His own brand of Jewishness
Benjamin Disraeli's identity was exotic but devoid of the reality of the historical Jewish experience.
By Adam Kirsch
259 pages; $21
It is said that when Menachem Begin was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in Lithuania in 1940, he took with him a copy of AndrÃ© Maurois's biography of Benjamin Disraeli to stave off the intellectual isolation of an uncertain future.
Disraeli, converted Jew and British prime minister, was a figure of fascination for anyone in those dark times who wished to comprehend both the multiplicity of Jewish identities in Europe and anti-Semitism in seemingly liberal England. How did he, as a Jew in the Judeophobic Conservative Party, climb to "the top of the greasy pole" of politics?
The author of this superb rendition of Disraeli's odyssey, Adam Kirsch, provides insights into these conundrums, but also centrally frames his appraisal within an understanding of Disraeli's Jewishness.
Disraeli told a bemused Queen Victoria that he was "that blank page" between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, neither an adherent of Judaism nor of Christianity, but the interpreter of one to the other. Even his friends and later admirers such as Winston Churchill regarded him as "foreign" and not fully English. For many, he was still "an immigrant" even though both he and his father had been born in England and had made tremendous efforts at anglicization.
Disraeli, in this sense, was yet another talented European Jew with aspirations and pretensions who wished to embrace modernity, but was unsure what to do with his Jewishness. His contemporaries, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle and many others, tried to find a convenient balancing point within the societies in which they lived. Indeed, for some, escaping Jewishness was a definition of their Jewish identity. Like Marx, Disraeli did not have the religious and cultural emotional baggage which many other 19th-century Jews carried. Unlike Marx, Disraeli uniquely invented his own brand of Jewishness, one which was exotic, romantic, aristocratic - but devoid of the reality of the historical Jewish experience.
In 19th-century England, Jew-baiting and folk anti-Semitism were symbolized by hook-nosed cartoon caricatures, jokey exhortations to Jews to become pork-eaters and Rabelaisian sing-along. Rushing out of church on Easter Sunday, the poet Robert Southey noted in 1807 a gaggle of choirboys singing: "He is risen, he is risen, all the Jews must go to prison." While the undercurrent never reached the crescendo heard on the continental mainland, there are often whiffs of this even in modern times. In the 1970s, I remember my aged mother wiping the floor with some market traders. They didn't realize that she understood cockney rhyming slang which they used openly and loudly to disparage the Jews.
So when Disraeli became a prominent Conservative Party politician, it was almost inevitable that Punch magazine produced a verse, labelling him "a curly haired Jewboy" with a "hilarious" Germanic accent.
As the author cleverly shows, the highly motivated Disraeli displayed "the unbearable pain of frustrated ambition" throughout his early life. First as an incompetent international financier, then as a successful writer, he wanted to make his mark. He paid a visit to Palestine in 1830 and became infatuated with the 12th-century Kurdish messianic figure David Alroy. In his own novel about Alroy, Disraeli turns this "king of the Jews" into an Eastern Alexander the Great to present a positive imagery of Jewishness to a skeptical and ignorant English public. Alroy and Tancred were Disraeli's two proto-Zionist novels which exemplified his desire to portray the Jews in an admirable light, and here a distinction between Jewish solidarity and Jewish belief is made. Yet in Parliament, he said nothing about the Damascus blood libel that virtually coincided with the publication of Alroy.
Disraeli was highly sensitive to being associated with Jewish interests. He refused, for example, to recommend a peerage for Sir Moses Montefiore. Perhaps his writing was the only way in which he could truly express the Jewish side of his identity. One rare confidante was a certain Mrs. Brydges-Willyams, a well-to-do colonel's widow, formerly known as Sarah Mendez da Costa, a Sephardi Jewess - another "blank page" between Judaism and Christianity.
The author argues that perhaps Disraeli entertained the idea of becoming a Jewish leader and then settled on a determination to reach the top of British politics. Theodor Herzl's name is evoked by Kirsch, but it is really Vladimir Jabotinsky - not Herzl - who is the original Zionist blank page between Russian literature and Zionist nationalism. In his later novels, Jabotinsky, like Disraeli, disassembled his Jewishness through his literary creations.
The dramatic emancipation debate to overturn taking the parliamentary oath "upon the true faith of a Christian" was a unique instance when Disraeli demonstrated his innermost philosophy. As the leader of a very suspicious Conservative Party, he addressed the House of Commons:
"The very reason for admitting the Jews is because they can show so near an affinity to you. Where is your Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism?... I will not take upon me the awful responsibility of excluding from the legislature those who are of the religion in the bosom of which my Lord and Savior was born."
Disraeli's brilliant rhetoric was not rewarded by acceptance and applause. The parliamentarians groaned, laughed and ridiculed him - they were confirmed in their prejudice that he was nothing more than "a Jewish adventurer." The Tories preferred their Jews to be Christ-killers.
Disraeli regarded himself as a proud Englishman, yet this was an England of his ideals. As one astute observer pointed out, "England is the Israel of his imagination."
Ironically most Victorian Jews were Liberals, while Disraeli the Tory endorsed many reactionary policies. For example, he opposed the struggles for freedom in Poland and Italy. On the one hand, he felt strongly about the deprivations of the working class, yet did not want it to become enfranchised though universal suffrage. Despite this, in 1867, he permitted the addition of a million Englishmen to the electoral register.
While the Tories needed him to lead them, his political opponents could always stoop to anti-Semitic innuendo. As Lady Palmerston so succinctly put it in 1868, "We are all dreadfully disgusted at the prospect of having a Jew for our prime minister." Even 30 years after his death, the Encyclopedia Britannica explained that "he was an Englishman in nothing but his devotion to England."
This is a well-crafted and intelligent book which reflects the author's passion for his subject. Above all, Kirsch's eloquence illuminates the paradox that is Disraeli the Jew. As he rightly claims: "Next to the great disqualification of his Jewishness, all of his personal claims to Englishness vanished."
This book provides a good insight into the peculiarly English form of polite and genteel anti-Semitism of the past - and its legacy for today.
The writer is professor of Israeli studies at London University and author of a recent History of Modern Israel.