Herbert Belkin
Hert Belkin is a historian who lectures and writes on modern Jewish history.

Baron Montefiore and His Defense of Jews

Baron Moses Montefiore, by Henry Weigall, oil on canvas, 1881.
Baron Moses Montefiore, by Henry Weigall, oil on canvas, 1881.

In 1840 a Catholic priest was missing in the city of Damascus, then part of the dissolute Ottoman Empire. The search for the priest led to the Jewish ghetto and uncovered, not the priest, but the scourge of 12th century anti-Semitism: the Blood Libel. After six hundred years, the medieval barbarism of ritual murder of Christians emerged in Damascus to terrorize Jews. The Ottoman authorities pursued the libel case by arresting a Jewish barber and subjecting him to inhuman torture, hundreds of lashes to his bare feet, and forcibly extracted a confession that named Jewish community leaders as his accomplices. These Jewish leaders, including three rabbis, were also tortured in a fruitless attempt to locate the missing priest. In desperation, the Jews of Damascus appealed to the outside world and their Jewish brethren for help to stop this cruel relic of Jew hatred.

But this took place in he 19th, not the 12th century and the powerful forces of Enlightenment and Emancipation had changed the political structure and sensibilities of European societies. Europeans now recognized the absurdity and raw injustice of the Blood Libel. Further, emancipated Jews no longer had to suffer in silence, accepting their fate with bowed heads. Jews like Solomon Rothschild and Moses Montefiore had reached positions of prestige and influence to make their voices heard in the halls of government. The European Jewish community headed by these influential Jews and a French Jewish lawyer, Adolphe Cremieux, fought back

Rothschild appealed to Prince Metternick, the Austrian Minister of State, and Montefiore asked the English Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, for help to stop the torture and imprisonment of the Damascene Jews. Their appeals were heard and the torture stopped. A Jewish delegation was formed including Montefiore and Cremieux to deal directly with the viceroy who controlled this part of the Ottoman Empire. The work of these influential Jews, together with world opinion, was successful and the persecuted Jews were released Historians consider this successful resolution of the Damascus Blood Libel affair a turning point in the position Jews held in European society. For the first time Jews had achieved a social standing that enabled them to fight back against the anti-Semitism that had plagued them for centuries.

Baron Montefiore was once again called to protect the Jewish community in an affair of forced baptism called the Mortara Case. In the Italian city of Bologna, Edgardo Mortara, the baby son of a Jewish Merchant, was seriously ill and was secretly baptized by the Christian housemaid of the family. Edgardo recovered and in 1858 when he was six, the secret baptism was discovered. In June of that year the police forcibly seized Edgardo and brought him to the office of the Holy Inquisition. The boy’s abduction was justified, according to Church law, because a baptism of a child, even performed in secrecy and without consent, required the child to be raised a Catholic.

Secret baptism followed by child abduction was a terror of Jewish families living in Italy at the time. There had been a number of instances in the previous decade when Jewish children had been capriciously taken from their families and raised as Catholics. To complicate the Martara case, there was a political struggle currently raging between a popular movement to unify Italy into a modern state and the Catholic Church. The unity movement, called the Risorgimento, considered the abduction and conversion of Jewish children an example of how the Church adhered to practices that were embarrassing and regressive. The Church was determined to hold onto its centuries old prerogatives like forced conversion and six-year-old Eduardo Mortar was caught in the middle.

Baron Montefiore was once again called on to protect the rights of Jews and he traveled to Rome in the spring of 1859. It soon became apparent that Montefiore would not be able to repeat the success he had in restoring Damascene Jews to their families. At first, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli, refused to see him and only with outside influence was a meeting arranged. The meeting between the Cardinal and Montefiore was short and frustrating. The Cardinal insisted that Edgardo was now a Catholic and a Catholic he would remain. Montefiore left Rome without success and wrote in his diary, “This mission has been… a painful and sad trial of patience.”

The success in Damascus and the failure in Rome were examples that European Jews of the 19th century had at last reached a position of political equality where they could assert their right to justice under the law. Tragically this newfound power would not be adequate to prevent the murderous prejudice that awaited Jews in the 20th century.

About the Author
Historian Herb Belkin writes and lectures on the epic events of the last two hundred years of Jewish history. His field of study covers Zionism, the Jewish Diaspora and the critical struggle for a Jewish homeland. Herb has taught courses on modern Jewish history at Brandeis, Tufts and Salem State University. He is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate and was a speaker for the Israeli Consulate of New England.
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