Dona Gracia recognized as Zionist hero in Beit Hanassi
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.”