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15 June 2009

Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean is a mediocre book about a fascinating topic.

The topic is the Jews and conversos (Jews who converted, generally under duress, to Catholicism) who, despite official bans, joined the Spanish conquest of the New World and who, when the Inquisition caught up with their relatives, helped other European powers pillage the Spanish. (“Jewish Privateers of the Caribbean” would be a more accurate title, albeit less marketable.) When the Church’s interest in the conversos outweighed their usefulness to Spain, they assisted the Portuguese; when Spain and Portugal united and the Inquisition swept the Portuguese colonies, they teamed up with the Dutch (some fled to New Amsterdam) and the English. (According to Kritzler, the British conquest of Jamaica was assisted by the Jewish community there; Columbus’s heirs, the owners of the island, had protected them from the Inquisition, and when it looked like that protection was about to run out, they invited Cromwell to invade.)

The most interesting figure in the book is Rabbi Samuel Palache, who served the Sultan of Morocco as a privateer and served Amsterdam’s Jewish community as the president of Neveh Shalom, the first non-clandestine synagogue in Holland, founded in 1612. (By 1620, the Neveh Shalom congregation had split into three factions. Some things never change.)

Alas, this book could have used a better editor. The narrative seems to jerk from one colony or European state to another, from one decade to another, cramming in details at the expense of narrative flow. The overall effect is like listening to a garrulous older relative fill you in on some seamy family history; it can be entertaining to listen to, but the next day you can’t remember if Uncle Murray was a bagman for the mob and Uncle Moishe ran guns for the Irgun, or vice versa.

Furthermore, the book could have used a better historian. A great deal of the evidence Kritzler provides regarding Jewish activity in the Caribbean comes from the files of the Inquisition itself. Maybe the Inquisition’s informants were absolutely correct when the talked about secret Jews conspiring with their foreign co-religionists to undermine the rule of Spain in the Americas; they certainly had motive, means, and opportunity. Then again, as recent history reminds us, a confession extracted under torture reveals more about what the torturing regime wants to be true than about what actually happened. A more careful writer would have not only collected all the claims made about Jews in the Caribbean but also weighed the credibility of each source, and made it clear which of the most lurid claims were actually corroborated.

This topic really deserves a better book, or even two or three better books. Perhaps Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean would be of higher journalistic quality if the author were not using it to tout his other enterprises. Within the book, he claims to have identified the location of THE LOST GOLD MINE OF COLUMBUS, and on the Web page, he seems more interested in promoting himself as a tour guide ($1250/week, plus expenses) than as an author. Well, as Rabbi Palache may have told his mother at one point, it’s a living.