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The Story of Moses Montefiore

Dr. Abigail Green

This article briefly tells the story of Moses Montefiore and is by the Montefiore scholar and authority, Dr. Abigail Green.

MONTEFIORE, MOSES HAIM (1784-1885) was the most famous Jewish personality in the nineteenth century, revered for his interventions to relieve Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Muslim lands. Montefiore was born in his grandfather's hometown of Livorno -- a thriving Tuscan port that boasted the second largest Jewish community in Western Europe. His cosmopolitan roots in the Western Sephardi diaspora informed his Jewish activism and belie his popular image as the quintessential English Jew.

Montefiore's English-born father was a moderately successful merchant whose business likely fell on hard times during the revolutionary wars of the 1790s; on his mother's side, however, Montefiore had deep roots in London's Sephardi community. Thanks to his Mocatta relatives, he was on friendly terms with the Goldsmid brothers who dominated the Stock Exchange during the early Napoleonic era. He regularly enjoyed their fabled hospitality and, on one occasion, led Grace after Meals in the presence of Admiral Nelson.

Montefiore was to make his fortune on the Stock Exchange, thanks partly to his marriage to the wealthy, Ashkenazi JUDITH BARENT COHEN (1784-1862), whose brother-in-law Nathan Rothschild became a close associate. In later life the Rothschild connection added greatly to Montefiore's influence, but his fame as a humanitarian in the non-Jewish world owed much to business connections forged in the City with Evangelicals and non-conformists. Among the most prominent were Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, leader of the British anti-slavery campaign after the death of William Wilberforce, and the Quaker Sam Gurney, whose sister was the famous prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Together with Montefiore and Rothschild, Buxton and Gurney founded the Alliance Assurance Company -- an innovative and highly successful business, that is still a going concern today.

In his forties, Montefiore cut back his business activity before embarking for Palestine with Judith in 1827. This life-changing pilgrimage inspired Montefiore's second career as a communal leader -- and Judith's growing confidence as a pioneering Anglo-Jewish writer. Their famously loving marriage was marred by infertility and this may well have inspired Montefiore's decision to dedicate his life to tzedakah (charity) and good deeds. Judith, meanwhile, found expression through publishing her travel diaries and compiling the first modern Jewish cookbook in 1846.

Throughout the 1830s, Montefiore campaigned energetically for Anglo-Jewish emancipation, working closely with his business associate Isaac Lyon Goldsmid and his brother-in-law Nathan Rothschild. In 1837, he served as Sheriff of the City of London, an office that brought him a knighthood in Victoria's coronation year. Although President of the Board of Deputies for some forty years, his role in communal politics was controversial. He rescued the organisation from obscurity, but was widely blamed for the bitter divide between Reform and mainstream Judaism in the 1840s. Meanwhile, Montefiore's high-profile foreign missions (accompanied by Judith) brought both the couple and the Board growing celebrity.

The intersection between Jewish interests and British imperialism ensured greatest success in the Muslim world, where Montefiore's intervention in the Damascus Affair (1840) and mission to Morocco (1864) elicited formal commitments to protect local Jews. Missions to Russia (1846), Rome (1859), and Romania (1867) had less direct impact, but contributed to the globalisation of modern Jewish consciousness. Montefiore's longstanding commitment to Palestine also proved pivotal in this regard. His second visit (1839) has attracted particular attention for Montefiore's precocious scheme to promote Jewish agricultural colonisation -- a project that has led generations of Zionists to claim him as their own. Judith's account of the expedition (1844) became a central reference in debates about productivisation, although the scheme foundered like later agricultural and industrial initiatives. Only the windmill and almshouses Montefiore built outside the Old City survived to become the seeds of a new Jewish city in Jerusalem. In 2010 the Montefiore almshouses at Mishkenot Shaananim will be celebrating their 150th anniversary year.

All this was facilitated by Montefiore's innovative philanthropy. Through the Holy Land Relief Fund (1855) and the Persian Famine Relief Fund (1872) he pioneered subscription fund-raising in a global, Jewish context -- but left nothing substantial to the early Zionists who raised money in his name. The only charitable institution Montefiore founded was the Judith Lady Montefiore Theological College near his home in Ramsgate: a kollel dedicated to Torah study. Born before the French revolution, Montefiore himself lived to the grand old age of a hundred. His centenary celebrations, in 1883-4, captured the imagination of the world.

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