(Israel Twitter)Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet, Kt (24 October 1784 - 28 July 1885) was one of the most famous British Jews of the 19th century. Montefiore was a financier, banker, philanthropist and Sheriff of London. He donated large sums of money to promote industry, education and health amongst the Jewish community in Palestine, including the founding of Mishkenot Sha'ananim in 1860, the first settlement of the New Yishuv. As President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, his correspondence with the British consul in Damascus Charles Henry Churchill in 1841-42 is seen as pivotal to the development of Proto-Zionism.
Montefiore was born in Leghorn (Livorno in Italian), Italy in 1784. His grandfather, Moses Vita (Chaim) Montefiore had emigrated from Livorno to London in the 1740s, but retained close contact with the town, then famous for its straw bonnets. Montefiore was born while his parents, Joseph Elias Montefiore and his young wife Rachel, the daughter of Abraham Mocatta, a powerful bullion broker in London, were in the town on a business journey, their first child.
The family returned to Kennington in London, where Montefiore went to school and began his career as an apprentice to a firm of grocers and tea merchants. He then entered a counting-house in the City of London, and ultimately became one of the twelve "Jew brokers" licensed by the city. His brother Abraham joined him in the business, and their firm gained a high reputation.
In 1812, Moses Montefiore married Judith Cohen (1784-1862), daughter of Levi Barent Cohen. Her sister, Henriette (or Hannah) (1791-1866), married Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), for whom Montefiore's firm acted as stockbrokers. Nathan Rothschild headed the family's banking business in Britain, and the two brothers-in-law became business partners. Montefiore retired from his business in 1824, and used his time and fortune for communal and civic responsibilities. Physically imposing at 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m), he was elected Sheriff of London in 1837 and served until 1838. He was also knighted that same year by Queen Victoria and received a baronetcy in 1846 in recognition of his services to humanitarian causes on behalf of the Jewish people.
After retiring from business in 1824, Montefiore devoted the rest of his exceptionally long life to philanthropy. He was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1835-1874, a period of 39 years, the longest tenure ever, and member of Bevis Marks Synagogue. As President, his correspondence with the British consul in Damascus Charles Henry Churchill in 1841-42 is seen as pivotal to the development of Proto-Zionism.
In business, he was an innovator, investing in the supply of piped gas for street lighting to European cities via the Imperial Continental Gas Association. He was among the founding consortium of the Alliance Life Assurance Company, and a Director of the Provincial Bank of Ireland. Highly regarded in the City, he was elected as Sheriff of the City of London in 1836, and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1837.
From retirement until the day he died, he devoted himself to philanthropy and alleviating the distress of Jews all over the world. The details of his journeys overseas are well-documented. He went to the Sultan of Turkey in 1840 to liberate from prison ten Syrian Jews of Damascus arrested after a blood libel; to Rome in 1858 to try and free the Jewish youth Edgardo Mortara, baptised by his Catholic nurse and kidnapped by functionaries of the Catholic Church; to Russia in 1846 and 1872; to Morocco in 1864 and to Romania in 1867. It was these missions that made him a folk hero of near mythological proportions among the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Levant.
Little is known about his public and political life in general Victorian society. Indicative of his civic and society standing, Montefiore is mentioned in Charles Dickens' diaries, in the personal papers of George Eliot, and in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. It is known that he had contacts with non-conformists and social reformers in Victorian England. He was active in public initiatives aimed at alleviating the persecution of minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, and he worked closely with organisations that campaigned for the abolition of slavery. A Government loan raised by the Rothschilds and Montefiore in 1835 enabled the British Government to compensate plantation owners and thus abolish slavery in the Empire.
Philanthropy in the Holy Land
Jewish philanthropy and the Holy Land were at the center of Montefiore's interests. He traveled there by carriage and ship seven times, sometimes accompanied by his wife. He visited for the first time in 1827, followed by visits in 1838, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1866, and 1875. He made his last trip at the age of 91.
In 1854 his friend Judah Touro, a wealthy American Jew, died having bequeathed money to fund Jewish residential settlement in Palestine. Montefiore was appointed executor of his will, and used the funds for a variety of projects, including building in 1860 the first Jewish residential settlement and almshouse outside of the old walled city of Jerusalem - today known as Mishkenot Sha'ananim. This became the first settlement of the New Yishuv. Living outside the city walls was dangerous at the time, due to lawlessness and bandits. Montefiore offered financial inducement to encourage poor families to move there. Later on, Montefiore established the two Knesset Yisrael neighborhoods, one for Sephardic Jews, one for Ashkenazim, which were even further away.
Montefiore donated large sums of money to promote industry, education and health amongst the Jewish community in Palestine. The project, bearing the hallmarks of nineteenth century artisanal revival, aimed to promote productive enterprise in the Yishuv. The builders were brought over from England. These activities were part of a broader program to enable the Jews of Palestine to become self supporting in anticipation of the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Montefiore left an indelible mark on the Jerusalem landscape with the Moses Montefiore Windmill in Yemin Moshe, named after him. In addition to the windmill (to provide cheap flour to poor Jews), he built a printing press and textile factory, and helped to finance several agricultural colonies. He also attempted to acquire arable land for Jewish cultivation, but was hampered by Ottoman restrictions on land sale to non-Muslims.
Montefiore was renowned for his quick and sharp wit. A popularly-circulated anecdote, possibly apocryphal, relates that at a dinner party he was once seated next to a nobleman who was known to be an anti-Semite. The nobleman told Montefiore that he had just returned from a trip to Japan, where "they have neither pigs nor Jews." Montefiore is reported to have responded immediately, "in that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each" (a similar anecdote is told of Israel Zangwill.)