Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial hero

This Moses was not so heroic after all


Montefiore: interceder supreme

Montefiore: interceder supreme

By Abigail Green
Harvard University Press, £24.95

The commanding figure of Moses Montefiore dominated the Jewish world for much of the 19th century. Born into a family of Italian-Jewish merchants, he made a great deal of money in business but he also married a great deal of money - his wife Judith was a daughter of Levi Barent-Cohen, from whom practically the entire Anglo-Jewish "cousinhood" was descended.

Montefiore pursued three careers: as a businessman and stockbroker; as lay leader of British Jewry; and as an "interceder" on behalf of oppressed Jewish communities worldwide. It was primarily on the basis of these overseas interventions that his great reputation was based. His 100th birthday in 1884 was an occasion of nationwide rejoicing.

How genuine were the grounds upon which this reputation rested? Since Montefiore's death, a number of scholars have tried to answer this question, but most have been fatally inhibited by the bonfire that his nephew and heir, Joseph Sebag-Montefiore, deliberately made of his papers. Undaunted by this act of censorship, Abigail Green (an Oxford don who is also a Sebag-Montefiore) has brilliantly synthesised a wealth of other sources, many of them never before used by Montefiore scholars. The picture that emerges is sombre and in some respects shocking.

Moses and Judith were childless. This led him to engage in extra-marital affairs, and her to become spiritually obsessed. As a youngster, Moses was not at all observant, and scarcely knew Hebrew. But after their first visit to Jerusalem, in 1827, he became punctiliously frum. Thereafter, he consciously re-prioritised his life, putting good works first and business second.

Yet, however noble his intentions, his heroic efforts bore little fruit. Most positive was his intervention in the Damascus blood-libel of 1840, when, having assisted in securing the release of imprisoned Jews, he travelled to Constantinople and persuaded the Sultan to issue a decree condemning the libel.

His journeys to Palestine were controversial. He knew how to dispense charity to Jewish communities living there but not how to secure their long-term prosperity. Even in dispensing charity, he was unable to distinguish between the genuinely needy and the charlatan. He understood little of the religious politics of Jewish Jerusalem, and cared less. His attempt to provide secular education for Jewish girls ended in his stoning (by boys, naturally) and virtual excommunication by the Sephardi chief rabbi of the city.

Montefiore insisted on blundering into situations he did not understand. He failed to comprehend the antisemitism of the Tsarist autocracy. In Vilna, a Lubavitcher is reported to have told him, to his face, that his money (distributed as charity) would have been better spent bribing the government.

In Morocco, in 1864, he claimed to have obtained from the local sultan an edict giving the Jews civic equality. In reality, the document merely restated the position of Jews under Sharia law. In Romania, three years later, his unilateral intervention made things demonstrably worse, not better.

But, in history, perception is everything. Montefiore died a Victorian hero. Dr Green has shown him to have had feet of clay.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011