Sir Moses Montefiore
One of the letters from the Italian Jewish leaders reached the English Board of Deputies, which was and remains the official leadership of that country’s Jewry. The head of the Board at the time was Sir Moses Montefiore, rightfully one of the most famous Jews of the nineteenth century. Born in 1784, he had gone into business and made a fortune on the stock exchange. The profits from his business ventures allowed him to retire early and devote himself to public affairs. At the age of just over fifty he was given the post of sheriff of the City of London and soon afterwards became the first English Jew ever to be knighted. While he was a deeply loyal and patriotic Englishman, he was also a devout and very loyal Jew. In 1838 he assumed the chairmanship of the Board of Deputies, a post that he would keep for almost forty years. He was by far the most prominent Jew in England, and one who had lost none of his sense of responsibility for other Jews, wherever they might live.
Montefiore spent much time working for Jewish causes in the international arena. He had been very involved in the famous ‘Damascus Affair’ of 1840 when Jews in Damascus were accused of murdering a Christian monk, and had traveled to the east in order to intervene on behalf of the accused. He had also journeyed to Russia on behalf of the masses of poverty-stricken Jews there.
By this time, too, Montefiore had made the first of his many visits to Palestine in order to aid the poverty-stricken Jews in that country, and to try to improve their way of life. He had interested himself in schools and hospitals, industry and housing for the Jews of Jerusalem. It was he, for example, who organized the first housing for Jerusalem Jews outside the walls of the Old City. This development, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, was just beginning when the letter from Italy reached England.
Everywhere he went, he was regarded as a virtual representative of the British government. The Jews of the different countries that he visited greatly admired him. Bearing all these things in mind, it is hardly surprising that his influence within the Board of Deputies was very great indeed. It seems true to say that, on that committee, his word was law.
After the debate on the Mortara case, Montefiore cast the deciding vote for intervention. His speech had the desired effect of stimulating the Board to wide-ranging action. Their plan included writing to the leaders of the other Jewish communities of Europe (to whom similar letters had already been sent from Italy) in order to co-ordinate their stand; making contact with the British government in order influence it to appeal to the Pope; beginning a press campaign in Britain; sending out a report on the case to hundreds of Catholic priests in England; and sending Sir Moses to Rome in order to appeal personally to Pope Pius.
Almost eighty years old at the time, Sir Moses traveled to Rome; to his deep regret, however, he was unable to meet with the Pope, who refused requests for meetings from everyone with regard to this case. Instead, Sir Moses met with Cardinal Antonelli, one of the Pope's closest aides. The meeting was polite but brought no tangible results. The Cardinal regretted the whole affair, he said, and would take steps to prevent a similar case from developing in the future. However, he said, once a child had been baptized, there was no turning back: the child would be raised as a Christian until he was aged seventeen or eighteen, and then would be able to make a free choice for himself. Until then, his family would be allowed to see him regularly, but he would not be allowed to live with them. The meeting was a failure with regard to the Mortara family.