Moses Mon­te­fiore: Jew­ish Lib­er­a­tor, Impe­r­i­al Hero

  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

Abi­gail Green’s new biog­ra­phy seeks to reclaim Moses Montefiore’s sta­tus as the preëmi­nent Jew­ish glob­al celebri­ty of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Green, a schol­ar as well as a dis­tant rela­tion, feels this once most famous Jew in the world has been aston­ish­ing­ly neglect­ed.” You too may mar­vel at the breadth and scope of Montefiore’s life after read­ing her book. In fact, when­ev­er and wher­ev­er a Jew­ish cri­sis occurred, it seemed Mon­te­fiore was on the scene.

This is a schol­ar­ly, end­less­ly detailed, and exten­sive­ly researched work. Some may find all the infor­ma­tion a bit labo­ri­ous to wade through at times. Montefiore’s remark­able 100 years unfold in 19 in-depth chap­ters. His ear­ly life, busi­ness suc­cess­es, lov­ing and child­less mar­riage, exten­sive world diplo­ma­cy, phil­an­thropy, and vis­its to Pales­tine are all chronicled.

The reli­gious, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and social ideas and real­i­ties of the 19th cen­tu­ry are the back­drop against which Sir Mon­te­fiore served his fel­low Jews and human­i­ty. Knight­ed by Queen Vic­to­ria, he proud­ly had the word Jerusalem engraved on his coat of arms. His actions and deeds served as the inspi­ra­tion and ground­work for the begin­nings of a world­wide Jew­ish con­scious­ness, Jew­ish activism, Zion­ism, and Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian- Moslem relationships.

Though always true to his strict reli­gious prin­ci­ples, Mon­te­fiore was not with­out his detrac­tors, pow­er strug­gles, and hint­ed-at infi­deli­ties. The foibles, char­ac­ters, and per­son­al­i­ties of indi­vid­u­als are nev­er masked through­out the book.

One hun­dred fifty years after Mon­te­fiore estab­lished the first Jew­ish set­tle­ment out­side Jerusalem’s walls, Green restores Montefiore’s defin­i­tive place, piv­otal role, and stature as the ven­er­at­ed phil­an­thropist, leader, and diplo­mat he was in Jew­ish his­to­ry. Appen­dices, archives con­sult­ed, illus­tra­tions, index, maps, notes.

Look­ing for Montefiore

by Abi­gail Green

A wind­mill, a care home in Aus­tralia, a quar­ter of Jerusalem, a hos­pi­tal in New York: lit­tle now remains of Sir Moses Mon­te­fiore, the pre-emi­nent Jew­ish fig­ure of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, although my fam­i­ly still cher­ish­es his mem­o­ry with pride. Yet Mon­te­fiore was a ground­break­ing human­i­tar­i­an and phil­an­thropist, whose inter­na­tion­al cam­paigns for Jew­ish vic­tims of per­se­cu­tion and famine cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the world. His mis­sions on behalf of oppressed Jew­ry took him sev­en times to Pales­tine, to Egypt, Rus­sia, Rome, Turkey, Moroc­co, and Roma­nia, where he inter­ced­ed on their behalf with pashas, sul­tans, emper­ors, and popes. Oper­at­ing as an unof­fi­cial ambas­sador for the Jew­ish peo­ple, Mon­te­fiore pio­neered a diplo­mat­ic approach to the prob­lem of Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion that helped carve a new place for Jews in the mod­ern world.

My moth­er was born a Mon­te­fiore, so this sto­ry has always res­onat­ed in my life. A por­trait of Sir Moses’s moth­er hung in the hall­way of my grand­par­ents’ house along­side the Mon­te­fiore fam­i­ly arms. Every Pesach we read an extract from Montefiore’s diary describ­ing his mirac­u­lous escape from a watery grave upon throw­ing a piece of afikomen into stormy seas south of Mal­ta. Once, as a teenag­er, I attend­ed a mas­sive fam­i­ly lunch to mark his bicen­te­nary in 1984 – 5. We solemn­ly perused copies of the fam­i­ly tree and trekked out to an obscure muse­um on the fringes of Lon­don, where a small com­mem­o­ra­tive exhi­bi­tion was held.

When I began work on Mon­te­fiore, I typ­i­cal­ly encoun­tered two respons­es. His­to­ri­ans out­side the world of Jew­ish stud­ies hadn’t heard of him and couldn’t under­stand why an Oxford don would aban­don a safe’ career study­ing Ger­man nation­al­ism for the biog­ra­phy of a seem­ing­ly obscure Jew. Viewed pro­fes­sion­al­ly, the fam­i­ly con­nec­tion was, if any­thing, a lit­tle embar­rass­ing. Mean­while, Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans warned me that there were no sources, and noth­ing new to say.

Com­ing fresh to the field, I was naïve enough to ignore them. In truth, the project posed huge dif­fi­cul­ties: archival mate­ri­als in eleven coun­tries and nine lan­guages demand­ed lin­guis­tic and pale­o­graph­ic skills I sim­ply didn’t have. But as I worked my way through news­pa­pers, diaries, per­son­al mem­o­ra­bil­ia, and gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, vis­it­ing cor­ners of a lost Jew­ish world from Kovno to Mogador, I real­ized that under­pin­ning Montefiore’s remark­able life-sto­ry was a far more impor­tant sto­ry wait­ing to be told.
I knew, of course, that Montefiore’s life encap­su­lat­ed the Jew­ish nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Born before the French rev­o­lu­tion brought the hope of eman­ci­pa­tion, he lived to see the tragedy of the pogroms and the fal­ter­ing begin­nings of Zion­ism. Super­fi­cial­ly, Montefiore’s life dove­tailed neat­ly with the stir­ring but slight­ly hack­neyed nar­ra­tive of the Jew­ish tran­si­tion to moder­ni­ty. Yet this was a nar­ra­tive in which Montefiore’s extra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple and to the human­i­tar­i­an tra­di­tions of the West had some­how dis­ap­peared from view.

Look­ing for Mon­te­fiore required me to dig a lit­tle deep­er. It turned out that there were lots of books about Jews in par­tic­u­lar places, but nobody had real­ly thought about the par­al­lel expe­ri­ences of Jews in places like Eng­land, Rus­sia, Pales­tine, and Moroc­co in a way that reflect­ed the dif­fer­ences but also the con­nec­tions between them, and the fact that these expe­ri­ences were hap­pen­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Because of Montefiore’s human­i­tar­i­an con­cerns, inter­na­tion­al inter­ests, and strong Jew­ish ties, explor­ing his life sto­ry enabled me to con­nect the dots of Jew­ish his­to­ry in new ways.

In 1871, for instance, a ter­ri­ble pogrom left 4000 Jew­ish fam­i­lies des­ti­tute in Russ­ian Odessa, just as famine threat­ened Per­sian Jew­ry with star­va­tion and death on an epic scale. These tragedies seemed uncon­nect­ed, but they weren’t: Jews in Lon­don like Mon­te­fiore learned about them at the same time. Unable to agree on a way for­ward, they launched rival fund-rais­ing cam­paigns that attract­ed dona­tions from Jews in places as far flung as Lithua­nia, Ger­many, and North Amer­i­ca, rais­ing mil­lions in today’s mon­ey on behalf of the vic­tims. Episodes like this illu­mi­nate the birth of an inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish pub­lic and the glob­al­iza­tion of Jew­ish con­scious­ness for the first time.

Nor was this just a Jew­ish sto­ry. Read­ing about the famine and human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ters that gal­va­nized Mon­te­fiore, I was repeat­ed­ly struck by par­al­lels with our con­tem­po­rary world. Dis­as­ter news is dis­tress­ing­ly famil­iar nowa­days, but in Montefiore’s age it was some­thing new and extra­or­di­nary. War, star­va­tion, and nat­ur­al cat­a­stro­phes are sta­ples of human exis­tence, yet for cen­turies no one cared beyond those imme­di­ate­ly affect­ed, quite sim­ply because nobody knew. Thanks to the tele­graph and the news­pa­per, sud­den­ly they did. And because this was a sen­ti­men­tal age of pro­found reli­gious and moral con­vic­tions there were many, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the West, who refused to look away.

Montefiore’s cam­paigns on behalf of Jew­ish refugees and famine vic­tims were part and par­cel of this phe­nom­e­non — because of their glob­al scale, and because they com­bined reli­gion with human­i­tar­i­an­ism and the exot­ic East in a way that res­onat­ed well beyond the Jew­ish world. Look­ing through the lists of those who gave mon­ey to Mon­te­fiore, I was amazed to find rev­erends, count­esses, and rail­way work­ers, bish­ops and Aus­tralian rad­i­cals. This was not just the sto­ry of the birth of mod­ern world Jew­ry; it was also the sto­ry of how the pro­tec­tion of eth­nic and reli­gious minori­ties came to be seen as a bench­mark of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion.’ It was, in short, the sto­ry of how Jew­ish activists, Jew­ish con­cerns, and Jew­ish val­ues shaped the twin tra­di­tions of lib­er­al­ism and human rights that define West­ern polit­i­cal culture.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions