January 30, 1917
Moses Gaster, Hakham of Spanish Portuguese congregation records in diary: Sykes urges Zionists have men on ground when British enter Jerusalem
February 7, 1917
Meeting with Sykes at home of Moses Gaster; attending are Zionist leaders Herbert Samuel, Weizmann, Sokolow, Lord Rothschild, James de Rothschild, Joseph Cowen, Harry Sacher and Herbert Bentwich
November 2, 1918
Zionists around the world celebrate first anniversary of Balfour Declaration
March 5, 1939
Death of Moses Gaster, Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish congregation in London
We look back at bygone times and try to picture the life of the Jews within the walls of the ghetto …
Moses Gaster, Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish congregation in the United Kingdom, Oxford linguist and historian, cultivated a discreet interest in Zionism among British officials. The initial meetings that laid the groundwork for the Balfour Declaration took place in his presence.
On February 7, 1917 Gaster hosted a gathering at his home for Sir Mark Sykes, the British strategist and diplomat. Present were Zionist leaders Herbert Samuel (a government minister), Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow, Lord Walter Rothschild, James de Rothschild, Joseph Cowen, Harry Sacher and Herbert Bentwich. This and other meetings in which Gaster took a leading role helped set the stage for the November 2, 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Folklorist and rabbi
Expelled from Rumania for protesting anti-Jewish persecutions, Gaster arrived in England in 1885 and mastered the language with alacrity.
By 1887 he had obtained a lectureship at Oxford and become Haham (or religious leader) of the Sephardi community, a position he retained until 1919 when failing eyesight necessitated his stepping down.
Gaster established himself as a Rumanian expert, linguist, historian and folklorist; he was also a sought-after orator. And Rumanian authorities were now delighted to welcome him back as an honored guest. He declined an offer of citizenship, however.
Among his numerous writings—he was also a halachic expert—is a history of Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in the UK.
Gaster joined the Zionist movement early on, becoming a vice-president of the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. He helped establish the settlements of Zichron Ya’akov and Rosh Pina.
He was president of the English Zionist Federation for two years and regularly elected a vice-president of the World Zionist Organization. He conducted his Zionist work in a private capacity because it did not have the imprimatur of the organized Sephardi community.
He discreetly encouraged Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Cabinet member, to broaden his Zionism education. Samuel was able to open doors to British officialdom.
Gaster even played a role in perfecting the first Hebrew typewriter.
From Bucharest to London
Moses Gaster was born in Bucharest on September 16, 1856. He graduated from the University of Breslau (Poland) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau.
Within five years of his arrival in London in 1885 he married Lucy Friedlander. The couple had seven sons and six daughters.
Lucy Gaster was a vice-president of the Women’s World Zionist Organization and a president of B’nai B’rith Women’s Lodge.
Gaster died in 1939 at the age of 82 on his way to deliver a speech. To the very end he was an opinionated individual, calling for the boycott of Germany because of its anti-Jewish policies.
While no one doubted his brilliance, he was variously described as having a “stubborn,” “combative” and “autocratic” temperament.
Their personal frictions notwithstanding, Chaim Weizmann spoke at Gaster’s memorial service which followed his funeral in London’s Golders Green. Weizmann’s gloom fitted the occasion, as history would justify: “We all need comfort in these difficult times, but I am afraid we may have to pass through more difficulties in the future.”
Among those in the funeral procession was Neville Laski, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Gaster’s son-in-law.
Lauded by Sykes
Gaster met Mark Sykes on May 2, 1916 at Samuel’s suggestion to present his concerns about Jewish life in Europe, thereby initiating a relationship that would benefit the Zionist case.
Fittingly, on December 2, 1917—one month after the Balfour Declaration—Sykes told a celebratory London gathering:
“I should like to say, before I say one other word, that the reason I am interested in this Movement is that I met someone two years ago who is now upon this platform and who opened my eyes as to what the Movement meant… I mean Dr. Gaster.”