This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Doña Gracia's Blockade *

News Item:

March 1997--The U.S. passes the "Helms-Burton law," extending their long-standing boycott to encompass other nations that continue to trade with Cuba. The new legislation permits suits in U.S. courts against companies doing business with Cuba. According to this law, the U.S. can refuse entry to executives of such companies. Canada and other countries object to the law, claiming that the U.S. has no right to impose its foreign policy on them.

Lately we Canadians have been roused to heights of righteous indignation by the American threat to punish foreign firms that violate their economic blockade of Cuba. As Jews we might be particularly sensitive to the issue, having ourselves been the victims of boycotts declared by assorted enemies.

Perusing the annals of Jewish history, we discover that there was a time when the Jews of the world tried to band together to inflict punitive and retaliatory sanctions on a hostile power.

The episode began in the Italian city of Ancona. During the sixteenth century Ancona became a haven for Jewish merchants who were enthusiastically encouraged to settle in there in order to enhance the city's status as a free port. Resisting pressures from Jew-baiters in the Church, several Popes guaranteed the protection to any Jews who settled in the city. Scores of Jewish traders responded to the invitation, including Marranos from Portugal and the Levant. The situation proved beneficial to all concerned.

Matters took a turn for the worse in 1555 when Pope Paul IV revoked the Jewish privileges and revived several all-too-familiar discriminatory measures, such as the wearing of a yellow badge, confinement to a ghetto and vocational restrictions.

The refugees from Spain and Portugal found themselves in a particularly dangerous predicament. Since they had formerly been baptised as Christians they were now subject to the authority of the dreaded Inquisition. It was not long before fifty-one Jews were put on trial, of whom twenty-five were burned at the stake. The Jewish world was stunned and outraged.

At that time there lived one of the most formidable Jewish political leaders since ancient times, the illustrious Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi. Though born a "New Christian" in Portugal, she had escaped to settle in Antwerp where her husband was a wealthy jeweler and financier. Upon his death she took charge of the family business, which also served as a cover for a vast and effective "underground railroad" whose agents throughout the world were constantly at work smuggling Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to more hospitable shores.

After publicly declaring her Judaism Doña Gracia was forced to leave Europe, to join the thriving community of Sepharadic refugees in Constantinople. There she devoted her considerable spiritual and material resources to the benefit of the local Jewish institutions. "La Señora," as she was called, became the revered patroness of synagogues, yeshivahs and Hebrew letters. Her control over the communal leadership, strengthened by her amicable ties with the Turkish Sultan, was close to absolute, and she has been described as the most powerful woman of her generation.

Immediately upon hearing of the tragic fate of the Ancona martyrs, Doña Gracia resolved that retaliation was called for. She reasoned correctly that Spanish Jewish merchants made up an economic force of such magnitude that if they were to cease trading with Ancona, transfering their cargos instead to neighbouring harbours, the duplicitous city could be reduced to financial ruin. The only catch was that, for the plan to succeed, it would have to be supported by all Jewish merchants without exception.

Since so much of international Jewish commerce emanated from Constantinople itself, Doña Gracia stood a reasonable chance of success. True, there were some traders who opposed the boycott, whether out of personal economic interests or because of fear of reprisals against relatives in Christian lands. Several Rabbis issued halakhic rulings against the boycott. However it was a relatively simple matter for "la Señora" to invite the insubordinate sages to her palace and quietly remind them what was likely to become of their yeshivahs or synagogues should she decide to withdraw her generosity. It was an offer they could not refuse.

Initially the sanctions proved effective. Over time however, it became apparent that they could have perilous consequences for Jews who remained subject to the Pope's authority. An extensive debate was conducted in the Jewish community over the painful question of whether it was worth endangering fellow Jews in order to create a possible long-term deterrent to potential persecutors of Israel. The wall of solidarity eventually crumbled before fully achieving its objectives.

What is the moral of this story? With respect to the current Cuban sanctions, I have no doubt that it can legitimately be cited in support of either side of the debate, whether to prove that all attempts at commercial blockade are doomed to failure, or to justify hermetic enforcement of the boycott as the only assurance of its success.

However we choose to interpet the issue, it provides us with an opportunity to retell a fascinating exploit and to make the acquaintance of an outstanding personality from the Jewish past.

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[1] First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, April 25 1996, p. 10.
    • Cecil Roth, The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia, Philadelphia 1948.