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The Patriarch

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Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero

By Abigail Green

(Harvard University Press, 540 pp., $35)

In 1827, an upright, well-to-do English gentleman, traveling through the Levant with his lady wife, ran into some dirty weather en route from Alexandria to Malta. But this particular gentleman was called Moses and his notion of calming the sea was to throw the afikoman half of the middle matzoh of the Passover seder into the churning waters. Apparently, as Abigail Green tells it, in some Sephardi traditions the breaking of the afikoman symbolizes the parting of the Red Sea. Needless to say, it did the trick. The storm abated and the Montefiores, Moses and Judith, were granted a serene moonlit night. At which point, swept along by Green’s ripping tale and Montefiore’s own description of it “praying to God to preserve us, as He had … our forefathers from the turbulence of the sea,” the enchanted reader wakes from the spell to saywhat? The date of this salvation at sea was November 26. Passover was six months gone or six months ahead. Did Moses Montefiore habitually carry with him an emergency matzoh for such occasions? We all know that matzot, even the tooth-testing shmurah discs that can stand up to serious punishment, would probably not survive extreme maritime stress. So must we imagine an all-weather afikoman-preserver, perhaps custom-hammered in silver, for Moses Montefiore, man of substance, bill-broker for Nathaniel Rothschild, and director of insurance, gas, and mining companies?

Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero

By Abigail Green

(Harvard University Press, 540 pp., $35)

In 1827, an upright, well-to-do English gentleman, traveling through the Levant with his lady wife, ran into some dirty weather en route from Alexandria to Malta. But this particular gentleman was called Moses and his notion of calming the sea was to throw the afikoman half of the middle matzoh of the Passover seder into the churning waters. Apparently, as Abigail Green tells it, in some Sephardi traditions the breaking of the afikoman symbolizes the parting of the Red Sea. Needless to say, it did the trick. The storm abated and the Montefiores, Moses and Judith, were granted a serene moonlit night. At which point, swept along by Green’s ripping tale and Montefiore’s own description of it “praying to God to preserve us, as He had … our forefathers from the turbulence of the sea,” the enchanted reader wakes from the spell to saywhat? The date of this salvation at sea was November 26. Passover was six months gone or six months ahead. Did Moses Montefiore habitually carry with him an emergency matzoh for such occasions? We all know that matzot, even the tooth-testing shmurah discs that can stand up to serious punishment, would probably not survive extreme maritime stress. So must we imagine an all-weather afikoman-preserver, perhaps custom-hammered in silver, for Moses Montefiore, man of substance, bill-broker for Nathaniel Rothschild, and director of insurance, gas, and mining companies?

Even if a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, the story of Montefiore’s tempest-taming matzoh has exemplary power. For it makes the fit between the Gentleman and the Jew less historically improbable. Montefiore could dwell in a Gothic Revival villa in the Kentish seaside town of Ramsgate and settle into the architectural language of Christian yesteryear without any sense of awkwardness. The replica of Rachel’s Tomb, built amid the park and shrubberies to house his and his wife’s remains, likewise speaks of a confidence that to be terribly British and piously Jewish was not a contradiction in terms.

Some of us, though we came later, already know this. In the 1950s, my father was much given to alternating recitations from Kipling and Sholem Aleichem while poling a punt up the reedy Thames. But for some time now, despite excellent recent historical writing by Todd Endelman, Michael Clark, and others, not to mention the small matter of the Balfour Declaration, the Anglo-Jewish chronicle has seemed a picturesque footnote to the dominant teleology of Jewish history, so often, and for understandable reasons, cast as a history of persecution. Compared to the epic of the millions brought to the golden sanctuary of America, or to the carnage of the Shoah, or to the saga of Israel’s unrelenting traumas and travails, the Anglo-Jewish chronicle, featuring high hats, Mendoza the bareknuckle boxer, fried gefilte fish, strayed sons such as Disraeli, and genteel Zionists such as Zangwill, can seem picturesquely incidental.

But a moment’s reflection ought to correct this misapprehension. For better or worse, Britain has been one of the great theaters of Jewish history, in which both the familiar drama of suffering and expulsion, as well as the less storied but equally important chronicle of successful liberal integration, has been played out. Now that some of the most challenging recent Jewish historical writing has moved to give the story of “acculturation”an unlovely word masking a vital truthas much intellectual and moral power as the story of lamentation, annihilation, and redemption, perhaps the Book of Jewish Albion will be re-positioned as central rather than peripheral to the whole scripture.

 

Abigail Green’s erudite, intelligent, and graceful biography of Moses Montefiore will play a persuasive part in this revision. A daughter of a Sebag-Montefiore herself, she has had access to some family archival sources not available to her scholarly predecessors, but her kinship to her subject is never uncritical. When Moses Montefiore waxes pompous in his proconsular grandeur (a not infrequent occurrence); when he dons rose-tinted glasses about the prospects of his Palestinian enterprises; when he fails to treat his underlings with the consideration and renumeration they merited; when he intolerantly slams the door of acceptance against those, including members of his own family, who wanted to reform contemporary Judaism; when the trail of the great patriarch leads to extramarital dalliancesGreen tells it like it most certainly was. The result of this sympathetic candor is a portrait rich in human complexity from which Montefiore’s profound importance for the history of the Jews rises at last above mere ritual veneration.

There is only one thing wrong with Green’s book: its limply formulaic subtitle “Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero.” For Green convincingly demonstrates that Montefiore was neither. His career, inexhaustible in its commitment to an emancipation without assimilation, illuminates instead two more serious issues that may sound familiar. What happens to piety in the age of Jewish modernity? And what kind of international consensus on human rights might be brought to bear on states that wink at atrocity?

Moses Montefiore lived,like a good patriarch, to the biblical age of one hundred. He was born in Livorno in 1784 in the age of the sailing cruiser and the barouche and four, and he died as steam-powered ironclads and the telegraph ate up distance. The first image we haveit is reproduced in Green’s bookis a charming marriage miniature; the last is a photograph of the centenarian seer and sage in his old-fashioned starched standing collar and tall pillbox skullcap. In some ways his Victorian longevity turned Montefiore into a ghost in his own lifetime, draining his reputation of the inexhaustible political resourcefulness that had driven it and replacing it with the more innocuous aura of Eminent Philanthropist.

The hospitals, cemeteries, institutes, and synagogues that bear his name, scattered across the American continent from the Bronx to Las Vegas to North Forks, North Dakota preserve only the dimmest trace of what the name Montefiore once signified. Those places out on the prairie and elsewhere were named Montefiore in the 1880s, in the reverent afterglow of his centenary and death, mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe for whom the appearance of the Sar, or Sir, in Odessa or Bucharest, standing six-foot-three in his dress uniform, upright and resolute in the presence of pashas and princes, signified nothing less than the unexpected possibility of collective dignity.

Ask modern Jerusalemites about Montefiore and in all likelihood they will point to the windmill standing outside the walls of the Old City, across the valley of Gehenna, in the Yemin Moshe district that also bears his name: once an unprepossessing neighborhood of dirt and rubble, now seriously upscale and desirable. The mill, constructed by an English builder from Montefiore’s own specifications, was for him an entirely practical project, intended to grind grain that would lower the cost of bread for the chronically impoverished Jewish population of the nineteenth-century city. But like so many of his attempts at enlightened social and economic engineering, it became an architectural testimony to the hopeless distance between ideals and reality. The costs of building and running the mill were far steeper than Montefiore anticipated, and the winds of Judea did not oblige its sails with quite the same daily vigor as the stiff breezes of his Kentish home. Today the structure looks bizarrely out of place, as if it had landed, like the monolith in the Kubrick movie, from an alien planet. And any dispassionate verdict on the enterprises that meant most to Montefiorethe return to Zion for the harassed and destitute Jews of the Levant and Europe; the determination to make the Russian government desist from its part in condoning pogroms or enforcing mass evictionsrisks making the Knight of the Realm look rather quixotic in his grand delusions: a tilter at, as much as a builder of, windmills.

 

When Montefiore diedin 1885, modern political anti-Semitism was already hatching its dragons’ eggs in the Germanic and Slavic lands. The liberal British imperium, of which Sir Moses was the impeccable embodiment, was starting to take on the glow of an unmistakable sunset. Initially, it could do little about this ominous development other than open its own doors to the terrorized victims. But Green makes a strong case that notwithstanding this disastrous reversal of fortune, if there was one figure responsible for setting the just treatment of the Jews at the heart of the liberal international crusade for humanitarian equity, it was Moses Montefiore. She also wants to move the emphasis in his story away from the colorful and courageous adventures of the latter-day knight-errantthe descents by land and sea on Moroccan Mogador, on Smyrna, Rome, and Damascus, armed with a heady combination of Victorian self-righteousness and Jewish temeritytoward the “Montefiore publicity machine,” which, for the first time, made international Jewish solidarity among the piously emancipated, in Paris and Berlin as well as London, a possibility. A stripling Jewish vernacular press plays as much a part in this story as the expectant throngs of rabbis, yeshiva students, children, and habitual schnorrers lining the streets of his visitations, pouring prayers and praise on the head of their legendary nasi, or prince.

This newfound internationalism of Jewish plutocrats and haute bourgeoisie may have been Montefiore’s most enduring legacy, but Green is also at pains to point out the peculiarly British historical conditions that gave his work its international reach. His timing was perfect. Like others among the Jewish oligarchs of money, Montefiore served his apprenticeship in the city at exactly the moment when the magnitude of the military effort needed to stave off Napoleonic power gave the Rothschilds and the Montefiores their priceless opportunity. Armies were being mobilized by the hundreds of thousands, squandered on brutal campaigns, and then mobilized all over again. The same went for massively armed ships of the line. There was the matter of brokering the necessary advances on the bond market to save the empire from bankruptcy, and then smuggling the funds into the European theater of war; and those bankers with the most dependable international contacts did best. More notoriously, the same perfectly placed advance intelligence offered opportunities for outrageous profiteering at moments when the fate of Europe hung in the balance, as it so often did after 1810. Nathaniel Rothschild’s wayeven before Waterloowas to spread ill tidings, watch the bond market take a dive, dispatch brokers like young Montefiore to buy up as much as they could at rock-bottom prices, and stand back while the bet on victory paid off and sent the price rocketing.

As Nathaniel Rothschild’s junior partner, Montefiore became very rich very fast. Victory over Bonaparte for the coalition powers was politically absolute but fiscally pyrrhic. Only the Rothschilds and those who were part of their enterprise were in a position to save the grandest states from bankruptcy. But this indispensability also put that generation of entrepreneurs in a position to make money from establishing new technology-powered infrastructure without which any self-respecting empire would be doomed to backwardness. Using the extended networks that bound together the great names of Anglo-Jewryespecially the Sephardi end, the Mocattas and the GoldsmidsMontefiore diversified out into this industrial-imperial economy, investing in marine insurance, gas lighting, railways, and mines. It was a high-yield, high-risk financial world, as prone to busts as booms. But there was enough money to be made to turn Montefiore, as yet a little selective in his religious observance, into a pillar of the community and a grandee of the beautiful early eighteenth-century synagogue of Bevis Marks, a stone’s throw from his place of business in the city.

His ascent to eminence was completed with a good marriage: across community lines, to Judith Barent-Cohen, Ashkenazi, loaded, devout, curly, and comely. The story of this childless and selfless womanan inseparable companion on long, incredibly arduous journeys across Europe and the Mediterranean, through landscapes wrecked by fire and earthquake, stricken with cholera, torn with riot and waris as much part of Abigail Green’s story as her hero’s, not least because the intelligent and perceptive Judith often left a richer account of their travels and travails than her more woodenly grandiose husband. Green is especially winning when getting to grips with the physical realities of what the Montefiores had to face when they left the crenellated property at Ramsgate. Shopping for a “top of the range” carriage from “the famous Parisian coachmaker Beaupré” to take them long-distance traveling in 1816, “they would have been concerned about storage, exploring cupboards beneath the seats, secret drawers under front windows and pockets hidden in the vehicle’s padded lining where they would keep their valuables safe from dust and prying eyes. Finally they would have worried about comfort: cushions that did not slip, rounded corners, well-constructed blinds and closely fitted windows that would protect them from drafts. At 4,072 francs the price was steep.” In a story this well told, the reader is always pulled along for the jolting ride.

The most momentous of those journeys was to Palestine in 1827the trip that, but for the miracle of the afikoman, would have seen the Montefiores swallowed in the Mediterranean billows. Before the journey, Moses, in his early forties, while never defensive, had always taken his Judaism socially rather than devoutly. On that first trip out, the couple was less than strictly kosher. But despite Jerusalem being a “shabby tumbledown place ... overflowing with the rubble of centuriesstones, earth, ashes, bits of pottery, bones, and wood,” it was still an epiphany. “With humble thanks to my God,” Montefiore wrote in his diary, with what Green calls unusual personal intensity, “the God of my Fathers, the only True God, we arrived safe, without any accident in the City of our forefathers, the great and long-desired object of our wishes and journey. May God Almighty bless my dear Wife and ... make me more deserving of his manifold blessings & mercies, that I may become every day a better man, a more righteous Jew, and more useful to my poorer brethren in general: so that my latter days may be virtuous and peaceable!”

The profession was evidently sincere. Future journeys would stop for Shabbat. Prayers would be regular. The ritual slaughterer would come along with the entourage, and Montefiore would make a point of enacting tzedakahthe great Jewish obligation of charitywherever it was needed. And it was needed among the threadbare of Safed and Jerusalem; and in the fire-ravaged community in Smyrna, and in Mogador (now Essaouira), where in 1844 the Jews had been left in their walled quarter to fend for themselves against sack, rape, and arson, while the Arab population fled for safety.

So a very remarkable thing happened to the man of business. As he became more Britisha captain in the militia, a sheriff of the city of Londonhe became more, not less, Jewish. He acquired from the herald-at-arms armorial bearings for his family, but inscribed with the word “Jerusalem.” Instead of depleting each other, the two identities linked arms and set forth to do good for the British and the Jews, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that their historical destinies were converging.

But so they were, and Montefiore was both the agent and the beneficiary of that convergence. One of the best things about Green’s biography is that it gives full weight to Montefiore’s rapidly developing political intelligencean understanding far more forthright and unapologetic about how monied authority could be translated into diplomatic clout. Someone more inclined to nervousness about provoking accusations that a monied baron descending on Oriental pashas only demonstrated that the Jews were indeed (in Alphonse de Toussenel’s anti-Semitic jibe) “the kings of the epoch” would not have gone straight to the doors of the Ottoman sultan, and Muhammad Ali, the pasha of Egypt, to demand equitable treatment for Jews subject to the terror of blood libels.

 

But Montefiore also grasped two other, interconnected elements in early Victorian culture that for once dropped gifts into the lap of his people. The first element was strategic. Though France was vanquished and Russia a long way away, British policymakersabove all, Viscount Palmerston, the most shrewdly extravagant of them allwere suspicious that neither of these conditions was to be taken for granted. The Napoleonic moment in Egypt was not to be altogether abandoned, and the colonial acquisition of Algeria in 1830 made a Levantine thrust of French ambitions more likely. And Russia was never far away from the Hindu Kush. No sooner had the Indian Raj been consolidated than its guardians in London became obsessed with a pincer movement that would see Russia cut the routes to India south from a domination of the Bosporus and north through control of Afghanistan. The geostrategic paranoia that would culminate in the Crimean Warand never really go away as long as there was a British Rajcommitted Britain to propping up the Ottoman empire virtually indefinitely. But liberal social theory prescribed that this could only be achieved if the Ottomans could be persuaded to modernize their autocracy. And for that to happen, so the theory went, the presence of vigorous “modernizing elements” was required, among whom, of course, were the Jews of the Turkish port cities, already prominent and successful and treated with relative benevolence, and now a key to geostrategic success.

So Palmerston turned eagerly to the kind of British Jews who were themselves unabashed modernizers, who could speak freely to the likes of the Camondo patricians of Istanbul and bring about the social, educational, and political evolution that would turn Turkey from the sick man of Europe into a reinvigorated engine of reform and prosperity. Moses Montefiore was that kind of Jew. And the fact that he was famously devout as well as strappingly patriotic was only a further sign of his integrity. Doors would be unlocked wherever this Moses went, and the queen herself would smile upon his labors.

But there was another kind of Victorian mover and shaker, no less enabling in Montefiore’s career, driven less by imperial strategy and more by messianic conviction. Jews had returned to England in the 1650s as a result of Oliver Cromwell’s subscription to the truism that a precondition of the second coming was the dispersion of the Jews to every land in the world, followed by their eventual conversion. Two centuries later the timetable had been adjusted somewhat, ingathering having replaced dispersion as a priority, and evangelicals were on fire to secure the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. This dovetailing of Christian ardor with rekindled Jewish yearnings for Jerusalem became a fierce passion in the midst of Victorian lifeits inoculation against callow materialism. It showed up in pre-Raphaelite painting; in the watercolors of David Roberts; in philo-Zionist sermons; in the literary construction of morally noble Lost Semites such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, who are granted a smoky epiphany with a tubercular student of the Talmud, after which they become providentially awakened to their true identity, start to grow extensive facial hair, and look dreamily toward Jerusalem. The fact that there was also so much venomous anti-Semitism around in the same culture, courtesy of Carlyle and Dickens and others, only stoked the romantic idealism of these Christian Zionists.

In the pioneering work of the first generation of British Holy Land archaeologists dispatched by the Palestine Exploration Fund (its patroness was Queen Victoria), most of whom were engineers such as Claude Conder and the twenty-six-year-old Herbert Kitchener, the two strands of philo-Semitism came together. Batting away clouds of mosquitoes, sweating their way through yellow fever, plunging into tunnels and the beckoning maze of late Ottoman peculation, the Victorian diggers and sifters produced in short order the first Ordinance Survey maps of Jerusalem (things of fabulously stringent beauty) and the Palestinian cartography on which the army of General Allenby eventually relied for his conquest in 1917.

 

Much of this was well beyond Montefiore’s purview, but he became a genius at harnessing both strategic pragmatism and evangelical zeal to promote the cause of humanitarian aid to victimized Jewish populations, while at the same time allowing himself to believe that one day a refuge in Zion was not altogether imaginary. The fact that there was no Grand Montefiore Plan, no full Zionist program, but merely a succession of Jewish emergencies that summoned him to drag his old bones once more on creaky carriages and leaky ships only makes his tireless belief in making a difference the more affecting. The aggressive, sometimes blustering innocence that was the hallmark of a Montefiore campaign usually immunized him from local suspicion, though Green points out that his irrepressible instinct to take control of relief efforts often got in the way of the international orchestration of succor whose humble servant he claimed to be. The story of the relationship between the knight of Ramsgate and his French counterpart Adolphe Crémieux, a democratic republican, is not a happy tale. When the two tried to work together on a mission to Damascus in 1840, after Jews had been victimized by a foul blood libel, Crémieux voiced his bitter resentment at Montefiore’s presumption of leadership. These quarrels, alas, are familiar in Jewish history.

In spite of his moral bumptiousness, or quite possibly because of it, Montefiore often got the job done. By hook and by crook he managed to secure an audience with the sultan that resulted in a decree committing the Turkish empire to a formal protection of the lives and the property of Jews on an equal basis with all other subjects. This, at long last, was an end to the provisions of the medieval Pact of Umar by which the Jews, as a people of the book, received protection from Islam on condition of accepting the yoke of second-class subject. The institutionalized humiliation of annual tribute levies, obligatory codes of demeaning dress, and enclosure into a sealed-off district within their cities were no more, at least in some parts of the Ottoman realms. The Jews of İzmir and Istanbul were delivered from social claustrophobia and economic constriction. Any visitor to the Jewish museum in Istanbul will see rich photographic evidence of a community in flower, making not only money but also marriages, education, a life in the professions.

Not all Montefiore’s missions on behalf of the distressed and the defamed worked out as he hoped. In Rome, in 1858, it was claimed that a six-year-old Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara had been secretly baptized by the family housemaid and then abducted by the papal police. Efforts by the distraught parents to have him returned to his family failed. Pope Pius IX claimed to have shed tears over the tragedy, though Montefiore and many others, horrified by the papal kidnapping, suspected these might have been crocodilian. Descending on Rome, amid yet more blood libel riots, Montefiore never did get his papal audience and was brushed off by a senior cardinal. But he succeeded in making the violation of Jewish rights into one of the great missions of international liberalism. If this liberalism would eventually fail the test of the ultimate horror, that was hardly Montefiore’s failing.

Green’s book is a rich gift to historyand not just Jewish historyfor its account not just of what Moses Montefiore did or did not do, but also of what he was. Her pages are most memorable when they simply bring the old boy to vivid life amid all the complexities and perplexities of his great self-imposed calling. In Vilna, for example, on another ultimately futile mission to dissuade the czar from enforcing the summary eviction of Jews from rural regions of the Pale, Montefiore, moving comfortably among the emancipated and the Orthodox, donned the tallit on his scarlet dress uniform with the frogging and the ostrich plume hat, as occasion required. He knew how simultaneously to honor the memory of the Vilna Gaon and the aspirations of modernizing Jews to secular education: both were ways of being Jewish in Vilna. He listened to the dispossessed and the destitute, did what he could to help, and on departing declared that “I leave you but my heart will ever remain with you. When my brethren suffer, I feel it painfully; when they have reason to weep, my eyes shed tears.”

The sentimentality is of a piece with the sincerity. But what matteredand still doesis that the grandee of Ramsgate, obstinate, egotistical, and inexhaustible as he was, could put himself in the shoes of the wretched and the persecuted among his co-religionistsand more, that he expected that his example would become a routine decency. As Abigail Green’s splendid book shows, there are worse ways to live a Jewish life.

Simon Schama is professor of art history and history at Columbia University. His most recent book is The American Future: A History (Ecco).

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