Disraeli’s redeemer: The rise and fall of David Alroy

Despite the conversion, however, Disraeli never abandoned or was ashamed of his Jewish identity and ancestry.

WHO WAS the false messiah that appeared among Jews in the 12th century? (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHO WAS the false messiah that appeared among Jews in the 12th century?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Disraeli, future legend as prime minister of Victorian England, published The Wondrous Tale of Alroy in 1833. It was no coincidence that the book appeared in print not long after Disraeli visited Jerusalem. David Alroy, the subject of the Englishman’s novel, was a Kurdish Jew who led a failed messianic movement against the Seljuk Turks in the twelfth century. What makes Disraeli’s novel so poignant and prophetic is that as a young man, born a Jew, his father had him baptized as a member in good standing of the Church of England.
Despite the conversion, however, Disraeli never abandoned or was ashamed of his Jewish identity and ancestry. In fact, he boasted of it to anyone in Parliament or England who wanted to listen.
Why was Alroy’s failed messiah such an attractive subject for Disraeli’s novel? Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch, in his study of the novelist and statesman, describes a convert with little Jewish learning who “did not view Palestine religiously, as the stage for a messianic dream of exile and redemption.”
Alroy, as a Jew who challenged a Muslim empire, “represented a previously undreamed-of possibility: that a Jew could claim political power as a Jew.” This dream of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel long before Herzl “drew Disraeli to the East.” I would add that the Alroy novel legitimized Disraeli’s own ambitions as a Tory in England who hungered to gain political power and lead an empire, a tremendous challenge of its own for a man born a Jew in that epoch.
What do we know of David Alroy beyond the fantasy of Disraeli’s novel? Historian Jacob R. Marcus points to two sources for the story of this failed messiah. The first source is the twelfth-century Jewish traveler from Spain Benjamin of Tudela, who visited hundreds of places in Europe and the Middle East and who took important notes on his journey. The second, far more critical of Alroy and the Jews and that mocked them for their yearnings for redemption, was the 1169 work by Muslim writer Samuel Ibn Abbas, born a Jew but unlike the later Disraeli not proud of his Jewish roots. His attack on Judaism was published in 1169 under the title The Silencing of the Jews and Christians through Rational Arguments.
According to Marcus, “In this Arabic work Ibn Abbas describes the Messianic agitation for no other purpose than to poke fun at the credulous Jews. Nevertheless, we have preferred his account, biased though it is, to that of Benjamin of Tudela because it is simpler and probably more accurate.” I will follow Marcus’s lead in describing the career of David Alroy.
While Ibn Abbas takes no time in accusing Alroy of being a “swindler,” he does provide the important information that the failed messiah was born with the name Menahem ben Solomon Ibn al-Ruhi in the neighborhood of Mosul in Amadia, Kurdistan. While Alroy “passed for a scholar in Jewish law,” he was a “rogue” but well liked by the Muslim commandant of the citadel.
This gave him the ambition that he would be able to capture the citadel for the Jews and convert it into a fortress. Alroy’s plan was not outrageous or impossible: the city of Amadia was the home of Muslims willing to support Alroy against the Crusaders on their trade routes and fight the local Islamic government. While he smuggled weapons into the city, nothing substantive came of his efforts.
While Ibn Abbas attributes all kind of dishonesty and trickery to Alroy, the reality was that the Jews of Persia were desperate, wanted to overthrow their Muslim overlords, be redeemed and return to Jerusalem. The Muslim polemic accuses Alroy of cunning and deceit in rallying the Jewish forces. In truth, the Jewish rebel’s claims to be able to redeem his people were embraced by the Jews of Persia and the inhabitants of Amadia. Marcus mentions the important and sobering fact that Benjamin of Tudela mentions in his notes: Alroy was assassinated by his father-in-law after the latter was paid off to do so with a huge bounty. Two impostors stepped in after Alroy’s death and convinced the desperate Jews that they could still be redeemed by being taken to Jerusalem by flight.
Of course, the Jews were disappointed and that should have been the final chapter in the Alroy story.
As Jerry Rabow describes in Fifty Jewish Messiahs, David Alroy worked magic that confounded the Muslim authorities hunting him down and freed him from temporary imprisonment. In fact, Rabow paints a portrait of the whole Alroy saga as being like a story from the Arabian Nights. While David Alroy remains a footnote in Jewish history – just one more failed messiah in a long line of failed messiahs – his story was enough to fire the imagination of a leader and novelist born a Jew in England centuries later.
While Benjamin Disraeli embellishes the story of David Alroy, he rediscovered the legend and gave it new life as an inspiring and romantic proto-Zionist saga of a man who would fire the imagination of a people. Disraeli’s imagination was fired by the legend of a Jew, who although a failure, had the guts and the will to challenge an oppressive empire.