A Jewish Philanthropist Who Advocated for Fair Treatment of Religious Minorities
Sir Moses Haim Montefiore was the most famous British Jew in the 19th Century. He had an imposing physical presence, and his life spanned a full century. Business was his first career, working in a brokerage firm with his brother. He was elected Sheriff of London in 1837, and the next year he was knighted by Queen Victoria.
After he retired from his business at the age of 40, he became a lifelong philanthropist.
Advocacy for Persecuted Jews
His first visit to the Holy Land in 1827 was a turning point in his life. He became a strictly observant Jew, and he became involved in advocacy for Jews suffering persecution or discrimination around the world. He journeyed to Turkey, Syria, Italy, Russia, Morocco and Romania on highly publicized trips to represent Jewish communities in distress. Simply by visiting these communities, he brought the world’s attention to the plight of the people. His advocacy for suffering Jews was strengthened by friendships he made with various world leaders, most notably Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Sultan of Egypt. Through his friendship with the Sultan, Montefiore secured the release of Damascus Jews who had been falsely accused of using Christian blood in religious rites, which was a notorious, centuries-old falsehood about Jews known as
Fair Treatment for All Religious Minorities
Moses Montefiore’s advocacy was not just for his own co-religionists. He raised funds for the relief of Christian refugees in Syria after thousands had been massacred by Druze militants. In Morocco while interceding for several Jews accused of murder, he also appealed for a Muslim who had been unjustly imprisoned for the murder of a Jew. He appealed to the sultan for fair treatment of all religious minorities.
As a philanthropist, Montefiore was active in many of the campaigns for reform in 19th-Century Britain. Often, he worked in alliance with other religious activists including evangelical Protestants. He helped organize the financial compensations to plantation owners to pave the way for abolishing slavery in the British Empire. His activist philanthropy was international in scope. Though he was primarily focused on the poor Jewish communities, especially in the Holy Land and around Jerusalem, in many of his relief efforts he made equal donations to Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.
As one tribute on his 100th birthday said,
Whenever the cry of distress reached your ears, you opened wide the hand of relief without stint or question, regarding the needy and the poor of all sects and creeds as brethren.