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January 1: Jews of Haiti

January 1, 2016

Lawrence_ToussaintHaiti declared its independence on this date in 1804, after ten years of revolution by former slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture (portrayed at right by Jacob Lawrence) had stymied both the French and British military. The uprising brought death or exile to most of Haiti’s small Jewish population, but a few years later, Jewish refugees from civil strife in Poland reconstituted the community. The first Jew in Haiti had come with Christopher Columbus — Luis de Torres, his converso interpreter. More conversos, mostly of Portuguese background, came from Brazil in the 1630s. In 1683, however, Jews were expelled from Haiti (and all French colonies) under the Code Noir, which restricted the freedom of free blacks and also forbade the exercise of any religion but Catholicism. Some Jews nevertheless remained in positions of leadership in French trading companies, running plantations and participating in the slave industry, until L’Ouverture’s revolution established a radical regime that abolished slavery, reformed the justice system, introduced schools, regulated working conditions, and ended Haiti’s role as Europe’s most profitable center of slave exploitation. Haiti saved about 70 Jewish families during the Holocaust by issuing visas to them. These cost between $3,000 and $5,000, which was prohibitive to many Jewish refugees, but at the time, Haiti was actually still paying ‘reparations’ to France for property losses dating back to 1804! Today, there are about twenty-five Jews living in Haiti, primarily in Port-au-Prince.

“When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the American Jewish community turned to American Jewish World Service (AJWS) with donations totaling more than $6 million for disaster relief. With these funds we responded immediately by supporting the efforts of local people to aid survivors on the ground. In total, AJWS has supported more than 50 organizations over the past four years, largely grassroots, community-based organizations that are working to rebuild their communities and the country according to their own visions for change.” —Ruth Messinger