Congratulations to Iris Verheggen, winner of the 2020 legal sightseeing War & Peace student photo competition!
“For the assignment of this week I choose to visit ‘The Portuguese Synagogue’ (De Portugese Synagoge) in Amsterdam. Even though I bike passed it several times a week, I had never actually visited it. So I figured this would be a good opportunity to learn about the history of the building and the community who built it. Also keeping in mind the theme ‘War and Peace’, I wanted to learn more about why the Portuguese Jewish community came to Amsterdam in the search for peace and freedom.
The construction of the synagogue started in 1672 and took about three years. The community who built the synagogue, the Talmud Torah congregation which is known as the Portuguese congregation, consisted of Jews who had settled in the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago. In Spain, and later in Portugal, they had been forced to convert to Catholicism and undergo mass baptism. However, they continued to practice their rituals secretly at home. When the inquisition was instituted in Portugal in 1536 they were forced to flee the country. Their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam a few decades later.
When thinking of a synagogue international law might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the reason why I think it is an interpretation of legal sightseeing is the fact that many Jews choose the Netherlands as a new home due to the right to religious freedom. The Netherlands were quite ahead of their time concerning this particular right and most Dutch citizens are still proud of their tolerant country. The synagogue is a result of the Portuguese congregation exercising this right, which we are still able to witness to this day.
The three pictures I think really capture the spirit of legal sightseeing. They all contain elements that make you realize, while looking at the picture and being there in person, that you’re not only in a synagogue but also in a museum. The ‘no entrance’ sign when you first walk in, the ‘push’ sticker on the massive wooden door and the warning sign for slippery floors at the entrance. Without them the synagogue would be exactly the same as it was centuries ago, which is quite amazing I think. But those little reminders are important to make you aware of the fact that The Portuguese Synagogue is not ‘just’ a synagogue. It is an historical site and this way it will be used to educate visitors on the struggles Jewish communities had to face in their quest for freedom.”
Iris Verheggen is a student in the LLM programme European and International Law at VU Amsterdam.