How the Holy City was regenerated

Philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore created modern Jerusalem, says his biographer Abigail Green.


February 25, 2010
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Jerusalem in 1860. The Jewish quarter was notoriously run down

Jerusalem in 1860. The Jewish quarter was notoriously run down

This year Jerusalem celebrates an important anniversary in which Anglo-Jewry has a unique stake. It is exactly 150 years since a handful of Jews moved out of the dirty, overcrowded Jewish quarter in the Old City and into a purpose-built row of cottages on the desolate hillside overlooking the Jaffa Gate. Built decades before the birth of Zionism by a British Jew with money donated by an American called Judah Touro, these modest almshouses are rightly celebrated as the seed of modern Jerusalem. Their founder, the great philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, was the first foreign Jew to buy land in Palestine in modern times.

Mishkenot Sha'ananim - as the Touro Almshouses are usually called - marks a turning point in the history of world Jewry, the culmination of a little-known tradition of diaspora charity dating back nearly 300 years.

Communities all over Europe and the Mediterranean had been establishing funds for the Jews of the Holy Land ever since the 16th century. Italy came to play a central part in this process, with large sums from Germany, North Africa and Italian cities passing through Sir Moses's birthplace Livorno, where communal leaders famously offered to buy Palestine for the Jews. Diaspora giving became so ubiquitous that Jewish fundraisers reached India in 1740, and New York in 1759. The money they raised was known as Halukah, and by 1800 the vast bulk of it passed through two central committees in Istanbul and Amsterdam.

Pilgrimage reinforced the sense of connection. Palestine had long been a magnet for the scholarly and devout, but with the birth of tourism it became customary for "every Sephardi Jew who fears God and has the means to go to the Land of Israel once in his lifetime".

It was also a mitzvah to die in the land of Israel, and many elderly Jews set out for Jerusalem so when the messiah arrived they would be closer to hand.

The 18th century even saw the onset of organised Ashkenazi aliyah on a small scale. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Halukah officials began drawing up annual lists of would-be immigrants and chartering ships to take them to Palestine.

In 1818, Sir Moses took a boat out into Livorno harbour to see two such ships depart for Jaffa. That night, he confided to his wife Judith that he longed to do the same. The pilgrimage they made to Jerusalem in 1827 was a life-changing experience. Returning filled with the glory of Zion, he nevertheless was not blind to the grim realities of life in an Ottoman backwater: the chaos, the stench of household refuse, the carcasses left to rot just beyond the city walls.

Jerusalem's 3,000 Jews represented just under a quarter of the population. Unlike the city's Christians, they lacked powerful protectors abroad, and so the Jewish quarter was widely reviled as the filthiest part of the city, right by the municipal abattoir. Muslim court records reveal a city in which Jews were well integrated into the economic system, even turning to Islamic law to seek redress within their own community. But most European travellers emphasised the contempt with which Jews were treated by their Christian and Muslim neighbours. And Montefiore noted the terrible poverty of a community too dependent on diaspora hand-outs, consumed by a life of learning and prayer. He resolved to do something about it.

By now, the Halukah system was in crisis. More Jews in Palestine meant more competition for diaspora resources. Meanwhile, Western Jews began to weigh the merits of industry and self-sufficiency against a life of prayer and study. Infused with Victorian values, they increasingly saw their brethren in the Holy Land as idlers and beggars, rather than holy men whose piety hastened the coming of the messiah.

Sir Moses was less judgmental and more pragmatic. On his second visit to Palestine in 1839, this profoundly religious businessman began to investigate the possibilities of Jewish agricultural colonisation. Farming, he thought, might provide work for those unsuited to Torah study, income for those with a genuine vocation, and the hope of a better future for Jews in many lands.

Nothing came of his grand agricultural schemes nor his more modest plans for cotton manufacturing. Even so, they made his reputation as the man with a plan for the Holy Land. Increasingly, progressive Western Jews who rejected the reactionary Amsterdam Halukah administration turned to him instead. Touro - a testy bachelor from New Orleans who left $50,000 to the poor of Jerusalem - was the most spectacular example.

War in the Crimea complicated plans for Touro's legacy. The harsh winter would have made 1854 a difficult year in any case, but corn prices rocketed and merchants kept back their stock to sell to the troops. Suddenly cut off from the flow of Russian Halukah, the Jews of Palestine had little choice but to starve. Appalled by the reports reaching him from Jerusalem, Sir Moses launched a ground-breaking famine relief appeal that changed the face of international Jewish philanthropy. It was the first successful attempt to use the press and modern subscription-based fundraising to help the Jews of Palestine. He raised an unprecedented £20,000 - between £1.4 and £13.3 million in today's money.

But the Western Jews who contributed to the Holy Land Relief Fund wanted long-term solutions, not crisis management. A steady stream of European and North American do-gooders set sail for Jerusalem in the mid-1850s. They established schools and healthcare charities in the teeth of bitter resistance from the Charedim. Sir Moses too came to buy land and establish forward-looking institutions. Mishkenot Sha'ananim and the famous Montefiore windmill were part of this broader vision.

Inspired by Sir Moses's example, Orthodox hardliners launched a wave of building projects of their own. The hills outside the Old City would never look the same again.

Abigail Green is Fellow in history at Brasenose College, Oxford. Her biography, 'Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero', is published by Harvard University Press on February 28. She will be at Jewish Book Week on February 28. Details at www.jewishbookweek.com

    Last updated: 2:06pm, February 25 2010