So Sir Moses Haim Montefiore (1784 –1885) was a British financier and banker; activist; philanthropist. Born to a poor Italian-Jewish family; he married into the rich Rothschild family. He donated large sums of money to promote the industry; business; economic development; education, and health among the Jewish community in the Levant; including the founding of Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe 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.
Moses Montefiore Early Life
So Montefiore was born in Leghorn (Livorno in Italian), Tuscany, in 1784; to a Sephardic Jewish family based in Great Britain. His grandfather, Moses Vital (Haim) 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.
In 1812, Moses Montefiore married Judith Cohen (1784–1862), daughter of Levy Barent Cohen. Her sister, Henriette (or Hannah) (1783–1850), 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. 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.
Moses Montefiore: His Journeys to the Holy Land
Though somewhat lax in religious observance in his early life, after his visit to the Holy Land in 1827, he became a strictly observant Jew. He was in the habit of traveling with a personal shochet (ritual slaughterer), to ensure that he would have a ready supply of kosher meat. Although Montefiore spent only a few days in Jerusalem, the 1827 visit changed his life. He resolved to increase his religious observance and to attend synagogue on Shabbat, as well as Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah is read. The visit had been a “spiritual transforming event” for him.
Montefiore has visited Israel seven times. In the 19th century, these tours were fraught with difficulties and dangers, both due to the security conditions and the condition of the roads. During this period, diseases and poverty prevailed in the Land of Israel, and Montefiore’s visit contributed greatly to the existence of the communities in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron.
Moses Montefiore First Visit to Palestine
In October 1827 he traveled for the first time to Israel, on a British warship that brought him to Alexandria. In Egypt he was told about the security situation in the country; a time when there were revolts against the government. In addition he fell ill and suffered from climate change. Still happy to “get out of Egypt” and arrived in Jaffa. In Jerusalem he found “50 Sephardic families, 40 Ashkenazis and 200 old widows – in poverty and destitution.” He and his wife made a donation to the city’s residents and institutions. On the way back, Ottoman warships accidentally attacked his ship, stopping the attack only when the ship arrived in Alexandria.
Moses Montefiore SecondVisit to Palestine
In May 1839 he came to Israel when he had an idea of her condition. This time he paid attention to improving the situation of the Jews. He heard from them that “farming is the only solution to their situation.” He arrived in Israel through the port of Beirut, passed through Safed and Tiberias and gave each of the residents a financial grant. He ascended Mount Meron accompanied by the Jews of Safed. Visited Hebron; In Jerusalem he was forced to camp on the Mount of Olives due to the plagues that broke out in the city.
Accompanied by his secretary, Dr. Eliezer Halevi, he recited Psalms at the Tomb of David. He also began to initiate the establishment of workshops and agricultural factories. He decided that he would seek help for his enterprise from the Jews of the world, but without success. On this journey his wife began to write her travel diary. In addition he added a part to the structure of Rachel’s tomb that exists to this day.
In 1857 he discovered that the attempts at agricultural settlement had failed and decided to build the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood (the neighborhood was established three years later). That same year, he built a flour mill on the land he bought for the hospital; in order to entice the Jews in Jerusalem to move to the new neighborhood.
Moses Montefiore: Conclusions
In all his travels, he assisted in the development of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel and in easing the living conditions of the Jews in it. Among other things, thanks to the respect he had for the Ottoman authorities and the foreign consuls in the country thanks to his status in Britain. Montefiore promoted Jewish settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem. Assisted in the livelihood of the city’s residents and encouraged productive work and tillage. He also worked to improve medical services in Jerusalem. The flour mill he set up is especially well-known and stands to this day in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood (there you can see Montefiore’s chariot that he used while touring the Holy Land).