Rewriting history?

David Cesarani’s posthumous work on Benjamin Disraeli calls into question the influence of the leader’s Jewish roots.

Benjamin Disraeli (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Benjamin Disraeli
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Myths built over many years are difficult to restructure or rebut, but a historian – armed with a new interpretation of the facts – can read the story of a man’s life differently. The myth of Benjamin Disraeli as a great leader and politician, whose Jewishness – despite his conversion – was part of his public and private persona is one that has been widely adhered to for more than a century.
Contemporary reportage during Disraeli’s lifetime saw him as a Jew, even though he was baptized as a teenager. An 1868 headline declaring “A Hebrew Rules in England” was printed in a variety of American newspapers when Disraeli rose to become UK prime minister.
“The world is rapidly freeing itself of nearly 2,000 years of foolish and wicked prejudices against a much vilified people when the biggest office which a citizen of England can win is given to one of a persecuted race,” the article read.
This tribute to Disraeli the Jew has been stated again and again since he first entered office. But, more recently, historians have arisen who seek to challenge that myth and see Disraeli’s approach to Judaism as negative.
David Cesarani, the late Holocaust historian, has written a new work on the “un-Jewishness” of the UK leader, titled Disraeli: The Novel Politician and published posthumously in the Yale University series on Jewish Lives.
After tracing Disraeli’s early life, his financial insecurity and his lack of Jewish interests, Cesarani focuses on the British leader’s election to the House of Commons on November 15, 1837. He points to Disraeli’s lack of interest in the debate that day surrounding Moses Montefiore, sheriff of London, who raised the issue on the oaths of office, problematic to Quakers and Moravians. When the debate also turned to “Jewish disabilities” relating to the oath, Disraeli said he did not care “terribly much about Jews or Jewish roots,” Cesarani wrote.
“[Disraeli’s] achievement of getting elected to Parliament helps to explain his lack of interest in his Jewish heritage. Had it been a real hindrance it would have preoccupied him more.... But it did not.”
Cesarani stressed that we should “reconsider whether Disraeli’s writing on Jews and Judaism really constituted a ‘contemporary myth.’” Instead, he notes, ambition was most important to Disraeli, and “his Jewishness did not impinge on it in either way; not as a spur nor as an obstacle.”
The author also cites numerous parliamentary debates, diary sources and letters dealing with the role of Disraeli in the “oath” controversy. Cesarani shows clearly how Disraeli avoided taking a strong position on the issue; only when it became a foregone conclusion that a bill permitting a different oath would triumph did Disraeli join the winning side.
In his analysis of Disraeli’s novels, Cesarani writes that they were not positively Jewish as many have contended. Instead, he argues, they built up Jewish stereotypes which fomented anti-Semitism.
In his writings, the author notes, Disraeli “sketched the first draft of the Jewish world conspiracy,” thus providing a basis for the “fundamental contribution to modern literary anti-Semitism.”
Cesarani also argues that Disraeli used the anti-Semitism of his opponents against them by devising a language of Jewish racial superiority that trumped his enemies’ obsession with ancient lineage.
In the author’s eyes, even though Disraeli felt strongly he had won, the anti-Semites subsequently used the Englishman’s litany to focus on Jews and Judaism in the worst possible light.
Reading Disraeli’s life anew in this fashion has made it possible to hack away at the strong seal of approval by scholars regarding the English leader’s Jewish feelings.
Since Cesarani is no longer alive, he cannot answer his critics. Instead, only his powerful words remain, which destroy the myth of Disraeli as a 19th-century world leader who was a positive Jewish advocate.