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Moses Montefiore: Minister of Modern Jerusalem
As the chorus goes, "He mounted his carriage and said 'Giddy-up!' to the horses / With a hidden gift here and a donation there / Here a pinch on the cheek and there a loving caress / And all the Jews felt joy and pride / So all respect to the Minister!" The verses are justified in their commands for esteem: in the years between his retirement in 1824 and his death at the age of 100 in 1885, the absolutely tireless Montefiore visited Russia to provide alms to pogrom-stricken Jews, interceded with Ottoman authorities in Damascus to stop a blood libel against the city's Jewish community, expanded Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, cleaned up the Western Wall, and founded the neighborhoods of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Yemin Moshe and Knesset Israel. And that's just what the song had time to cover.
Born of British Jewish merchants of Italian descent, Montefiore came of age during an era when the Jewish population of England, expelled from 1290 until the reign of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s, was beginning to regain legitimacy and acceptance, mostly due to its mercantile prowess. Montefiore and his brother Abraham became stockbrokers, joining forces with the British branch of the Rothschild banking clan (to which they were related by marriage) to amass a considerable fortune - enough that Montefiore could retire at the age of 40 and devote the rest of his life to traveling, philanthropy and Jewish activism. After retirement, he received from Queen Victoria a knighthood, a baronetcy and the office of Sheriff of London - honors which would have been unimaginable for the previous generation of English Jews.
His travels (and donations) to Jewish communities from Romania to Morocco to Syria endeared him to both Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews during an era of great upheaval for world Jewry, but it is in Jerusalem that he is remembered most fondly. Seeing the desperate conditions of the Jewish community in the Old City's Jewish Quarter, lacking suitable living space and susceptible to the diseases which often swept through the dirty, overcrowded and neglected Old City, Montefiore planned the development of two adjoining neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City: Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Sha'ananim. The iconic windmill that dominates the neighborhoods' skyline is another gift of Montefiore (though, through no fault of the Minister's, it was poorly built and never produced flour). And when those neighborhoods became full, Montefiore built Knesset Israel even further afield - a neighborhood which provided the nucleus for both modern Nachlaot and the Machane Yehuda market.
Montefiore is also beloved by Jerusalem historians for a series of detailed Jewish community censuses he carried out over four decades in Ottoman Palestine, which, since the local Ottoman government was lax in its records and not particularly concerned with its Jewish population, provide by far the best picture of the development of the early Jewish yishuv at the dawn of the Zionist movement.
Today in Jerusalem, it's still easy to see Montefiore's legacy, whether in the stunning views and cobblestone streets of Yemin Moshe, the winding alleys and mercantile bustle of Nachlaot and Machane Yehuda, or simply in the presence of a strong, vital and proud Jewish community thriving in the new city that would not exist today without Montefiore's vision. All respect to the Minister indeed.
Pictured is a detail from Sir Moses Haim Montefiore 1st Bt, a portrait by Henry Weigall.