Statesman and Exile: Don Isaac Abravanel

He financed Columbus.

Don Isaac Abravanel was a Jewish statesman in 15th century Spain who used his wealth and position to help the victimized Jews of the Iberian peninsula.

Born into an old and distinguished Jewish family in Lisbon in 1437, Don Isaac was a Bible prodigy, deeply knowledgeable about scripture from a young age. At age 20, he wrote a popular book about religion and science. Don Isaac went on to write many books on Jewish texts, history and culture.

His books were well organized and written in language that average Jews, not just scholars, could understand. Don Isaac’s works became popular with Christian theologians, and he was unusual among Jewish scholars in that he read and occasionally agreed with Christian exegesis of Jewish scripture.

Don Isaac inherited a fortune from his father, as well as his father’s sharp financial acumen. He was so successful in the financial world that he was hired by King Alfonso V as treasurer of Portugal.

Despite his wealth and powerful position, Don Isaac never forgot his people. In 1471, thousands of Jews in Morocco were captured to be sold as slaves, and Don Isaac sprang into action. Obeying the Biblical commandment to free the captive, he donated a large part of his personal fortune to free them. He also traveled to Jewish communities throughout Portugal to raise money for the cause.

King Alfonso died in 1481, and his successor King John II falsely accused Don Isaac of conspiracy against the crown. Don Isaac and his family were forced to flee to Spain, and his entire Portuguese fortune was confiscated by the king.

Don Isaac entered the service of Spanish Queen Isabella. He managed the royal farmlands, and supplied equipment and clothing for the royal army, thus reestablishing his finances.

Don Isaac was one of the primary funders of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

Sadly, by the time Columbus returned, Don Isaac and his co-religionists were gone. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the Alhambra Decree in 1492, expelling all the Jews from Spain.

Don Isaac tried everything he could to convince the king to reverse the decree, including offering huge sums of money. At one point, Don Isaac offered his entire fortune of 600,000 crowns and convinced Ferdinand to change his mind – until the notorious Grand Inquisitor Torquemada rushed into the room. Torquemada threw a crucifix down, asking whether the king would, like Judas, betray their Lord for money. Ferdinand declared that the decree would stand.

Heartbroken that the regime he had served so loyally turned against him and his people, Don Isaac left Spain and went to Italy. For years he traveled throughout the country looking for a safe home. He died in Venice in 1508 and is buried in Padua.

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