- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010



By Abigail Green

Belknap/Harvard, $35

540 pages, illustrated.


Despite the fact that a nephew burned most of the personal archives of Jewish philanthropist and humanitarian Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), Abigail Green has managed to find enough other primary sources to produce this mammoth warts-and-all account of Montefiore and his times. Ms. Green, whose mother was born a Sebag-Montefiore, is a tutor and fellow in history at Oxford, and she has turned the story of a London stockbroker who retired rich at age 40 into a broader look at the Jews and their relationship with the rest of 19th-century society.

The Montefiores were Italian Sephardi Jews who took their name from the town where the family originated. Moses was born in Livorno, but moved to London as a young man and became a successful businessman. In 1812, he married Judith Barent-Cohen, the well-educated daughter of a wealthy Ashkenazi merchant, whose sister had married Nathan Rothschild. Rothschild’s financial expertise proved invaluable to Montefiore, who acted as Rothschild’s broker and shared his rising fortunes.

Their success spawned fears among other Englishmen:

“While most Jews scraped a living in low-status street trades,” writes the author, “the wealthy few were disproportionately associated with the money markets at a time when financial capitalism was new enough to be mistrusted. Whether they dealt in stocks, shares, or stolen goods, Jews were now instinctively identified with the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth at the expense of decent Christians.”

Montefiore gave up his countinghouse in 1820, but did not resign from the stock exchange altogether until 1845. Trips to Italy, Scotland and Ireland gave him what his wife described as “a mania for traveling” that never abated, and in 1827 he and Judith embarked on the first, longest and most arduous of seven trips to the Holy Land, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The trip changed him forever:

“Montefiore had spent the past 10 years refashioning himself as an English gentleman; he now shaped himself consciously as a practicing Jew.” He vowed to dedicate more time to the welfare of the poor and to attend the synagogue three times a week. Back in London, two years later, he petitioned the authorities for permission to emblazon “Jerusalem” to his coat of arms.

In 1831, he bought a 24-acre estate in then-fashionable Ramsgate and presided with aplomb over public and private gatherings. He built a synagogue and a replica of the biblical Rachel’s tomb in Jerusalem on his estate. In 1835, at a time when Montefiore had nominally retired from business, he and Rothschild underwrote a government loan of 15 million pounds, on relatively easy terms. Writes the author, “This was bad business but good politics, because the money was destined to finance the final abolition of slavery in the British Empire.”

That same year, Montefiore became president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews - a position he held on to until 1874, steadfastly opposing Jewish reform movements. In 1836, he became one of the few Jewish Fellows of the Royal Society and was knighted by Queen Victoria. The author wryly notes, “This honor would have been enough for most men, and it certainly should have been enough for someone like Montefiore, who had ‘retired’ 10 years earlier and was to be so publicly vaunted for his selfless generosity in later life.”

Yet, according to a hitherto-unknown letter dated five months later, Montefiore pleaded with Lord John Russell to make him a baronet on Victoria’s coronation, citing his fortune, landed estate and “style of living and association” as qualifications. He had to wait another eight years for his baronetcy.

In 1837, he was elected one of two sheriffs of London and served for a year, during which he championed penal reform and “was proud of saving the life of the only prisoner condemned to death during his time in office.” He retained his gold-trimmed red sheriff’s uniform to wear on special occasions, particularly abroad, and, at 6-foot-3, he had an imposing presence.

Much of the book details Montefiore’s peripatetic travels: He gave alms personally to the Jews of Palestine and returned repeatedly to press for one cause or another, from the building of a hospital to the development of a weaving industry or agriculture. He also responded to appeals from Rhodes and Damascus, where Jews were accused of ritual murder called “blood libel” (rooted in the medieval fantasy that Jews used Christian blood to bake their Passover bread).

Montefiore persuaded the Ottoman sultan to formally refute blood libel and guarantee the right of Jews to practice their religion. In 1846, he went to Russia to give alms to individual Russian Jews and to plead with the czar against the imminent expulsion of Jews in border areas. The author quotes the czar’s response as follows: “When Montefiore speaks of the full equalization of the rights of Jews with those of Christians, in work and other matters - to permit this is impossible.” Montefiore had better luck in helping beleaguered Jews in Romania, Morocco and Italy.

The author summarizes, “In Morocco, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, Montefiore’s defense of Jewish rights dovetailed with British foreign policy and imperial ideology, epitomizing the grant humanitarian campaigns of the Anglo-Saxon world. His support for the struggling Jewish community in Palestine has led many to see him as a founding father of modern Israel, while his pioneering approach to the problem of Jewish persecution helped transform the international response to abuses of human rights.”

Judith died childless in 1862 and was buried in Ramsgate. Montefiore lived on another two decades, to enjoy the celebrations on the centenary of his birth. Since then, says the author, he has been largely forgotten. She makes a good case that Montefiore, by integrating Jews into British humanitarian politics, fostered a “more religiously inflected humanitarian agenda.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide