(photo credit: Mark Neiman\GPO)
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 purchasing property in the Land of Israel, but only now is Dona Gracia, once the wealthiest woman in the world, being accorded her rightful place in Jewish history and the history of Israel.
Various novels have been written about her, with a blending of fact and fiction, but she has entered Israeli consciousness only in recent years.
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 achievement.
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 which is owned by the Amsalem family, veteran residents of Tiberias with known roots in Morocco and Turkey that in all probability stretch back to Spain and Portugal.
The museum 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. Tzvi Tzameret, the Chairman of the Education
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 Israeli high school students as well as soldiers in the IDF will
now learn of her plans to establish an autonomous Jewish community in
Tiberias, which from the second to the tenth centuries was the largest
Jewish city in the Galilee, and a great seat of Jewish learning.
The 500th anniversary of Dona Gracia's birth was celebrated on Sunday at
Beit Hanassi in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Israel's fifth
President Yitzhak Navon, who heads the National Authority for Ladino, is
a former Education Minister and is descended on both sides from long
lines of Sephardi rabbis, Education Minister Gideon Saar, Foreign
Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch
among a host of dignitaries.
Former MK Geula Cohen, once a Lechi fighter who was arrested by the
British, 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.
The remark was greeted with cheers and sustained applause. 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.
Filled with awe and admiration at the extent of Dona Gracia's political
and economic clout in what was then a man's world, Peres underscored
that even though women have come a long way since then, there are still
societies in which women are discriminated against, repressed and
humiliated. "It is an outrage that even today millions of women are
subjected to a life of slavery".
Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the story of Dona
Gracia was buried for centuries and almost forgotten. "She was larger
than life" said Peres, his voice ringing with astonishment as he
recounted her travels, her rescue of Jews expelled from Spain and
Portugal during the Inquisition, and the manner in which she provided
safe havens for conversos like herself. The amazing thing he said was
that she was able to achieve so much in so short a life span. She was
only 49 at the time of her death.
Education Minister Gideon Saar 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 was ever coined.
Chief Education Officer of the Israel Defense Forces, Brigadier General
Eli Shermeister commented that if Dona Gracia were alive today, she
would be able to teach a valuable lesson in global economy and in
leadership. "Her economic success was unprecedented, as was her
political influence," he said. "She was a woman among men long before
women were given the right to vote." Even if her name is not widely
known, said Shermeister, "the values she espoused are part of our
heritage. I salute her in the name of the IDF."