 1988, p. 24 (Hebrew). This pamphlet contains much additional information on the subject under discussion.

8. Schmidt, ibid., pp. 95-99; S Brachfeld, "Vijf en zeventig jaar geleden deed Mendel Kornreich de diamantni jverheid in de Kempen tot bloei komen", Belgisch Israelitisch Weekblad, 12.9.1980 (reprinted in : Brabosh, Herzliya, 1986, pp. 150-151).

9. For more detail on the Jews and Israel in the present-day diamond trade industry see: E.J. Epstein, The Rise and Fall of Diamonds. The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion, New York, 1982.

Translated by: Phil Lerman, Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak

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