Sir Moses: our first global celebrity

Abigail Green explains how writing a biography of philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore gave her an insight into forgotten Jewish worlds.

February 18, 2010
Sir Moses himself, the philanthropist who devoted his life to improving the lot of world Jewry

Sir Moses himself, the philanthropist who devoted his life to improving the lot of world Jewry

For 10 years I have been working on a biography of the Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885). He was one of the first global celebrities. Jews and gentiles alike celebrated his centenary with such enthusiasm that the post office near his home in Rasmgate laid on extra staff to cope with the flood of letters and telegrams from all over the world.

Fame on this scale was the product of an extraordinary life. After making a fortune on the stock exchange, Montefiore devoted 60 years to improving the lot of world Jewry. Oblivious to piracy, cholera and war, disregarding his ever-greater age and physical infirmities, he travelled all over Europe and the Middle East. His missions took him seven times to Palestine, as well as to Egypt, Russia, Rome, Turkey, Morocco and Romania, where he interceded on their behalf with pashas, sultans, emperors and popes. Operating as a kind of unofficial ambassador for the Jewish people, Montefiore pioneered a diplomatic approach to the problem of Jewish persecution that helped to carve a new place for Jews in the modern world. In the process, he raised millions in today's money to relieve Jewish refugees and famine victims living in the Muslim world.

I have found researching Montefiore's life a peculiarly rich experience. My mother was born a Montefiore, and I vividly remember the massive family lunch to mark his bicentenary in 1984. For most of us, he was already a legend. A few of the "oldies" recalled halcyon holidays at his former home in Ramsgate. My great aunt referred to him occasionally as "Uncle Moses". One of my mother's cousins remembered being taken for a walk by a very elderly relative who, it was said, had once held Sir Moses' hand.

Writing this book has helped me uncover a little of the man behind the myth. Since most of Montefiore's papers were burned after his death, I have learned more than I ever thought possible from rare surviving diaries, correspondence and Montefiore memorabilia.

Many of the addresses he received from Jews all over the world were beautifully presented – illuminated scrolls, embroidery, extravagant presentation cases in velvet and rotting silk. What has survived is so haphazard that it is exciting to find, as I did on one occasion, a "task file", which shows how Montefiore's mind worked - the way in which he stored papers and copied out relevant sections of his diary when dealing with a specific problem. Some documents are very personal too, such as a fertility amulet prepared for Montefiore's wife Judith during an early visit to Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem, well known as a place of pilgrimage for childless women.

Abigail Green: famous ancestor

Abigail Green: famous ancestor

The archives I visited have been equally unexpected. Alongside big national institutions, I have visited tiny organisations like the Evangelical Alliance in Lambeth, its walls plastered with posters proclaiming the spread of Christianity in Africa, and the impoverished Palestine Exploration Fund, which boasts an extraordinary collection of early photographs hidden away in a vast, windowless basement.

Some of these experiences have been unsettling: the obvious reluctance of the Jewish community in Bucharest to let me anywhere near their archive - to the point of denying its existence - brought home the paranoia induced by decades of dictatorship in a vulnerable minority. Others have been magical. Stepping into one private archive in north London is like stepping into a lost world of Eastern European Jewish scholarship. The front room is dark with rare Hebrew books, double-stacked from floor to ceiling, and its owner is famous among Jewish scholars for "having seen catalogues which no longer exist" in the great yeshivot of pre-war Mitteleuropa.

This has naturally made for some memorable personal encounters.

Rahel Margolis, the Holocaust survivor who showed me round the small Jewish museum in Vilnius, has since been threatened with prosecution for her activities in Lithuania as a wartime partisan. André Azoulay, who I met in Morocco, remains the only Jewish minister in the Arab world.

Their life experiences could hardly be more different but both are, in a way, symbols of their communities. Despite their very different material circumstances, these communities too, have more in common than meets the eye. Both now number around 5,000 and neither really has a future. And in both countries official support for the Jewish community coexists with more ambivalent feelings among the population at large.

In Morocco, many people told me they were better off than Jews in Britain, where intermarriage and assimilation are rife. "We have a strong community here from a religious point of view," the chief rabbi asserted proudly. "It is better here than in France. The Arabs give us much respect. On Yom Kippur, the Wali comes, all the top officials, the ambassadors, they come to synagogue out of respect for us. As the Talmud says: 'If the head of the state is good, then also the people are good."'

But in a country where no Jew feels comfortable wearing a kippah in the street, the reality seemed more complicated. Secular Muslims may be queuing up to send their children to the few remaining Jewish schools, but the bombing of Jewish targets in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 tell a different story.

There is no denying the impact of Al-Jazeera in a country where even remote Berber villages boast satellite dishes. Once Jews lived in these villages too. Now, most Moroccans only see them on television, and the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict overshadows the rich Moroccan Jewish past.

In post-Holocaust Lithuania, it is the past that overshadows the present. "It's what they hear from their grandfathers," one Jewish student told me. "The blood libel is still a live issue. Last Passover I brought some matzah into the library. I said to the people who work there, this is something we eat for our festival, there's no blood in it, try some. The women said, I know this, but my mother told me different." Even so, he had no plans to join the 8,000 Jews who left Lithuania in the early 1990s. "This problem is in the air, but we don't have to fight it every day. Everything will be OK."

Travelling through Europe and the Middle East in Montefiore's footsteps has brought home to me just how much the Jewish world has changed since his day.

Montefiore went to Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Morocco because these countries housed major Jewish communities. Now, Jewish quarters in cities as far-flung as Vilnius and Damascus are empty and the Jewish cultural presence is gone, yet there are millions of Jews living in Israel - in striking contrast to the oppressed and impoverished Jewish minority in the Palestine Montefiore knew.

All this might serve to render Montefiore's life and work irrelevant. I like to think the reverse is the case. The issues that preoccupied Montefiore - antisemitism, Zionism, the fate of refugees, the persecution of ethnic minorities, interfaith relations in the Middle East - sometimes seemed peripheral to contemporaries. Nobody could say that they are peripheral today. Then, as now, religious conflict, globalisation and modernisation went hand in hand.

Abigail Green is Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College, Oxford. Her new biography, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is published by Harvard University Press on February 28.

Last updated: 3:36pm, February 18 2010