Asser Levy, the First American Jewish Policeman


Asser Levy, the First American Jewish Policeman


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The First Jewish Police Officer in North America

By David Waksman

The first Jewish police officer in North America was Asser Levy.  He was a Portuguese Jew who lived in Recife, then the capital of Dutch Brazil.  Many Portuguese Jews fled the Inquisition of Spain and Portugal by moving to the then Portuguese colony of Brazil.  Others fled to Protestant Holland where Jews were allowed to openly practice their faith.  When the Dutch conquered several areas of Brazil in 1620, they were warmly welcomed by the Jews who had been forced to live as Conversos by the Catholic Church. 

Thirty-four years later, when the Portuguese re-conquered Brazil, and re-introduced the Inquisition, the Jews were severely persecuted and large numbers were killed for the assistance they rendered to Holland during the wars.  The Jewish community of Recife, five thousand strong, fell apart and scattered.  Some returned to Holland, others lived as best they could as Conversos and many abandoned all and fled to nearby Caribbean islands.  A small number took a ship to the Dutch colony in North America, New Amsterdam.  Twenty-three of them arrived there, penniless, in September of 1654.  One was Asser Levy.

Levy and his co-religionists were denied Dutch citizenship in the colony. They were also denied the privilege of serving in the Burgher Guard, a volunteer type of community militia (and were therefore taxed to pay for his protection).  Jews had been living in Holland since 1492 and had prospered. Despite some restrictions, the Jews received far more liberal treatment from the Dutch than that found in other European countries.  By 1654 many Dutch Jews, originally from Portugal, were investors in the Dutch West India Company (sponsors of the investment colony of New Amsterdam) and influential members of the community of Amsterdam.  Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the colony, met their resistance when he tried to deny admittance to the twenty-three Portuguese Jews fleeing from Recife, among them Asser Levy.  In Stuyvesant's letter to the Company he prayed that the deceitful race, such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ, be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.  The Dutch West India Company overruled their governor and allowed the Jews to remain provided "the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation."

Once Levy and the others were allowed to remain, Levy fought all restrictions placed upon him.  In 1655 he petitioned the town council to join the Burgher Guard and be permitted to keep guard with the other burghers.  His petition was denied and Levy was told he was "free to depart whenever and whither it pleases him."  But Levy also appealed this ruling to the Company's directors in Amsterdam, who again sided with the wishes of Holland's powerful Jewish community who supported the Jewish colonists. Thus Asser Levy became the first Jewish watchman in New Amsterdam, winning the privilege of manning the stockades along Wall Street against Indian attacks.  Finally in 1657, Asser Levy petitioned for another right.  According to the official court record:

Asser Levy, a Jew, appears in Court; requests to be admitted a Burgher (citizen); claims that such ought not be refused him as he keeps watch and ward like Burghers and showing Burgher certificates from the city of Amsterdam that Jews are Burghers there.

On April 21, 1657, New Amsterdam's first Jewish watchman (and our first Shomer) became its first Jewish citizen.  Twenty years later Citizen Levy was given a license to operate a kosher butcher shop.  Before his death in 1681, in what was then New York, Asser Levy, who began his new life as a laborer and part time Shomer, became a tavern keeper, a real estate investor, trader and civic leader.  It wasn't until 1728 that the British permitted the first synagogue to be built in New York.  Prior thereto, the houses of public worship allowed were for those that profess the faith of Christ.  That first synagogue was built on South William Street (later known as Jews' Alley) and for the first time the Jews of New York could publicly worship their faith.

Our brother and sisters in the New York City Police Department's Shomrim Society, who founded the first Shomrim organization for police officers in 1924, have named their annual Person of the Year award in honor of Asser Levy, a Jew who fought for the right to protect his community. There are now Shomrim organizations in about 25 cities in the United States, all under the umbrella of the National Conference of Shomrim Societies.

Also it is reported that the first police officer in Australia was also a Jew. England transported many of her convicts to Australia in the late 18th century, rather than house and feed them. One such Jewish convict, John Harris, originally sentenced to death for stealing "eight silver spoons," had his sentence commuted to life in the new penal colony. After "rehabilitating" himself and being released, Harris asked the governor to set up a civilian night watch to maintain order. Harris was its first member. He was paid him to ride around the city on horseback at night to protect the citizens from the many former criminals living there. John Harris became Australia's first police officer, although by a strange route.

Other Jewish convicts transported with Harris were:

Esther Abraham, seven years for shoplifting;

John Lara, Death, commuted to life, for stealing a pewter cup;

Joseph Samuel, 14, stealing a bed sheet and two spoons;

and Lazarus Levy, stealing five bags of sugar. Levy was an easy arrest. The bobbies simply followed the trail of sugar from the warehouse to the room where he was sleeping.

Our people surely covered the spectrum of life.

David Waksman is Past National Shomrim President 2003/2004


from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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