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British banker and philanthropist Moses Chaim Montefiore was born in Livorno, Italy on this date in 1784 to a family of merchants and currency traders. He married into the Rothschild family, which he served as stockbroker before retiring at the age of 40. Montefiore, 6′3″, served as Sheriff of London in 1838 and was an advocate of prison reform and against capital punishment. Knighted in 1839 by Queen Victoria, he was made a baron seven years later to reward his involvement in humanitarian causes. These included leading the Board of Deputies of British Jews for thirty-nine years, and rescuing Jews from oppression in foreign lands. In 1840, he went to the Sultan of Turkey to gain liberation from prison of ten Syrian Jews accused of a blood libel; in 1858, he unsuccessfully tried to free the Jewish youth Edgardo Mortara, who had been baptised by his Christian nurse and kidnapped by the Catholic Church. These and other missions made him a folk hero to Jews in the east. Montefiore was also a benefactor of Jews in Palestine, which he visited seven times; after his first visit, he became an observant Jew, and remained so for the rest of his life. In 1860, he built the first Jewish residential settlement outside the old walled city of Jerusalem.
“In Morocco, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, Montefiore’s defense of Jewish rights dovetailed with British foreign policy and imperial ideology, epitomizing the grand humanitarian campaigns of the Anglo-Saxon world. His support for the struggling Jewish community in Palestine has led many to see him as a founding father of modern Israel, while his pioneering approach to the problem of Jewish persecution helped transform the international response to abuses of human rights.” —Abigail Green (biographer)