Menasseh ben Israel was one of the great figures of Sephardic Jews who had come to Holland and opened new worlds for a great number of homeless refugees from the cellars of the Inquisition and similar institutions of the dark Middle Ages.
His father had thrice escaped death in Lisbon, Portugal. Poor and broken in body and spirit, he had settled in Amsterdam and started life anew. His son Menasseh, to whom he had given the best possible education in the Sephardic tradition, was destined to play an important role both as an author of religious works and as a spokesman for his people. Menasseh studied under Chacham Isaac Uziel in the newly established Yeshiva in Amsterdam and excelled in his Talmudic studies and in his thorough knowledge of the Bible. At the astonishingly young age of 18 years he was appointed to the Rabbinical Council of Amsterdam, consisting of four members. A gifted orator and well versed in secular knowledge and culture, Menasseh was soon the most popular preacher in the new world center of Sephardic Jewry.
His fame as a scholar and as an expert on all matters of learning and science spread far beyond Holland. Some of the greatest scholars of the world sought his friendship and advice. The Queen of Sweden, Christina (the daughter of Gustaf Adolf), the painter Rembrandt and the statesman and philosopher Hugo Grotius, were among his non-Jewish correspondents and friends. Yet, with all his secular knowledge and fame, Menasseh ben Israel devoted most of his time and interest to Jewish studies and to the defense of the Bible against many critics.
Like his distant relative, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, he wrote a four volume work in which he refuted the attacks from within and without, and cleared up all the misunderstandings caused by the so called "Bible critics." Menasseh wrote many other memoranda for the defense of the principles of the Jewish faith, such as the resurrection of the dead and the divine origin and nature of the soul, all comprised in his book called "Nishmath Chaim." His thorough knowledge of Cabbala helped him also in reaffirming the belief in the coming of the Messiah.
Poverty caused Menasseh ben Israel to turn his attention at least temporarily to practical business. He established the first Hebrew printing press in Holland, and was the father of the great printing and publishing tradition of Amsterdam, from which stemmed some of the best editions of the Tanach, the Talmud, and many other important volumes of Hebrew literature. Though it eventually became a flourishing business, it was not sufficient, during Menasseh ben Israel's time, to help him support his family. He therefore planned to emigrate to Brazil to found a new home in that distant part of the world. Fortunately, the Jews of Amsterdam then realized his worth, and did not let him go. Under the leadership of the rich Marranos Abraham and Israel Pereira, they collected funds and made Menasseh ben Israel's position an adequate source of support for him and his family.
This investment paid off well. For Menasseh earned his greatest merits as a spokesman for his Jewish brethren. He used his friendship with Queen Christina to induce her to consider the opening of Scandinavia as a haven of refuge for the thousands of Jewish refugees who were still wandering from one country to another, driven from place to place, deprived of their last possessions by greedy rulers and their still greedier subjects. He almost succeeded, when Christina abdicated from the throne. Yet Menasseh ben Israel did not abandon his hopes for providing new havens for his brethren. His attention now centered on England where the Puritans had come to the foreground and had shown friendliness towards the Jews. The time was ripe for the Jews’ readmittance to Britain, from where they had been expelled in 1290. In 1650 Menasseh sent a petition to the English Parliament to officially grant the readmission of Jews. He dedicated to it his manuscript called "The Hope of Israel." Menasseh expressed the wish to be permitted to visit England and defend in person the cause of the Jews. This permission was granted to him; but the outbreak of hostilities between England and Holland postponed his trip to Britain for more than five years.
In October 1655, Menasseh ben Israel landed in London. After his arrival he presented to Oliver Cromwell, then the strong man of England, a memorandum in which he refuted the prejudices against the Jews and pointed out the advantages that England could derive from granting them permission to resettle in England and live according to the commands of their religion. Cromwell sponsored this petition warmly, but the British clergy and the wealthy merchants, who were afraid of competition, did everything in their power to prevent its realization. In order to clear his brethren from the flood of false accusations brought up by their enemies, Menasseh ben Israel wrote his famous "Salvation of the Jews," in which he praised the faith and courage of the Jewish people throughout their history; the great number of Jewish martyrs who died for the glory of G-d ever since the Jews began their migration in the diaspora, was best proof for that, Menasseh wrote.
Menasseh ben Israel succeeded eventually. Cromwell granted many individual Jews the right to settle in London. Menasseh himself was honored by the British Protector and sent off with a farewell present of an annual stipend of 100 Sterling pounds. However, on the way back to Amsterdam, this great defender of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people died. He was laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam.