LONG BEFORE BALFOUR – A RESEARCH MILESTONE

At last, firm documentary evidence has become readily available in English as well as in Hebrew of a substantial Jewish presence in the land that eventually became the modern state of Israel, dating from the century before the Balfour Declaration. Will this finally silence those who deny the age-old attachment of Jews to the homeland from which they were exiled two thousand years ago?

It was with pride that after nine years of work, the Montefiore Endowment recently announced the publication on its website of the censuses of Jewish families and religious institutions of the Holy Land, Alexandria, Sidon and Beirut, compiled by Sir Moses Montefiore during his visits to the region in 1839, 1840, 1849, 1855, 1866 and 1875. The recorded details include personal and family particulars, occupations and countries of origin of 25,535 families, together with details of 968 Jewish religious institutions; and these are now accompanied by sophisticated search engines in English and in Hebrew to facilitate their use. Taken together, the censuses constitute a unique sociological and genealogical record of Jewish life in the area during the 19th century.

Sir Moses had undertaken to distribute charitable funds collected throughout the world for the Jewish poor, together with money of his own. He worked from dawn to dusk, day after day in difficult conditions to do this personally, with each applicant receiving a gift of Spanish silver dollars from his hands. It is clear from the documents that almost all Jews participated, and not just the poorer ones.

The actual manuscripts are written in a variety of scripts, with many pages difficult to read. Lacking an index, the tracing of individuals can be frustrating – especially as the names and the spellings of families, towns and even countries sometimes changed over the period. In 2008 the Montefiore Endowment commissioned the Israel Genealogical Society (IGS) to transcribe the Censuses into a contemporary Hebrew font, transliterate the names and translate all the data into English. In 2014 the Montefiore Endowment commissioned the Israel Genealogy Research Association (IGRA) to treat the Institutions in a similar manner.

These immense labours were undertaken by many dedicated volunteers under the direction of a team of talented researchers, chaired until her death by Mathilde Tagger and comprising Mathilde, Rose Feldman and Billie Stein. The Montefiore Endowment also wishes to pay particular tribute to Dr Roger Bilboul, a member of its Advisory Council, who master-minded this project from its inception to its completion nine years later.

Based on the Montefiore Censuses, a research paper on demographic details of the growth of the Jewish population of the Holy Land in the 19th century by Daniel Kessler was published in Volume 6 (2016) of Middle Eastern Studies. It is also available on the Montefiore website.

 

 

 

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