The Montefiore Endowment holds many hundreds of letters, petitions and telegrams, sent to Sir Moses Montefiore from all over the Middle East during his several visits to the Holy Land.
This unique archive of manuscripts, written in many languages and in a variety of cursive scripts – Ashkenazi, Sephardi ‘Rashi’, Maghrebi, ‘square’ Hebrew, Arabic and European – has been carefully preserved in six large volumes. It contains a wealth of fascinating detail about the Jews of the time, ranging from the petitions of individuals imploring Sir Moses to help them in their own particular circumstances to those from entire communities seeking assistance in cases of general calamity. It also contains many documents relating to matters such as the complicated travel arrangements necessary at the time, as well as invitations, details of business matters and general exchanges of compliments – all of which help to fill in the background to Sir Moses’s travels to Jerusalem.
Taken together this collection gives a rare, if not unique, insight into the conditions of extreme hardship that many Jews of the Middle East (and particularly those of Safed and Tiberias) endured during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is of tremendous humanitarian as well as sociological and religious interest, dealing as it does with economic distress caused by cholera epidemics, earthquake and the ravages of marauding tribesmen. Amongst other topics mentioned are the plight of abandoned women, the activities of Christian missionaries, European diplomats and Ottoman officials, and the acceptability of Jewish witnesses in Sharia courts. Even the more routine letters, such as those relating to travel arrangements and the transmission of funds, all help to build up a picture of Jewish life at that time.
Letters concerning business affairs were mostly written in English, French and Italian. They are interesting for the insight they give into the lives of the small but often prosperous Jewish mercantile middle class – those who had received some secular education, could speak European languages and were engaged in international trade between the Far East and the Christian countries of Europe. As attested by European travellers, their lifestyles were often in striking contrast to those of their poverty-stricken brethren.
The petitions as a whole illustrate the growing sense of unity of oppressed Jews, which was then beginning to transcend the national boundaries that divided them. This was much stimulated by the example of Sir Moses, a Jew who had been honoured by the Queen of England, then at the height of its power in the world, and who was received cordially by kings and princes wherever he travelled. It is perhaps no wonder that Sir Moses himself eventually became the focus of Jewish national aspiration, and was described in one of the petitions as ‘King of Israel’.
A project initiated by the Montefiore Endowment to catalogue these manuscripts, with a brief description of each one in English, and to publish them on the Endowment’s website, is now nearing completion and many of them can already be found on the website. See Core Collection, catalogue items 574, 575, 576, 576b, 577 and 587.
A Giant of a Man. A research paper by Sally Style B.A., the Montefiore Librarian, is available on this website Petitions Research Paper. This describes in detail the picture of Sir Moses Montefiore visualised by the authors of many thousands of petitions sent to him from the Holy Land and from all over Europe and the Middle East.