Doña Gracia and Joseph Nasi Initiate a New Paradigm in Jewish History

In A Sephardic Love Song: Lion and Lamb in the Medieval Darkness© I write about four notable Sephardim in Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and how their accomplishments and contributions have enriched us all The research for this work in progress has lead to insights into the ways Jews of the era coped with the escalating insecurity that was their continuing reality This article explores how some of these coping mechanisms obstructed efforts to ameliorate the deplorable conditions of life then for European Jewry

Doña Gracia Nasi is one of the notables selected as a prototype in A Sephardic Lovesong Recent research mades clear how two actions espoused by Doña Gracia and nephew Joseph Nasi were significant variances indeed a new paradigm from the accustomed way Jews had dealt with oppression and oppressors in that time The first was the Nasi leadership of the boycott of Ancona in 1555 and the second their attempts to encourage settlement of Palestine to create a safe haven for Jews

Born in Portugal in 1510 Gracia Nasi was baptized Beatriz de Luna her Christian name as her family had been forcibly converted from Judaism in 1497 The family were Judaizers practicing the ancestral religion in secret When Beatriz de Luna was sixteen her brother a prominent court physician died suddenly and she was put in charge of the raising of her two young nephews One of these was Joëo Miguez who was later to become as renowned as his aunt

At twentysix upon the death of her husband Francisco Beatriz became head of the commercial giant: the House of Mendes sharing this role with her brotherinlaw To escape the coming Portuguese Inquisition the young widow left the country in 1536 planning to resettle business and family in the Ottoman Empire It took seventeen years however for this to be accomplished owing to the political social and economic climate of the day regarding powerful conversos After three imprisonments and other harrowing difficulties she finally arrived in Constantinople in 1553

Called La Señora

There as a practicing Jew and a philanthropist she became a leading force supporting conversos returning to Judaism running an underground railroad to help them escape from Portugal and was loved throughout Europe and The Ottoman Empire by coreligionists for her tireless zeal on their behalf She was simply known as La Señora by Jews everywhere

Following is an excerpt from The Sephardic Love Song describing her leadership in the boycott of Ancona in 1555 a remarkable act for a woman and one that was alas ahead of its time Jewish history after that date might have been different had she prevailed The chapter is written in the active present tense:

The family has been in Turkey only two years when the repressive situation in Ancona brings Doña Gracia once again to international attention Paul IV becomes Pope in 1555 determined to rid his Papal States of New Christians openly observing Judaism The entire community of Portuguese conversos about 100 individuals have been arrested and tortured preparatory to execution by fire The Ancona representative of the House of Nasi/Mendes is among them Upon learning of the arrests Doña Gracia supported by her popular nephew Joseph Nasi wins support from Sultan Selim II who demands release of the prisoners and all seized goods The Pope rejects the demand and twentyeight individuals including an old woman and a boy are burned at the stake

Doña Gracia desires revenge against the papal city a leading port and uses her considerable influence at Court and throughout the Ottoman Empire to secure support for an economic boycott of Ancona diverting goods instead to nearby Pesaro in the duchy of Urbino There the duke has sheltered those conversos who have managed to escape The original proposal is for an eight month boycott after which the principals will decide whether to continue

The boycott is opposed however by the prominent Rabbi of Salonica Joshua Soncino who fears it will cause punishment of the older Jewish nonconverso community that has not been affected thus far because of nonChristian background He uses his interpretation of Judaic law to call the boycott illegal Doña Gracia and her followers on the other hand point to the danger failure of the boycott will bring to those who have fled to Pesaro where the duke disappointed at the undelivered promise of increased trade after expensive preparations in his harbor will no longer refuse to hand them over to the pope

Soncino wins the support of enough merchants and rabbis many of whom have previously backed the effort to destroy the unity required for the boycott to succeed More and more trade begins to return to Ancona Cecil Roth singles out the boycott as perhaps the first time Jews have applied direct unified political and economic action rather than prayer and financial payments to defend Jewish interests He holds its failure responsible for the belief through centuries to follow that Jews can never unite to fight those who oppress them

The Jews have it in their power to avenge a wrong; but they do not take the opportunity The pope and Ancona go unpunished the Duke of Urbino unrewarded the pope given no reason to repent for his policy Jewish solidarity is shown in the eyes of the world to be unreal and political action by Jews to improve their position to be utterly ludicrous The generations that follow are to witness unending persecution and agony for the Jews in the Papal States and in Christian Europe as a whole

Doña Gracia’s prediction is correct The Duke of Urbino soon banishes all conversos from Pesaro even those who have been long settled there The refugees are preyed upon by ships from Ancona one group captured and sold into slavery The pope is able to prevail upon even the relatively liberal Duke Ercole of Ferrara to destroy copies of the elegy by Poet Jacob da Fano on the Ancona executions and close the press of its publisher Abraham Usque It was Usque who had printed the Spanish Bible dedicated to Doña Gracia who had supported its publication during her stay in Ferrara

Demands Cajoles Supports

Study of these events illuminates the character and methods of La Señora using her power to get cooperating rabbis to excommunicate merchants breaking the boycott and summoning influentials before her in the manner of royalty to demand and cajole their support Synagogues not yet committed have been warned of the loss of Nasi stipends they have been receiving Even the redoubtable Rabbi Soncino has been called to her palace in the same manner as lesser religious and commercial leaders One can imagine however her chagrin at his refusal to back the boycott and the great opportunity lost

“It was amazing that it was a woman who had taken the lead in this gallant demonstration that it was not always necessary for Jews to suffer passively” Roth reminds us 1

Doña Gracia feels deep sadness about her defeat but holds no malice toward those who opposed her It is interesting to note that neither does Rabbi Soncino In a Rabbinic court case to settle the issue of niece Gracia’s inheritance the very same Joshua Soncino who had so opposed the Ancona boycott headed the panel that ruled in favor of La Señora It is remarkable to see two prominent figures at loggerheads over one issue able to separate principles from personalities in another

The other example of the Nasi break from past thinking about how to protect Jews is their role in attempted settlement of Tiberias in Palestine In A Sephardic Love Song I describe the effort:

As observed earlier Doña Gracia has long hoped to end her days in the Holy Land buried next to her beloved Francisco now resting in earth of the Valley of Jehoshaphat She has paid the Sultan a sum for the right to establish a settlement in Tiberias and has arranged for a grand house to be built there Joseph Nasi by then Duke of Naxos supports the effort He organizes a project to rebuild the city walls completed in 1564 The way is prepared for the thousands of expected Jewish settlers with construction of residences synagogues and bathhouses The arrival of haGaveret (the lady) is greatly anticipated

Meanwhile Joseph Nasi was busy planning a balanced economy for the region and arranging for Mendes ships from Venice to bring settlers to Tiberias Alas the efforts to establish a successful longterm Jewish society there failed There are many possible reasons The death of Doña Gracia in 1569 and her ill health before removed an idealistic force that had been much of the Duke’s inspiration Joseph Nasi was under increasing struggle against political enemies Most of those desiring to resettle could not secure funds for transport to Venice and Mendes ships Benzion Netanyahu however in his biography Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher sees the messianic hopes generated among Jews by Abravanel and other mystics of the age as the main cause of the failure of the Nasi experiment in Palestine Calling the Duke of Naxos “a great Jewish statesman with a realistic approach to the Jewish problem and with a concrete plan for its solution” he describes how Jews of that era were thinking of a mystical resolution of their dilemma Abravanel’s writings urged his coreligionists to forgo political and other action and put their faith in the impending coming of the messiah who would immediately rescue them

The long arduous and prosaic process of settling in a semidesolate land did not attract them Abravanel’s maxim that the Jews can and should do nothing for their salvation was their “practical” motto In brief it was the influence of Don Isaac Abravanel that destroyed the influence of Don Joseph Nasi 2

What would the course of Jewish history have been like had the Ancona Boycott succeeded? Up to then the way to deal with tyrants was for welltodo Jews to pay tribute to prevent or amend distasteful acts or laws and to pay ransom for the release of those captured by pirates or the Knights of Malta Would the success of the boycott have shown those who would persecute Jews that they face serious retribution from united Jewry and deter future oppression?

What about the proposed settlement in Tiberias? With a land of their own could the horrors of homelessness insecurity and persecution facing Jews in the following centuries have been ameliorated?

Cecil Roth and Benzion Netanyahu say “yes’ to both of these We agree with them and we credit Doña Gracia and Joseph Nasi with initiating a new paradigm: Jewish activism using political economic and social means to fight oppression rather than depend on prayer and payoffs




    1. Roth Cecil The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia The Jewish Publication Society of America Philadelphia 1948 page 174


    1. Netanyahu Benzion Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher The Jewish Publication Society of America Philadelphia 1953 page 256


DOLORES SLOAN former editor of HaLapid and author of A Sephardic Love Song She is also a public speaker on crypto Jews and Sephardic life in Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance

See her website at: http://wwwdoloressloancom/