The Montefiore Coat of Arms
A short time before Pesach. Thomas, the priest, and his loyal servant were preparing a chicken pox vaccination (which was invented by a Jew), when suddenly they vanished. Quite rapidly, a Jewish barber was located, who "admitted" that the two Christians were murdered by Jews, for a "reason" as age-old as antisemitism. "They were murdered," he supposedly said, "because the Jews needed blood for their matzos!"
The terrible pain of the interrogated Jew caused him to draw all of the city's Jewish notables into the whirlpool. They were all tortured and forced to confess to all the accusations against them. Some converted to Islam in order to save their pain-wracked lives.
In despair, the Jews of Damascus wrote to their brethren in Europe and pleaded with them for help. They, in turn, responded.
However only Montefiore felt his brothers' suffering in his bones. Quickly, he harnessed his carriage and headed for Damascus. After many months, he managed to save the tortured prisoners and to secure a writ of protection for the other Jews of the city.
How did it happen that Jews were accused of murdering Christians and then converted to Islam in order to spare themselves? Why didn't the Sultan, who later gave the Jews a writ of protection, discern the falsity of the libel?
To answer these questions, we must probe the political infrastructure of the nineteenth century.
During that period, Muslims, Christians and Jews were involved in a power struggle. Arab rulers and Muslims, foreign countries, via ambassadors and religious representatives with secular thought modes, connived and fought against each other, inciting, in the process, pent up hatred toward the eternal scapegoat, the Jew.
The saga of the Damascus libel is particularly interesting, because it marks the first time that Muslims instigated the gory Christian import from Europe, the blood libel. In this case, the Christians cleverly displayed their talents for intrigue, while taking advantage of the Muslim civil war.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Muslims ruled the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, whose center was in Turkey, spread as far as Egypt.
The Jews enjoyed relative freedom. They achieved a very prominent place in economic circles. Their business acumen, accompanied by their international connections with other Jews, and by their high level of intelligence and learning, escalated a number of Jewish families to leading positions as ministers and advisors.
The Parchi family was the most famous one. In 1820, twenty years before the Damascus libel, R' Chaim Parchi was sentenced to death. This was a golden opportunity for the Christians, who had arrived in Syria and in the entire Middle East in the wake of mounting French influence. Their purpose in coming was to establish themselves financially. They, too, were successful merchants. The internal struggles of the Arabs were to their benefit.
When Egypt's ruler, Mohammed Ali, gained control of Syria and Lebanon, he liquidated the Sultan's loyal followers, and appointed Christians to top positions. The Muslims began to suspect that the Christians would seize all the positions. Hatred for the Christians mounted. "The government is being transformed into a Christian regime, while the Muslim system is being abrogated," they said.
How could this situation be reversed? How could the hatred of the Christians be obliterated? Only by venting it on the Jews. And so, the Christians schemed to accuse the Jews of murdering the priest and his aide. The Muslims, who were not accustomed to such libels, tended to believe that the accusations were indeed true.
Montefiore heard and decided to act. Accompanied by his loyal wife, Yehudis, and his dedicated aide, Eliezer HaLevi, as well as by a few Jewish and Christian representatives, he headed for the palace of Mohammed Ali in Egypt.
It is difficult to understand what caused Montefiore to believe that he could effect the cancellation of the decree, or as a Jew, influence so powerful a ruler. Perhaps the backing he received from the British government, which sought to support him—not because it loved Jews, but because it wanted to bolster its stature in the Middle East—encouraged him.
No matter what he thought, his behavior is still enigmatic, and this enigma lingers over his activities throughout the years. However, we know that his success was the result of his siyata deShmaya. When we view his life story from such a vantage point, we can understand how he influenced kings and ministers, without possessing true backing.
His particular style is also revealing. He was a shtadlan, like all the other Jewish shtadlanim. With respect and submissiveness, he turned to kings in the same manner that Yaakov turned to Esav. He did not approach them with false and empty "Jewish pride," nor with arrogance or demands, but with entreaties and persuasion, which bordered on flattery and were tinged with subtle intimidation and great faith.
"Your Highness. We have heard in Europe, that false accusations have been hurled against the Jews of Damascus... Because all know that our faith not only deplores the crime of which they are accused, but also explicitly commands us to recoil from the use of blood in any form whatsoever, we have been sent by our coreligionists throughout Europe, in order to plead with Your Highness to deal justly with our brethren... Since we are convinced that Your Highness, who has gained fame throughout Europe for his courage in war, and for his wisdom in ruling and his tolerance toward his citizens without discrimination, will, due to his well-known prior generosity toward us, fulfill our request... In summary, we ask that he permit us to declare [Jewish innocence] since the eyes of all Europe are directed at Your Highness..."
"Too long. Too long!" reacted Mohammed Ali.
Not very encouraging. However the pressure was effective, nonetheless. Although Mohammed Ali ordered that the condemned receive "face-saving acquittal," he did not cancel the charges against them.
However, He who appoints kings, also turns the wheels in Syria. As a result of the pressures of the Great Powers, Mohammed Ali retreated to Egypt. The Sultan, Abdul Mejeid once more seized control of the government in Syria. Not the love of Jews or justice, but the need to form bonds with England which had supported him, and not with France which had supported Mohammed Ali, helped Montefiore to secure the protection writ (firman) as it was called by the Jews of Syria.
Just as in the days of Achashverosh, "a letter was issued." Not much changed in the Middle East, since the time of Mordechai and Esther. Arbitrarily, kings liquidated; arbitrarily, they protected.
"An ancient prejudice against the Jews exists. The ignorant believe that, according to custom, the Jews sacrifice a human being, in order to use his blood on their Pesach holiday... More than that, the sacred books of the Jews were examined by learned men... According to their findings, the accusations against them and their faith are sheer slander, and nothing more... Therefore, the Jewish Nation [must be permitted] to enjoy all those privileges awarded to the many other nations which submit to our rule..."
The investigation was not very effective. The Pope continued to believe in the blood libel, or more accurately, he was still interested in taking advantage of it for political purposes and personal gain. As a result, the Christian church refused to remove the tombstone on the empty grave of the "murdered' priest, which read: "Here lie the bones of .... who was murdered by the Jews." All of Montefiore's efforts to remove the tombstone were futile.
At about the same time, a similar type of libel developed on Rhodes—a sun-filled and tranquil island in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
Once more, the same factors surged: Christian residents, Moslem rule, a Jewish minority and European intrigue. A Christian child had vanished—a fantastic excuse for a libel! European ambassadors who exerted a strong influence on the Turkish regime, appointed themselves judges and investigators in the case. They tortured the Jews and sealed the Jewish quarter until the Jews nearly died of hunger.
Who came to their rescue? Hashem.
Who was his emissary? Montefiore, of course. In his customary manner, his carriage sped forth. Sometimes, traveling was difficult. Flies, hunger and disease abounded. But he arrived, and exerted his influence dauntlessly, and without desire for honor.
We have presented the Sultan's letter above. However, let us reanalyze Montefiore's amazing appeal. His recalling the Great Powers is a subtle threat. His allusion to Jewish international solidarity is a perfect pressure tactic. His mention of the kindness and sagacity of the ruler, epitomizes light flattery. His promise of Heaven's Grace is a combined threat and blessing. Ethical Jewish diplomacy at its best.
"England, my land, and other enlightened nations of the world, heard the cries of the tortured and persecuted Jews of Damascus and Rhodes, and hastened to express their deep feelings of love for them. However, Hashem, who rules all, did away with the need for their intervention in Rhodes, and instilled wisdom, justice and the love of truth in the heart of its rulers. With deep gratitude for our people, we pray that the Merciful G-d will offer them their the most royal emperor longevity, wisdom, honor and wealth, and will guide all his deeds your deeds, so that your name will be transcribed in letters of gold forever, and the memory of your deeds will exude a lovely odor, as lovely as that of a rose garden.
In ancient times, our G-d and G-d of our Fathers took our Nation out of Egypt, and since then, for generations, they have dwelled in Palestine. G-d's words have materialized through them, and even though, today, they are scattered among the nations of the world, they are the most tranquil and loyal of their citizens, and by dint of their industriousness, have increased the wealth and prosperity of the lands in which they reside.
They look with love and pride toward the Land of the Fathers. They pray that anyone who dwells there will be able to benefit from your noble protection, and to worship, there, the G-d of our forefathers. May their prayers rise up to Heaven, to the G-d Whose wisdom is absolute, Whose Torah cannot be changed, and in Whose Presence, no man can stand. We pray that He trample your enemies until they are dust and ... as the morning dew, and scatter in every direction like the chaff before the wind. May your throne endure forever, and all those who seek shelter under the wings of your kingship, dwell, each man under his grapevine and fig tree, in peace and security, without disturbance."
It is difficult to read about these libels. Jewish woes and calamities spawn history, reaching every corner of the earth, and the wheel of time is like an ever-tightening strangler's rope. However, the dry bones rise anew each time, and between one rescue operation and the next, Montefiore attended to other affairs. The carriage sallies forth. The diary (which describes his activities) become thicker. Plans are made. Sometimes, they acquire flesh and skin, and become tangible.
It is 1827 (5587). Moshe Montefiore is forty-three and happily married to Yehudis, formerly of the Cohen family. He is related to the Rothschilds, and is a revered and well known philanthropist, who donates to Jews and to gentiles. He observes the mitzvos meticulously and is G-d fearing.
How would we describe him today? A feiner balabos? He never learned Torah, however, his love of Torah and his deep recognition of it are noteworthy. He attends synagogue, is careful about the laws of kashrus, and the words "If I forget thee o' Yerushalayim," are engraved on the wall of his bedroom. He has no children. What should he do with all the wealth he has accrued, nearly effortlessly?
His yearns for Eretz Yisroel. Airplanes haven't been invented yet, nor even quick steamships. Railroad tracks still do not span Europe. People travel by carriage and by rickety boat. Instead of air conditioned hotels, mosquito and rat infested inns open their doors to wayfarers.
But Moshe and Yehudis long to go up to Eretz Hakodesh. They do not know that this will be the first of seven journeys. Their first journey lasts ten months, nine of which they spend in Eretz Yisroel, three of these in Yerushalayim.
The synagoge at Ramsgate with the tomb at the left
Nevertheless, they do not complain, and they harbor no regrets. They return to Europe, happier and stronger in their mitzvah observance. On his forty-third birthday, Montefiore resolves: "Bli neder, I will pray in a synagogue every Monday and Thursday, in addition to Shabbosim."
And if a man as wealthy as he wishes to pray in a synagogue, what does he do? He builds one near his home.
No sooner said than done, and only two years after his return from his first trip to Eretz Yisroel many guests gathered in the luxurious Montefiore mansion. The entire Jewish elite of Great Britain was there, as well as family and friends. All gazed at the magnificent edifice in the garden—the new synagogue, decorated with precious stones and crystal chandeliers.
The Aron Kodesh and the sink resembled those the synagogue of his native Livorno. Who had written the Sefer Torah for the new synagogue?
A Jew whose beard, payos, long black coat and round hat, distinguished him from the rest of the guests. His name was R' Tzvi Hirsch Volohin, and he was an expert sofer stam from distant Vilna, and a yerai Shomayim. Montefiore had heard much about R' Tzvi and before his many guests, he greeted him warmly and with much respect.
This was only the first of R' Tzvi Hirsch's endeavors on behalf of Montefiore. Over the years he wrote over twenty-four sifrei Torah for him, the majority of which were distributed to needy synagogues. "First let him write them," Montefiore would say. "Then we will decide where to send them. I want the Jews in distant towns to have Torah scrolls."
The twenty-fourth sefer Torah was delivered to Montefiore on his one hundredth birthday. in 1885, The celebration of that event began with shacharis in the his magnificent synagogue. Later on, he received groups of well-wishers. Afterwards, the new sefer Torah was presented to him.
Randomly, it was opened to Bircas Kohanim. Deeply moved, Montefiore read the blessing of the kohanim aloud. As the sun began to set mincha was recited in his synagogue, and then ma'ariv. The day ended with a parade of torches. That evening, the sound of intense Torah study once more filled the synagogue. It emanated from the Kollel Baalei Batim, founded and underwritten by Montefiore.
His Place in Society
This was only one aspect of his fascinating life. But we mustn't overlook the position he held in British society, where he was deeply respected and loved. On the morning of his one hundredth birthday, Montefiore received an impressive telegram from Queen Victoria, which read: "I wish to once more bless you on the completion of one hundred loyal years, replete with charity and loving kindness."
The postal clerks worked overtime and at an accelerated pace, for sorting and delivering the mountains of greetings sent to the renowned philanthropist on his birthday was a nearly impossible feat.
However while the clerks toiled, Montefiore busied himself with additional charitable endeavors. In honor of his one hundredth birthday he sent one hundred cans of heating fuel to one hundred poverty stricken people, and blankets to another hundred. "Let them be warm, too," he said.
It was no wonder, then, that the city had been decorated with flags, and that gas lights had been arranged in front of city hall in the form of a greeting to him. A grand finale for a grand philanthropist!
But what had occurred in the years preceding his one hundredth birthday?
Not long after the dedication of the synagogue and his trips to Eretz Yisroel, Montefiore was appointed sheriff of London—and one of its most prominent judges. This function involved much responsibility and honor. Later on, he was dubbed Sir by the Queen, and received permission to add to his coat of arms, on which he emblazoned the word, Yerushalayim.
Afterwards, he was appointed judge. Then he received the title "Baronet" and was declared Honorary Citizen of London.
Why was he so honored? Only due to his personality and character! His uprightness and good-heartedness were outstanding and knew no limits. His intelligence, understanding, and love of people, imparted an aura whose affects were far-reaching. Everyone who encountered him felt that they had met a unique person, whom it was easy to befriend.
Nevertheless, despite the honor and glory he received, he remained meticulously mitzvah observant, and a loyal and proud member of the Jewish Nation. It was this uncompromising stance which inspired the admiration of his conservative British counterparts.
The sheriff's dinner, which had been scheduled for Yom Kippur, was postponed at his request. He even insisted on bringing kosher food from his own home to the dinner, regardless of his host's reaction. He never travelled on Shabbos, not even for urgent missions.
The British loved admired him for his conduct, and he was a Jew at home, and a Jew in public. In a letter, citing a noteworthy contribution forwarded by Montefiore, Lord Shaftsbury wrote: "This elderly Jew is better than many Christians."
Surely, some of the foreign ambassadors of the State of Israel have much to learn from Montefiore!
We have spoken about the honor he merited. But we still haven't described, in enough detail, his many philanthropic enterprises and endeavors.
Seal associated with Activities in Eretz Yisrael
Efforts in Eretz Yisroel
Let us return, then to Eretz Yisroel, to the famous flour mill, and to Yerushalayim beyond the walls.
It is 1839. Moshe and Yehudis Montefiore have embarked on another journey to Eretz Yisroel. This time, traveling is easier. The two remain in Eretz Yisroel for two months. The poverty of its inhabitants is shocking. The Jews of the Galil suffer terribly as a result of earthquakes and prolonged drought. The regular donations do not arrive on time. Montefiore devises a daring idea, yet seemingly simple idea.
"Why should the Jews live only on contributions?" he asks. "Why shouldn't they create sources of income, such as farms and factories for light industry?"
Zionist ideas? Socialist ones? Not really. The difference between Montefiore's ideas and those of the Zionists who came to Eretz Yisroel later on, is their motivation. Montefiore simply wanted to help. He was not impelled by political motives, and had no hidden intentions or desire to gain control over the Jews of the Land. He saw a depressed and poverty stricken people, who dwelled in overcrowded quarters in walled cities, and envisioned a blooming and promising Land:
He writes: "We cannot transform Yerushalayim into a Manchester or a Liverpool and fill it with factories and workshops, for Yerushalayim is the City of Hashem, and a place of Torah and Divine Service. Ki miTziyon teitzei Torah." No, he doesn't want to effect a revolution, or to remove Jews from Torah learning. He hopes that if they have a source of sustenance, they will be able to continue observing the mitzvos.
"I am sure that if my plans succeed, Eretz Hakodesh will be blessed with abundance. My first step will be to ask Mohammed Ali to rent us the land. (Note that he says rent and not take by force), and if my request is granted, with Hashem's help, I will establish an agricultural society. I hope that I will gradually influence thousands of Jews to return to Eretz Yisroel. I am convinced that they will be delighted when they are granted the opportunity to observe the mitzvos of our sacred religion, in a way that is impossible in Europe..."