Sir Moses Montefiore: a modern appreciation*

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When Montefiore was born, Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia and Dr Johnson still held court in London. When he died, Albert Einstein was alive, Leo Pinsker had written Auto-Emancipation, and the great westward Jewish migrations were well under way. This combination of distance and proximity gives Montefiore a prismatic quality. He lived through a series of divers epochs, outliving each and sometimes at odds with the successively new.

His strenuous attention to congregational and charitable responsibilities was part of the noblesse-oblige way of life common to the governing circles of the community, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. It was a highly personalized family commitment. In addition to his strikingly long tenures of communal office,((He held office as President of the London Board for Shechita, with short interludes, from 1842 to 1880.)) he was one of the most assiduous exponents of that way of life. The course of conduct which for many years was epitomized by his communal activity, was a continuation of longstanding responses connected not only with traditional Jewish norms and religious duty, but also with Jewish public relations within the wider society. The leadership wanted to be seen caring for the Jewish needy, engaging in the education and westernization of 'foreigners' and their families, and sustaining the familiar religious patterns and institutions of Jewish life. Much more attention was paid to the Jewish education of the poor than to that of the middle classes, whose wants in that direction were often greater.

Sir Moses embodied a philosophy which equated leadership with the philanthropic impulse. In his case there was the additional fact of his sheer energy. That quality steps out of the pages of his published diaries.((The Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Monte flore were edited by Louis Loewe and first appeared in 1890. They were handsomely republished by this Society and the Jewish Museum in 1983.))

During the last twenty years of his life the adulation of him became universal and endemic. Inherited assumptions about him and the veneration of his memory inhibited frank study of his role as a communal leader. The heroic elemeni obtruded. Furthermore, his career reinforced the idea-which ran deep in Anglo-Jewry in any event-that personal influence in public relations mattered more than representational capacity. It strengthened the current belief in the legitimacy of the power of notables.

His career illustrates the public and private success of the Anglo-Jewish pluto-aristocracy. The various echelons of the Jewish middle classes followed their fashion. People at the large base of the Jewish social and economic pyramid were more concerned with subsistence, or with their own efforts to move higher in the social and economic scale. Everyone was conscious to some degree of British power. It was widely remembered that Montefiore had often acted in overseas matters with the public encouragement of Her Majesty's Government. His purposes abroad were related to a liberalism which it was the boast of that Government to promote. This outlook underlay not only Montefiore's position as a Jewish spokesman, but also his image as a

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