Moses Montefiore: The Most Important Jew of the 19th Century

For those with a keen memory, the name of Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) will conjure up visions of hospitals all over the world and of tourist sites in Israel. Though his biography is unknown today, his name remains a part of our cultural landscape. As has been the case with much of Sephardic Judaism, the invisibility of Moses Montefiore the man is part of the larger occlusion of Sephardic cultural history.

It is therefore a good thing that one of the Sebag-Montefiore family progeny (Moses and his wife Judith were, tragically, childless) has gone back to this important subject and provided us with a captivatingly brilliant portrayal of this great man's stunning life. Towards the end of her magisterial treatment of Montefiore in her new book Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), Oxford University professor Abigail Green allows us to see how outsized a figure this man truly was and how his current obscurity leaves us ignorant of much 19th-century Jewish history:

Ramsgate. 1883. A foggy morning. The sun was just beginning to break through the clouds at nine o'clock, when sixty church singers and schoolchildren gathered on the lawn at East Cliff Lodge to serenade Montefiore on entering his hundredth year. They began with Hebrew hymns and moved on to 'God Save the Queen' and 'Rule, Britannia.' The old man sat by the great bay window looking out to sea and listened as an endless stream of telegrams arrived at his door. The good wishes of Queen Victoria mattered most to him, but postal clerks struggled more with the barrage of congratulations from abroad, often in foreign languages and sometimes containing hundreds of words - so many that the vast bulk had to be left unopened. Whole vans of boxes came up to the house from the station, containing works of art, floral tributes, and exotic fruit. Special trains from London and elsewhere began to disgorge day-trippers; the post office and railway companies had taken on extra staff to cope with the workload, while 100 extra police constables patrolled the town.

I present this extended picture of Montefiore's 99th birthday celebration to show his overwhelming significance in the world. This was a person who on his frequent trips of mercy and philanthropy would be greeted as a conquering hero by native Jews and even Gentiles in Palestine, Persia, Syria, Romania, Italy, Morocco, and so many other places. Likenesses of Moses and his wife Judith would adorn medals and statues found in the possession of the many Jews who were the welcoming beneficiaries of his largesse.

Moses Montefiore was born in Livorno, Italy and soon found his way to London where as a young man he built his substantial fortune in the financial and insurance industries. He was given a huge push by the Rothschild family, to whom he was related by marriage. Montefiore's life encapsulates the vigorous fusion of Sephardi and Ashkenazi at a time when a new world of Jewish social activism and international consciousness was emerging. Due to the new technologies and the Imperial reach of England, Montefiore's mission to protect and assist his fellow Jews took flight and ensured that he would become the best-known Jew of his time. While we continue to know the name Rothschild, the great Ashkenazi banking family whose financial enterprises dominated Europe and the rest of the world, the name of Montefiore and the huge amount of work he did on behalf of his co-religionists has been largely forgotten.

What Montefiore was able to accomplish can today be seen as nothing less than extraordinary. His first major diplomatic achievement was in the resolution of the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840. Setting out what would become a common problem in a new age of racial hatreds and national rivalries, the Christian community of Syria sought to blame the disappearance of a priest named Father Tomasso and his servant on local Damascus Jews who, it was asserted, murdered the men in order to use their blood in the preparation of Passover matzos.

Such an accusation shows us the complications that Montefiore had to face in the course of his outreach work: Jews in the Middle East were increasingly caught up in the politics of Europe and in how those politics would play out in the Arab-Muslim world.

With the emergence of nationalism as a decisive factor in the 19th century, the jockeying of groups for recognition and rights often led to conflict with rival groups. When France became involved in the Damascus affair, a clash ensued between a mighty European power, an enfeebled Ottoman empire and its increasingly waning authority, and a local community that was increasingly trapped in the game of international Imperialism.

The Damascus affair became Montefiore's first major foray into the fray of international diplomacy. He was able to successfully appeal to the sultan and achieve the goal of a firman, a decree that would ensure the rights of the Jewish minority of the Ottoman Empire and absolve them from responsibility in the affair:

The final text of the firman more than lived up to Montefiore's expectations. Opening with a categorical denial of the blood libel, the sultan repeated his promise that Jews would "enjoy the same privileges" as other peoples living under his authority. Indeed, the document went far beyond the draft version drawn up by Montefiore and Loewe; for the sultan announced that he had "given the most positive orders that the Jewish nation [millet], dwelling in all parts of our Empire, shall be perfectly protected, as well as all other subjects of the sublime Porte, and that no person shall molest them in any manner whatever (except for a just cause), neither in the free exercise of religion, nor in that which concerns their safety and tranquility."

The language of the sultan's decree is cast in the Liberalism of the emerging civil rights ethos of British society. One of the great ironies of this development that Montefiore's activism underscored was the fact that England at this time had not yet fully emancipated its own Jews. At the very moment when the Ottomans were being asked to provide equal rights for their non-Muslim minorities, Jews could not be elected to public office in England.

The ironies and paradoxes of the age of Montefiore continued to inform his work. The French Jews achieved their emancipation largely at the cost of Jewish particularity. It was Montefiore's desire that Jews remain free to practice their religion and not be forced to completely assimilate into the larger (Christian) collective. Montefiore was a typical Sephardi in the sense that he brought together a deep religious sensibility with an embrace of general cultural values. Though he himself did not characterize his views in these terms, we can mark his ethos by the term "Religious Humanism"; a conception that joined together a religious orthodoxy with a determination to inculcate in Jews an allegiance to modern education and culture.

While visiting Russia on one of his many foreign missions, Montefiore insisted that the traditionalist Orthodox Jews adopt a modern lifestyle while remaining faithful to Torah: "Vernacular education became a recurrent theme of Montefiore's stay in Vilna as he and Loewe visited Jewish schools, distributing alms and offering hefty bribes to pupils an teachers if they would 'learn the Russian language too.'"

Over the course of his lengthy career as a hands-on Jewish philanthropist, Montefiore was perhaps the last representative of a Judaism that sought to fuse the rigid standards of Orthodoxy with the imperatives of the modern world. Increasingly, this Religious Humanism would be subsumed by the emergence of bitter parochialisms that would characterize European Jewry whose members would split into acrimonious factions.

Montefiore's 100 years on this earth promised the beginning of a new way of doing Jewish philanthropic outreach, but at the very same time marked the end of that way of doing things. In many ways Montefiore's success was also his failure. He connected religious piety to his elevated place in the world. He sought to fuse these two parts of his life and did so successfully. But those who would inherit his leadership mantle would not be able or interested to achieve this synthesis; a synthesis that, as I have said, was so quintessentially Sephardic.

Montefiore was a skilled diplomat and businessman, but he lacked the intimate facility with the institutional world that would emerge from the new age of technology and nationalism. His personal vanity and arrogance sometimes got the best of him. He was not a well-read man and was often naïve to the critical changes taking place inside the Jewish religious world.

He was totally committed to the British system and its emerging Empire. It is clear that the later development of that Empire and the massive inequities and violence that it engendered were alien to his way of thinking. As British statesmen were promoting a humanitarian agenda for others, their own Empire was perpetrating some very harsh policies on Africans, Indians, and Chinese that rested uneasily with the reform agenda.

The bitter struggles between Jewish nationalists and assimilationists were also alien to a man whose aim was to extol the twin values of Jewish identity and secular modernity. Montefiore's vaunted proto-Zionism was set out with the realpolitik of the world system in mind. He was a gradualist and pragmatist who operated in the realm of the possible and not the utopian-revolutionary.

In the coming years Jews would see this primal unity splinter with each element of the synthesis breaking off into yet another advocacy group. In the person of Moses Montefiore there was only the human totality of the Jewish people and a vigorous assertion of the Jewish place in the larger world.

Not for Montefiore was there a need for Jewish alienation from the world, or a reassertion of tribal clannishness. Montefiore was keenly aware of the need for Jews to emerge from their marginality and break the chains of their ghettos and persecution. And for this he was indeed lauded as a Jewish hero, the likes of which would never be seen again in the precisely same way. His life serves us today as an example of the joining together of socio-political values that are often treated as conflicting.

Each of the Jewish splinter groups has tried to claim Montefiore for themselves. The great achievement of Abigail Green in her excellent biography of this seminal Jewish leader is to reframe the current Jewish situation in order to allow us to see Moses Montefiore as an individual who merged the disparate parts of Jewish identity. In so doing, her book becomes a manual for the reconstitution of a Jewish identity that is far more inclusive than the one that exists at the present moment.