The Most Famous English Jew
“Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero,” was recently nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. A version of this article originally appeared in Yiddish here.
Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero
By Abigail Green
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 560 pages, $35.00
Was Sir Moses Haim Montefiore the first Jewish celebrity of the modern age? A strong affirmative is the thesis of Abigail Green’s “Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero,” a biography of the most famous Jew of the 19th century.
Green is a professor of modern history at Oxford University, as well as one of Montefiore’s descendants. In researching the book, she and her assistants dug through thousands of archival documents in 11 countries and in nine languages, though Montefiore’s private archive, the most important source, was destroyed a few years after his death, for unknown reasons. But Green’s intrepid research has produced a fascinating life story, interwoven with the major historical events of the time.
Montefiore was above all a man of business, but in a sense different from the contemporary conception of a “businessman.” He was involved with commercial affairs until only the age of 40, after which he left commerce behind and dedicated his life to political and philanthropic activities benefiting the Jewish people. In his later years he became a model of the traditional community activist, using his power and influence to help his co-religionists.
Until the 18th century, the Sephardic elite, including Montefiore’s own family, dominated the world of Western European Jewry. Montefiore was born in 1784 in the Italian port city of Livorno, but his family was also closely connected with the wealthy Sephardic bankers and merchants of London, where he grew up. His wife, Judith Barent-Cohen, was of Ashkenazi origin, making her an atypical match, but through her, Montefiore was able to go into business with her relatives, the Rothschilds.
Jews were far from Montefiore’s only business associates. He was especially involved with English dissenters (that is, members of Protestant sects outside of the Anglican Church), who were also deprived of full rights at that time. According to Green, collaboration with such groups was a particularly important ingredient of his success.
In 1827, Montefiore and his wife made their first visit to Palestine, where they prayed for children at Rachel’s Tomb. Though their prayers were not answered, the visit to the Holy Land had a profound impact on the couple, and they dedicated their lives to charity and public service. Among Montefiore’s first major causes was the battle for the political emancipation of English Jews, and for more than 40 years he served as the head of the Board of Deputies, the highest communal organization of English Jewry.
It was Montefiore’s activities on the world stage, however, that made him famous. He visited Palestine no fewer than seven times and expended large amounts of money and effort to further the economic and cultural development of the Jewish settlement. He also took upon himself the problems of Diaspora Jewish communities worldwide, especially in Morocco and in the Ottoman and Russian empires. In 1846 he took a tour of Russia, where he met with Czar Nicholas I. Politically the trip was unsuccessful, since he was unable to alter the anti-Semitic views of Russian leaders, but it had a significant symbolic effect, especially in the eyes of Russian Jews. By the last years of his life, which he spent on his estate in southern England, he had become an emblematic figure throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
Green’s biography is not the first study of Montefiore’s life, but she is the first scholar to successfully put his activities within the context of their time. And she shows how Montefiore the symbol and Montefiore the politician were often entirely different figures. For example, though Montefiore was not strictly religious in his younger years, he was knowledgeable of religious minutiae and not inclined toward religious innovation, particularly when the Reform movement began to appear in England.
By the time he died, in 1885, a new era of history was at hand, in which mass politics and charismatic party leaders took the place of wealthy activists. Yet Montefiore remains an important symbol for entirely different and unassociated Jewish groups. His tomb in Ramsgate became a site of pilgrimage for Hasidim, who consider him a righteous man. No less honor is given to him by Zionists, who credit him as a supporter of the first Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine. In Russia, at one time, he was considered to be almost a messiah. In truth, he was neither a Hasid nor a Zionist, and certainly not a messiah. But he was — and is — the most celebrated English Jew.
—Translated by Ezra Glinter
Mikhail Krutikov is columnist for the Forverts and a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan.