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Information Bureau: Research Project: project description

Project Description March 2005

Background and Objectives

The Jewish contribution to social development in Europe has been substantial and wide-reaching. To date, however, most studies of tzedakah or Jewish charitable giving have been either locally focused or concerned with the religious underpinning. As a result the scale of the community's activity in welfare and philanthropy across Europe and the extent to which its influence and impact have percolated into society at large have been generally overlooked. This is even more surprising as many of these activities reached far beyond the limits of the Jewish ethnic or religious communities.

With the social problems arising with industrialisation, and with the Jewish communities far into the 19th century being largely excluded from general institutions for needy citizens, charitable and philanthropic engagement became an issue probably more pressing than ever before in Jewish history. During the last decades of the century, the mass immigration of poor Ashkenasi Jews from Eastern Europe considerably increased the social stress that was already burdening their communities in Western Europe. The way these communities coped with the extreme poverty among many of their members must be assessed against the background of the emerging welfare state. In this context, the distributive principle of statutory welfare on the one hand and the liberal principle of individual and voluntary philanthropy on the other may be regarded as opposite poles in a wide spectrum, with these opposites not excluding, but necessarily acting as complements to each other.

The paternalist philanthropic attitudes of the Jewish economic and social elite in late 19th century London have already been severely criticised, by contemporaries and later by historical researchers, who have concluded that this philanthropy was conceived mainly as an instrument of social control, and that it damaged the rather modest charitable organisations that were rooted in the class of the labouring poor. But to assess these attitudes, other motives have to be borne in mind, e. g. conspicuous generosity in order to be accepted as members of the upper class, or as a means to counteract anti-Jewish sentiments within society at large. In any case, the question remains why wealthy families like the Montefiores, Rothschilds, or Montagus continued their firm commitment on this field far into the 20th century, when the progress of general welfare systems and the shrinking of the social gap separating the rich from the poor reduced their capacity for paternalist influence over a wide sector of society. This continuity has to be considered even more in the context of the second big immigration crisis of the 1930s, placing heavy burdens on the communities in France and England.

The research project defined here will attempt to make a focused and detailed contribution to this area of study by attempting a Europe-wide perspective and a prolonged time-frame, made possible by concentration on a precise and defined sample. A comparison is carried out between Jewish welfare and philanthropy in Austria, England, France, Germany and Italy. As leading scholars in this field of study concluded, "comparative studies in Modern Jewish History are relatively rare" (Michael Brenner / Rainer Liedtke / David Rechter : 1999), with few exceptions like Todd M. Endelman's (ed.) Comparing Jewish Societies (1997), offering a variety of approaches, or Rainer Liedtke's Jewish Welfare in Hamburg and Manchester, c. 1850-1914 (1998). One of the general causes for this lacuna and a part of the difficulty in pursuing this theme has been the scattering and loss of source materials for a study. Therefore, the other aim of the project is a survey of relevant archival holdings in several Western and Central European countries. As far as possible, attention will be paid to the numerous small scale initiatives that made satisfactory social life possible locally. One of the results of the survey will be a digital inventory/catalogue of sources, accessible via the internet.

The concentration of dense source material on the charitable activities of one single family that was spread over five European countries -the Rothschild family- invites a focused case study covering many aspects of modern philanthropy. Across two centuries the Rothschild family, in all its branches and resident in a number of countries, has involved itself in activities for the improvement of social and educational conditions and opportunities. This work has touched upon an enormous range of social issues, from work with deprived or orphaned children, through biological and medical research and the provision of medical facilities, to education through schools and libraries, the relief and housing of the poor, cultural and artistic support and encouragement and support to Jewish organisations and issues.

It is hoped that the work will both encourage other, similar studies and in itself increase awareness of a facet of Jewish history which has not received the recognition or attention it merits. Jewish history, especially with regards to Continental Europe, is widely perceived as closely connected to the anti-Semitic atrocities of the 1930s and 40s. This investigation intends to demonstrate that there are more facets to it.


There will be three tangible outcomes of this project:

1. The project timetable will allow the lead researcher to investigate a variety of approaches to tzedakah in various European countries and to compare them under specific aspects. The inquiry will consider its extent, local variation and impact, setting these within the context of other charitable activity, both Jewish and non-Jewish in the specific locations studied. The objective is the publication of an analytic monograph.

2. The second, incidental, product will be a database of archival and library resources relating to this subject, located across Europe, with the emphasis placed upon primary sources, the location, content and condition, combined with brief accounts of the history and location of each of the charitable organisations.

3. At the same time, there will be drawn an account and a preliminary analysis of the charitable engagements of the Rothschilds, with their variations across time and borders.


Highlighting the different meanings of concepts such as "Philanthropy", "Charity" and "Welfare" in the different countries under consideration will help to throw light on the different profiles of Jewish charitable activities in these countries.

During their 19th century acculturation, German and British Judaism shifted to models partly adopted from the Christian churches, not only in organisation, but also in ritual and theology. In contrasting Jewish philanthropy/charity/welfare with their Christian counterparts (literature on Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic philanthropy is available) it will be possible to identify both common and distinctive features. It will be most illustrative to compare the German and the British models of Jewish philanthropy with that in France, where, since the Revolution, traditions of strict lay order prevailed.

The extent to which immigration did influence Jewish social commitment may be assessed by the comparison of burdened British and French communities with Germany, where Jewish mass immigration from the East was not as pressing (probably with the exception of Berlin and Hamburg).

As to the philanthropic engagements of the Jewish elites, it will be useful to consider the self-perception of these countries' patrician and/or noble elites, of which the Jewish elites themselves had become, to varying degrees, a part.

Documentation preserved at The Rothschild Archive is sufficiently dense to evaluate this particular family's philanthropic efforts in relation to their total wealth, thus adding a quantitative aspect to the investigation.


The project will be spread across three years, and arranged in three phases:

1. The first phase (concluded by now), lasted about a year and was based mainly within The Rothschild Archive in the City of London, focusing upon a detailed examination of primary and secondary sources, many already housed in the Archive. During this first year, a preliminary survey of sources abroad has been undertaken, covering Austrian, German and French archives.

2. Building upon this core evidence, the second year will see further exploration of the material and a spreading of the research into sources throughout Europe, in particular in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Israel. The purpose here will be to identify and examine key surviving sources, some of which may still be in the hands of successor bodies to the original charitable foundations. This work is undertaken by a team of four locally recruited researchers:

Dr. Luisa Levi D'Ancona (Italy and Jerusalem)

Dr. Gabriele Anderl (Vienna)

cand. Ph.D. Céline Leglaive (Paris)

PD Dr. Ralf Roth (Frankfurt)

Each of them is a qualified expert on the relevant fields of study.

3. During the third year, the monograph and directory to sources will be compiled for publication. This year will again be based in The Rothschild Archive.

Institutional/Organisational Issues

The research is being led and in large part conducted by the project director Dr. Klaus Weber, and in cooperation with the research team members during the second of the three years. The project director is housed at The Rothschild Archive (London) and attached as a research fellow to both the Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations (Southampton) and Royal Holloway (University of London). He is working under the guidance of an Academic Advisory Committee, comprising Melanie Aspey (Director of The Rothschild Archive), Prof. David Cesarani (Royal Holloway, London), Dr. Peter Mandler (Cambridge University) and Dr. Rainer Liedtke (Universität Giessen).

The project is academically linked with the History Department of Royal Holloway, which is the biggest History Department of the University of London. Its research profile makes it the ideal academic host for this investigation in Jewish philanthropy. It houses the Centre for Ethnic Minority Studies, which conducts research into contemporary and historical aspects of the minority experience. Its international team of scholars will offer the researchers of the project opportunities to present and discuss their work-in-progress. Within this environment, Prof. David Cesarani is holding the position of a research professor, focussing mainly on research and allowing to advice the project team. Further, the Arts Faculty at Royal Holloway is host to the Research Centre for the Holocaust and 20th Century History, which conducts research, inter alia, on Jewish-Christian relations and modern anti-Semitism. The director is Prof. Peter Longerich.

The Parkes Institute (University of Southampton), directed by Prof. Tony Kushner, is a prestigious research centre dedicated to the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations, and equipped with outstanding library and archive resources. Its dedicated team of specialists in Jewish History and Culture will provide broad expertise and accompany the project with academic support.

Since 1999, The Rothschild Archive has been administered by a charitable trust with an educational objective. The trustees include David Landes, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Harvard University and Emma Rothschild, Director of the Centre for History and Economics at King's College, Cambridge. The trustees and archive director, pursuing the educational remit of the trust, have developed its role as a focus for research into many facets of Rothschild history.

Though essentially a business archive, The Rothschild Archive bears rich material on the non-commercial activities of the Rothschild family members. Through its own holdings of papers, both commercial and personal, from a number of branches of the family, the Archive has become increasingly aware of the range and diversity of records relating to charitable and philanthropic activities. In turn, as knowledge of the Archive has developed, there has been growing communication and co-operation with some of the charitable organisations that emerged from these very activities.

The contacts established with these institutions will be useful for the project outlined here.

Dissemination Strategy

During the project, regular information on progress will be posted on the Archive website ( and e-mailed direct to academics who have responded to the invitation to register an interest.

On completion of the project, as well as publication of the main report, it is anticipated that articles written by the members of the project team will be placed in a range of journals. The digital catalogue of sources will be made available within the Rothschild Research Forum, on The Rothschild Archive website, an area specifically set aside for academic researchers to encourage debate and further work.

The Academic Advisory Committee are also strongly of the view that a conference, based on the findings of the study, but embracing broader themes relating to philanthropy would provide an important spring-board to further research. No detailed planning for this has, however, been made as yet.