Editor’s Note: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica letters and documents and each month will share an item from his collection with readers of The Jewish Press. He welcomes comments and suggestions on these articles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Probably the most famous Anglo-Jew of the 19th century, the much-beloved Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) was scrupulously observant of his faith and used his personal standing to further the cause of oppressed Jews everywhere. He acquired land in Eretz Yisrael to enable Jews to become self-supporting through agriculture; established the Yemin Moshe quarter – and the famous windmill named for him; and launched modern Jerusalem by building Mishkenot Shaananim, the first modern Jewish housing project outside the walls of the Old City.
In this September 11, 1840 letter from Alexandria, Egypt (the full text is reproduced below) – likely carried by special diplomatic messenger from Egypt to London – Montefiore writes to J.A. Smith, a member of the British Parliament, on the successful outcome of his “Mission sent out to relieve the unfortunate and persecuted Jews at Damascus.” He declares that “Jews should have the same protection as other subjects” and thanks the British parliamentarian for his actions on behalf of the Jews in the East.
The Damascus Affair (1840) drew wide international attention as accusations of ritual murder were brought against members of the Jewish community of Damascus when eight notable Jews, falsely accused of murdering a Christian monk, were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, and the Muslim populace of Damascus fell upon the Jewish synagogue in the suburb of Jobar, pillaged it, and destroyed the scrolls of the Law.
Montefiore, in his first of many missions as a shtadlan, led a delegation to Mohammed Ali, the ruler of Syria and Egypt. His now legendary successful negotiations in Alexandria (August 4-28) secured the unconditional release of the remaining prisoners and recognition of their innocence. Later in Constantinople, Montefiore persuaded the Sultan to issue a firman (edict) intended to halt the spread of blood libel accusations in the Ottoman Empire. He later convinced Catholic authorities to remove the epitaph from a Damascus grave identifying the site as the burial place of the Christian monk “murdered by the Hebrews on Feb. 5, 1840.”
Upon his return to London, Montefiore was given a hero’s welcome, including a big ceremony and special synagogue services and, when he met with Queen Victoria to present her with the firman, she honored him by permitting him to add the Lion of Judah holding a banner bearing the word “Jerusalem” to his coat of arms.
In a groundbreaking effort, the American Jewish community of some 15,000 protested on behalf of its Syrian brethren, and the affair launched modern Jewish politics on an international scale. In persuading President Martin Van Buren to file an official protest, Jews were the first among new ethnic immigrants to the U.S. to attempt to sway the government to act on behalf of their co-religionists abroad. Following this major blood libel, Jews considered how to organize for the protection of the Jewish reputation worldwide, and this new sense of Jewish solidarity gave rise to a host of new institutions and organizations dedicated to serving the Jewish community and protecting Jewish life.
John Abel Smith (1802–1871), a strong supporter of Montefiore’s mission in the Damascus Affair, was a British MP (1830-59, 1863-68) who won broad renown as a friend of religious toleration, leading the successful campaign to allow Jews to sit in parliament (1858). In particular, he presented Lionel de Rothschild to the House of Commons and successfully argued that Rothschild, as a Jew, be permitted to take the oath on the Old Testament only.