She was more than 300 years ahead of Theodor Herzl in conceiving a movement
whereby Jews would once again take possession of their spiritual homeland, and
way ahead of Baron Rothschild in buying property in the Land of Israel, but only
now is Dona Gracia (Gracia Mendes Nasi), once the wealthiest woman in the world,
being accorded her rightful place in Jewish and Israeli history.
500th anniversary of her birth in Lisbon to a family of Marranos, originally
from Aragon, that fled to Portugal when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand
expelled the Jews in 1492, was celebrated on Sunday at Beit
Various novels have been written about her, with a blending of
fact and fiction, but she has entered Israeli consciousness only in recent
A true heroine of Jewish history, she was largely ignored,
according to Dr. Tzvi Schaick of Tiberias, because history was by and large
written by men who were unwilling to credit women with power and
The one place in Israel where her memory has long been
revered is in Tiberias, where there is a Dona Gracia Museum, of which Schaick is
the director and curator.
The museum, known as Casa Dona Gracia, is part
of the Dona Gracia Hotel that is owned by the Amsalem family, veteran residents
of Tiberias with roots in Morocco and Turkey that in all probability stretch
back to Spain and Portugal.
The family also owns Amsalem Tours, which
together with Schaick, the Tiberias Municipality, the Galilee Development
Authority, the Tiberias Hotel Association and former MK Geula Cohen has been
working for years to promote awareness of Dona Gracia.
conducts weekend seminars about the life and times of Dona Gracia, whose story
fired Cohen’s imagination to the extent that she pushed for the Education
Ministry to include the study of Dona Gracia in school curricula.
Tzameret, a former director- general of Yad Yitzhak Ben- Zvi and currently the
chairman of the ministry’s Pedagogic Secretariat, agreed that it was high time
for Dona Gracia to come out of the mothballs of the distant past. The upshot is
that high school students and soldiers will now learn of her plans to establish
an autonomous Jewish community in Tiberias, which from the second to the 10th
centuries was the largest Jewish city in the Galilee, and a great seat of Jewish
Sunday’s anniversary celebration at Beit Hanassi was held in
the presence of President Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Navon, the fifth president of
the state who now heads the National Authority for Ladino, Education Minister
Gideon Sa’ar, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Supreme Court President
Dorit Beinisch, among a host of dignitaries.
Cohen, a former Lehi (Stern
Group) fighter who was arrested by the British in 1946 but escaped from jail in
1947, and an Israel Prize laureate, was credited several times over with
initiating the Dona Gracia festivities – so much so that Peres said he was
tempted to call her Dona Geula.
Peres observed that it was easier to
reach the peak of Mount Everest than the heights attained by Dona Gracia, whose
influence was felt all over Europe and whose enormous wealth also influenced the
sultan of Turkey.
The place of women was submerged in the annals of time,
he said, because men went out and fought the battles. They were the heroes of
wars, of conquests and of rule.
Under the circumstances, it was hardly
surprising that the story of Dona Gracia was buried for centuries and almost
“She was larger than life,” the president said, his voice
ringing with astonishment as he recounted her travels, her rescue of Jews
expelled from Spain and Portugal, and the manner in which she provided havens
for conversos like herself. The amazing thing, he said, was that she was able to
achieve so much in so short a life. She was only 49 when she died in
Sa’ar described Dona Gracia as “a woman before her time,” preceding
Herzl in her vision of a Jewish homeland and becoming a Zionist before the term
She was an extraordinarily generous woman and a great leader,
Brig.-Gen. Eli Shermeister, the army’s chief education officer,
said, “The values she espoused are part of our heritage. I salute her in
the name of the IDF.”
Schaick, dressed in 16th-century costume in keeping
with the occasion, said that to celebrate Dona Gracia’s 500th birthday at Beit
Hanassi was the realization of a dream.
“Since the establishment of the
museum 10 years ago, we dreamt that the day would come when Dona Gracia would be
given official recognition by the state, and that day is here,” he
Dona Gracia discovered only on her 12th birthday, in 1522, that she
was not a Christian as she had thought, but was in fact Jewish.
her name was not Beatrice de Luna Miguis, the name under she had been baptized
in Lisbon where she was born, but Hana Nasi, the daughter of Shmuel
When she was 18, her father married her off in a Catholic Church
ceremony to Francisco Mendes. She could not understand how her father could do
this to her after having revealed that they were Jews who practiced their
Judaism in secret.
It subsequently transpired that her husband too was a
converso and they had another wedding ceremony in accordance with the Law of
Moses and of Israel. It was a happy marriage and in the course of time she bore
him a daughter, Reina. However, when Dona Gracia was only 25, her husband died.
He willed nearly all his enormous wealth to her, including ships, the second
largest bank in Europe and other assets, which she used to help her people.
Payments to the pope delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in
She was betrayed to the authorities by her jealous sister, and
it was only with the help of the sultan of Turkey, Suleiman the Magnificent,
that she was released. She persuaded the sultan to lease her Tiberias, which she
wanted to rebuild to its former Jewish glory. Meanwhile, she paid for the
construction of synagogues, places of study and Hebrew printing presses in
places of Jewish dispersion.
She sent people to live in Tiberias, and she
paid for the city to be rebuilt. Her people completed construction of the
southern city wall, and were about to begin building a permanent home for her so
that she could move from Turkey to the Holy Land. However, she died first, in
Cohen disagreed that women had been overlooked in the saga of
Jewish heroism. She mentioned heroines of the War of Independence such as Hannah
Szenes, and then went through biblical heroines from the matriarchs to way
Cohen said she was glad that Dona Gracia had at last come to
light and she hoped that she would cast her light on those of today’s youth who
have lost their way.
Ya’acov Amsalem said that for as long as he could
remember, he had wanted to preserve the heritage of Dona Gracia.
with Cohen, he presented Peres with the Dona Gracia medallion.
Hila de Castro, doing a riveting one-woman show as Dona Gracia, related the
heroine’s meetings in the next world with Herzl, where among other things they
“He gives me credit,” she said.
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