MENASSEH BEN ISRAEL (c. 1604-1657), Jewish leader, was born in Lisbon about 1604, and was brought up in Amsterdam.
His family had suffered under the Inquisition, but found an asylum first in La Rochelle and later in Holland. Here Menasseh rose to eminence as rabbi, author and printer. He established the first Hebrew press in Holland. One of his earliest works El Conciliador won immediate reputation. It was an attempt at reconciliation between apparent discrepancies in various parts of the Old Testa ment. Among his correspondents were Vossius, Grotius and Huet. In 5638 he decided to settle in Brazil, as he still found it difficult to provide in Amsterdam for his wife and family, but this step was rendered unnecessary by his appointment to direct a college founded by the Pereiras.
In 1644 Menasseh met Antonio de Montesinos, who persuaded him that the North American Indians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. This supposed discovery gave a new im pulse to Menasseh's Messianic hopes. But he was convinced that the Messianic age needed as its certain precursor the settlement of Jews in all parts of the known world. Filled with this idea, he turned his attention to England, whence the Jews had been ex pelled since 1290. He found much Christian support in England. Messianic and other mystic hopes were current in England. In 165o appeared an English version of the Hope of Israel, a tract which deeply impressed public opinion. Cromwell had been moved to sympathy with the Jewish cause, chiefly because he foresaw the importance for English commerce of the presence of the Jewish merchant princes, some of whom had already found their way to London. At this juncture Jews received full rights in the colony of Surinam, which had been English since 165o. In 1655 Menasseh arrived in London. It was during his absence that the Amsterdam Rabbis excommunicated Spinoza, a catastrophe which might have been avoided had Menasseh—Spinoza's teacher —been on the spot.
One of Menasseh's first acts on reaching London was the issue of his Humble Addresses to the Lord Protector, but its effect was weakened by the issue of Prynne's Short Demurrer. Cromwell summoned the Whitehall Conference in December of the same year. The chief practical result was the declaration of Judges Glynne and Steele that "there was no law which forbade the Jews' return to England." Though, therefore, nothing was done to regularize the position of the Jews, the door was opened to their gradual return. Hence John Evelyn was able to enter in his Diary under the date Dec. 14, 1655, "Now were the Jews admitted." But the attack on the Jews by Prynne and others could not go unanswered. Menasseh replied in the finest of his works, Vindiciae judaeorum (1656). "The best tribute to its value is afforded by the fact that it has since been frequently reprinted in all parts of Europe when the calumnies it denounced have been revived" (L. Wolf). Among those who used in this way Menasseh's Vindiciae was Moses Mendelssohn (q.v.). Soon after Menasseh left London Cromwell granted him a pension, but he died, at Middleburg, before he could enjoy it. Menasseh was a friend of Rembrandt, who painted his portrait and engraved four etchings to illustrate his Piedra gloriosa. These are preserved in the British Museum.
See Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. v. ch. ii.; Lucien Wolf, Menasseh ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell, with a reprint of the English pamphlets (igoi) ; H. Adler, "A Homage to Menasseh ben Israel," in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, i. 25-54 ; also M. Kayserling, Menasseh ben Israel (1861).