Early Zionism was more than a nationalist movement. It was a revolution to reunite family scattered all across the globe. To rescue them from the inevitable- assimilation into Western culture, loss of individuality, religion, language and mistreatment from the lands that they were living in.
Gracia Nasi, one of my grandmothers, was 300 years ahead of Herzl yet the desire to reunite her family and Jews facing persecution all throughout the Iberian peninsula burned deeply inside of her. Gracia’s own husband, Tzemah, dreamed of return to the holy land yet passed away soon after the birth of their daughter Reyna. Gracia bravely saw the task of returning to as attainable and after narrow escape from the inquisition was welcomed into the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Suleiman, residing in Constantinople. There, she assumed a role of leadership in the Sephardi World- expressing her relief upon freely being able to say “Shalom.”
Such a simple word, yet it was forbidden for Jews to greet each other in that way while living in Christian Spain & Portugal.
Soon, it was realized that she was a force to be reckoned with.
When the Pope decided that a group of conversos was going to be burned at the stake- she put sanctions on their trading- risking much of her own business doing so.
While in Constantinople, she established a printing press where she published and printed at least fifteen different books- including numerous Siddurim.
In Istanbul, she established multiple yeshivot and synagogues as she was desperate to reintroduce the descendants of conversos to their Judaism.
Finally in 1558, she was given a long term lease of Tiberias. With the help of Sultan Suleiman she began to rebuild the abandoned towns in hopes that she would resettle the refugees from the Iberian Peninsula now living in the Ottoman Empire there.
She and her nephew, Joseph Nasi, who was now her daughter Reyna’s husband, settled many of the refugees in Tiberias but were forced to stop when the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice began to resurge.
Despite the fact that their efforts were cut short, the winds of change that they created in the Zionist movement can still be felt today. The Ferrara Bible, a Synagogue and a Yeshiva were dedicated in her honor and in 2010 Israel recognized her as one of the earliest Zionists.