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Montefiore, Sir Moses


MONTEFIORE, SIR MOSES (1784–1885), most famous Anglo-Jew of the 19th century. Montefiore was born in Leghorn while his parents were on a visit from London, where he was brought up, being taught elementary Hebrew by his maternal uncle Moses *Mocatta. First apprenticed to a firm of wholesale grocers and tea merchants, he left to become one of the 12 "Jew brokers" in the City of London. After initial setbacks, he went into partnership with his brother Abraham, and the firm acquired a high reputation. His marriage in 1812 to Judith Cohen (see Judith *Montefiore) made him brother-in-law of Nathan Mayer *Rothschild, for whom his firm acted as stockbrokers. After his retirement from regular business in 1824, though he retained various commercial directorships, he had the time and the fortune to undertake communal and civic responsibilities.

Contrary to accepted opinion, he was apparently somewhat lax in religious observance in earlier life; but from 1827, after his first visit to Ereẓ Israel, until the end of his life, he was a strictly observant Jew. Montefiore maintained his own synagogue on his estate at Ramsgate from 1833 and in later years traveled with his own shoḥet. His determined opposition checked the growth of the Reform movement in England. Though a patron of scholars, he had no pretensions to scholarship himself. He paid seven visits to Ereẓ Israel, the last in 1874. In 1838 his scheme for acquiring land to enable Jews in Ereẓ Israel to become self-supporting through agriculture was frustrated when Mehmet Ali, viceroy of Egypt, who had shown sympathy for the idea, was forced by the great powers to give up his conquests from the Turks. He later attempted to bring industry to the country, introducing a printing press and a textile factory, and inspired the founding of several agricultural colonies. The Yemin Moshe quarter outside the Old City of Jerusalem was due to his endeavors and named after him. In 1855, by the will of Judah *Touro, the U.S. philanthropist, he was appointed to administer a bequest of $50,000 for Jews of the Holy Land.

Montefiore was sheriff of London in 1837–38 and was knighted by Queen Victoria on her first visit to the City. He received a baronetcy in 1846 in recognition of his humanitarian efforts on behalf of his fellow Jews. Although president of the *Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1835 to 1874 (with only one brief interruption), he did not, after the early years, play a prominent part in the emancipation struggle but devoted himself to helping oppressed Jewries overseas. He has been described as the last of the *shtadlanim who by their personal standing with their governments were able to further the cause of Jews elsewhere. He was active as such from the time of the *Damascus Affair in 1840. In 1846, he visited Russia to persuade the authorities to alleviate persecution of the Jewish population, and went to *Morocco in 1863 and *Romania in 1867 for the same purpose. His intervention in the *Mortara Case in 1855, however, proved a failure. Some of his achievements appear in retrospect as transitory. Although in 1872, after representing the Board of Deputies at the bicentenary celebrations of Peter the Great, he reported that a new age had dawned for the Jews of Russia, persecution was renewed in 1881. Lover of Ereẓ Israel though he was and believer in the messianic restoration of a Jewish state, he did not conceive of large-scale, planned development of the country as a solution to the Jewish problem. This was largely because Montefiore (and his contemporaries) trusted absolutely in the inevitability of progress and with it worldwide emancipation for the Jews.

Nevertheless, both in his own lifetime and since, he enjoyed enormous prestige. Montefiore's physical presence (he was 6 ft. 3 in. tall), his commanding personality, his philanthropy, and his complete disinterestedness, made him highly respected and admired both in England and abroad. The support of the British government for his activities – consonant with British policies overseas – and the personal regard shown him by Queen Victoria added to his reputation. His 100th birthday was celebrated as a public holiday by Jewish communities the world over.

One of the most famous Jews of the 19th century, Moses Montefiore was important for many different reasons, for instance as an early, influential Zionist. His most significant role, however, might have been as arguably the template of a wealthy, influential, well-connected Jew in a Western democracy, who used his influence to ameliorate the condition of persecuted Jews in countries where antisemitism was rife. This model of Jewish leadership has persisted, perhaps as the norm, into our own times.


Roth, Mag Bibl, 140–6; Lehmann, Nova Bibl, 109, 112, 117; L. Wolf, Sir Moses Montefiore (1885, Eng.); L. Loewe, Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore, 2 vols. (1890); P. Goodman, Moses Montefiore (1925, Eng.); S.U. Nahon, Sir Moses Montefiore (Eng. 1965). add. bibliography: S. and V.D. Lipman (eds.), The Century of Moses Montefiore (1985); G. Alderman, Modern British Jewry, index; W.D. Rubinstein, Jews in Great Britain, index; D.S. Katz, Jewsin England, 336–40, index; T. Endelman, Jews of Britain, index.

[Vivian David Lipman]

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