Moses in the homeland

An enlightening biography of Sir Moses Montefiore, whose philanthropic efforts widely benefited Jews in London and Jerusalem – and even Muslims in Morocco.

Moses Montefiore
By Abigail Green | Harvard University Press | 518 pages | $35
Anyone who has visited Jerusalem and taken an interest in its history should come away with the feeling he knows Sir Moses Montefiore.
According to Abigail Green, however, this eminent philanthropist has been sorely neglected. Green, a fellow in history at Oxford University, has produced the first “serious, archivally rooted biography” of Sir Moses.
Montefiore was an obsessive chronicler of himself. He left travelogues and 85 diaries, along with mountains of correspondence. Yet in a bizarre twist of fate, similar to the destruction of 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton’s diaries by his wife, Montefiore’s nephew destroyed his archive after his death. Green has managed to track down surviving bits of it along with other sources to reconstruct his life. She was also aided by numerous contemporary accounts of his activities. As she notes, he was “one of the first truly global celebrities.”
He was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1784. At the time it was a bustling center of international trade and a center of the Sephardi mercantile world. Sir Moses was raised in London, where he received a secular education specializing in training him for a life in the business world. Although in later life he would make much of his traditional attachment to Orthodox Judaism, it doesn’t appear that his early life was particularly dominated by a religious upbringing. Montefiore made his fortune on the London Stock Exchange where he was a “sidekick” to Nathan Rothschild. In 1812 he married Judith Barent-Cohen, an educated women who came from a wealthy Ashkenazi family. She would be a lasting companion, a partner and innovator in her own right in many of his philanthropic endeavors.
Montefiore retired at 35, fabulously wealthy, and began a lifelong commitment to his community, first as a gabbai and with the hevra kadisha. He expanded his social connections to include well-known members of Britain’s progressive associations campaigning against slavery and for the rights of religious Christian dissidents.
Sir Moses is best remembered in Israel for his visits to Jerusalem in 1827, 1838, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1866 and 1875. It is hard to imagine now the great changes that he witnessed, many of which he was instrumental in causing. When he first arrived only 15,000 people lived in the city, of which Jews were a quarter; by the 1870s they numbered 11,000, half the population. Sir Moses was always gracious on his visits to foreign places, paying respect to local dignitaries. But he was also stubborn, insisting on visiting Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of David in Jerusalem at a time when Jews were forbidden to do so. He and his wife were “the first European Jews of wealth and distinction to visit the Holy Land.” He attempted to reconcile local Jewish religious leaders, refurbished shrines (such as Rachel’s Tomb) and gave money to the poor, all the while collecting invaluable census data on the Jewish population.
Montefiore’s attachment to the Holy Land drew him into contact with others, both Christian and Jewish, who were thinking about the return of Jews to their ancestral home. He envisioned agriculture as a perfect way to “provide employment for Jews young enough to work but either too stupid or too lazy to study Torah all their lives.” His first plans were for purchasing tax farming rights for hundreds of villages from the Egyptians (who then governed the land) and encouraging “our brethren in Europe” to come manage and farm them. It was not to be. 
Instead he “spent a fortune on the Jews of Palestine to no very good effect” over the years and established relief funds that “changed the face of international Jewish philanthropy.” Beyond raising money he also set himself to effecting smaller plans for a hospital, an agricultural farm near Jaffa and the establishment of almshouses and a windmill outside the walls of Jerusalem.
One of the most interesting contributions of Green’s brilliant biography is that it sheds light on two important subjects. The first is the history of Jewish philanthropy. She examines the way in which Montefiore understood philanthropy and marketed his campaigns. He gave prodigiously to other causes, even freeing Muslims accused of murdering a Jew in Morocco and helping Christians who had recently been involved in a blood libel, in order to win his brethren freedom.
Green also sheds light on the truth behind the dhimmi status of Jews in Muslim lands. Whether it was massacres in Morocco, ravages by the Druse in Safed or forced conversions in Mashhad in Persia, it is clear that “anti-Jewish violence was a well-established outlet for political frustration” throughout the Muslim world. There was never a legacy of “coexistence” or tolerance in the Muslim world for Jews as Montefiore’s visit to Morocco and petitions to the shah make clear.
Things were far from easy in the Christian world as well; Montefiorecampaigned on behalf of Jews in Russia, Eastern Europe and Italy. Whenconfronted by a savage mob of Romanians in 1867, he declared “fire awayif you like, I came here in the name of justice and humanity.” Manytoday could learn from Sir Moses’s heroism and dedication to his people.