- Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero
Sir Moses Montefiore was, during his lifetime, probably the most famous English Jew of the nineteenth century. He was also, as Abigail Green reminds us in her new biography, an international celebrity whose humanitarian missions on behalf of persecuted Jews in Europe and the Middle East were closely followed around the world.
Given Montefiore’s celebrity during his lifetime, it is striking that he has been without a scholarly biography until now. Most of Montefiore’s personal papers were burned shortly after his death, and many of those that survived found their way into private collections that were not open to scholars. Green, an Oxford University historian whose previous work has focused on German history, is a member of the Montefiore family and has had access to many of these previously unavailable papers as well as to the reminiscences of family members. But despite these family connections, Green has not written a work of hagiography. Her book is a scholarly attempt to make sense not only of Montefiore’s life but also of the way it illuminates the changing times in which he lived. His weaknesses, including his occasional arrogance and inflexibility as well as his possible infidelities, are all on view in her account, and she is well aware of his failures as well as his successes.
Montefiore was, in many ways, both a liminal and a transitional figure. Though his public persona was, for most of his life, that of an English gentleman, he was the grandson of an Italian Sephardi merchant who had immigrated to London in the mid-eighteenth century and was himself born in Livorno, Italy, during his parents’ visit to that city. As such, he was born into the cosmopolitan and privileged milieu of London’s wealthy Sephardi community at a time when that community was, despite its wealth and success, a community of cultural and religious outsiders. By the 1820s, Montefiore’s business interests not only made him a very wealthy man but also helped him become part of an extensive network of Jewish and non-Jewish businessmen, many of them Protestant dissenters and Catholics and hence outsiders themselves. This network was to provide Montefiore with important allies for his future humanitarian and philanthropic ventures and helped bring Jewish and non-Jewish philanthropic ventures closer together in new institutional forms. In 1831, by which time Montefiore had largely retired from active involvement in day-to-day business, the Montefiores purchased East Cliff Lodge in the seaside town of Ramsgate, where they were to live until their deaths and where Montefiore, as a prominent landowner, became active in local affairs including support of local Christian charities.
Montefiore’s real fame, however, resulted from his activities in the second half of his long life. In 1840, during the so-called Damascus Affair, he, along with the [End Page 119] French Jewish leader Adolphe Crémieux, traveled to Alexandria to obtain the release of Jews who had been accused of the ritual murder of a French Catholic priest. More notably, he then went on to Constantinople, where the sultan issued a decree declaring the blood libel to be false and promising Jews in the Ottoman Empire the same rights and privileges of other Ottoman subjects. This was only the first of a number of international missions that Montefiore undertook over the next thirty years to intercede for persecuted Jewish communities. These missions took him to Russia, where he had a personal meeting with Tsar Nicholas I, as well as to Rome, Morocco, Romania, and Palestine. Even when unsuccessful, the missions helped create the public persona that made Montefiore an international celebrity. At the time of his hundredth birthday, less than a year before his death, tributes poured in from all over the world.
Green has used Montefiore’s long and eventful life as a springboard from which to examine a number of important themes in Jewish and non-Jewish history. As she perceptively notes, “Montefiore’s life...