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Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, by Abigail Green. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2010. 540 pp. $35.00.
The scion of a wealthy Livornese Sephardic family, Moses Montefiore (1784–1885) made his fortune as a London stockbroker before, from his early 40s, devoting the rest of his life to philanthropic endeavors and the struggle for social and religious emancipation in the United Kingdom and abroad. Montefiore volunteered primarily on behalf of beleaguered Jews, but, in the cross-confessional spirit of mid-Victorian society, this “global celebrity” also made Middle Eastern Muslims and Christians recipients of his largesse and humanitarian-political intercession.
Abigail Green, a historian specializing in modern history at the University of Oxford, is a descendant of the Sebag-Montefiore family on the distaff side. Despite her ancestry and the “hero” in the subtitle, Green’s Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero is neither hagiography nor filiopietism. We read of Montefiore’s snubby opposition in the 1850s to his congregation’s newly elected Reform deputies and the resulting chaos and police intervention (p. 226), his ill-situated Jerusalem windmill (p. 328), the failure of his diplomacy to solve modern political antisemitism in Romania (p. 355), and his lack of vision for a coherent philanthropic plan (p. 396). Nor does Green fall into the biographical trap of separating a man’s public from his private life, or assessing the latter as unworthy of the reader’s attention. We learn of Montefiore’s unbending refusal to ever again speak with his brother after the latter joined London’s newly founded Reform congregation, his “tactless and ill-judged” condescension toward colleague Adolph Crémieux during the 1840 Damascus Affair (p. 155), and what Green considers Montefiore’s “probable infidelity,” which possibly resulted in illegitimate children (p. 295).
Moses Montefiore was a man who transcended religious, communal, and national borders; Green’s project therefore demanded a multi-lingual foray into archival and printed documents from three continents, as well as a bevy of research assistants, transcribers, and translators. Her family links only enhanced the reach of her sources, including oral traditions, family rituals, and—most notably—a fertility amulet Judith Montefiore acquired upon her visit to the Tomb of Rachel in 1827. Produced especially for her by Sephardic rabbis who served as hereditary guardians of the monument, the amulet is the “earliest concrete evidence of a fertility cult” at this Bethlehem pilgrimage site (p. 80). Lady Montefiore’s self-edited diary of her Eastern journey contains no hint of this nor of the agony she must have experienced, still childless in her early 40s. Green’s retrieval of this artifact adds a special poignancy to the design for Judith’s gravemarker: a replica of the Tomb of Rachel erected by her husband.
Like no work before, this biography places Moses Montefiore’s entire life within a broader historical context. Green focuses on the public domain, moving from one local or international political event to another, usually with a keen eye for Jewish culture and history. She sheds new light on the Anglo-Jewish colonization of Palestine movement by linking it to 1830s abolitionist plans to transport freed slaves to Africa and train them as farmers. Here, a greater focus on the Jewish context could have benefited Green’s discussion. Montefiore’s second trip to Jerusalem took place one year before 1840, which many Jews (and Christians) anticipated as millenarian. Around the same time, European Sephardi rabbis, including Sarajevo-born Judah Alkalai (1798–1878), had reinterpreted teshuva (Hebrew for repentance, or a “‘return’ to righteousness”) as a literal return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, a precondition for national redemption. If Montefiore was staunchly orthodox, and—as Green argues—more so than Judith, his awareness of these Jewish trends might have been as important as broader socio-political movements.
Sometimes, Green illuminates the context so brightly that one loses sight of Montefiore, and some chapters end up being more about the context rather than the man. For certain periods or themes, such as the Mortara Affair, rightly so. But this over-focus on context obscures Montefiore and his intimates as distinctive human beings who were reacting to and interpreting major social changes. Green’s assessment of Judith’s role in her husband’s enterprises is relatively limited. Her brief explanations for why Lady Montefiore was regarded as “an equal partner in her husband’s philanthropy” (p. 126) (her childlessness, for example, made her the ‘mother of all Jews’) does not help us to understand her queenly reception in Europe and the Middle East and the extraordinary ritual honors bestowed upon her in the male section of the synagogue—perhaps the first time in modernity a woman was so honored. Insufficiently unexplored is the couple’s marked lack of ethnocentricism: despite their high-handedness, both seem to have regarded Eastern Jews—and, to some extent, Eastern Muslims and Christians—as their equals, and did not share the “orientalist” attitudes of so many upper-class Brits, Ashkenazi coreligionists, or European Christian travelers. How could the Montefiores have embodied British refinement, but not, for the most part, its cultural imperialism? Nor does Green explain another social paradox: their close friendships with arch-conservatives, who opposed the emancipation of Britain’s Jews, and Protestant conversionists. These relationships must have reflected more than just political pragmatism (p. 215). Finally, one wonders why popular enthusiasm for Montefiore was so ephemeral if his impact was global (p. 421).
Green concludes by dubbing the nineteenth century “an age of incipient globalization” (p. 135) and claims that Moses Montefiore’s public endeavors were part of an “emerging Jewish solidarity” (p. 300). Especially in the context of Jewish history, this view calls for refinement. United by a common written language, responsa literature, and messianic fervor, one might argue that Jews had enjoyed varying degrees of global solidarity since the destruction of the Second Temple. Surely communal causes, like certain false messianic movements, redemption of captives, and disaster relief for Palestine, elicited global, cross-communal Jewish responses well before the nineteenth century. Perhaps, then, the question should not be about the “emergence” of solidarity in the Jewish diaspora, but rather its intensification and redefinition with the advent of the press, railroads, and religiously-based volunteerism in civil society.
University of Massachusetts