UK vote: The anti-Semitism that could have been

When a Jewish leader, Benjamin Disraeli, was previously at the heart of an election campaign in Britain, it provided an occasion for an unprecedented and far-reaching brand of anti-Semitism.

A MAN leaves the Conservative Party convention last month in the UK. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN leaves the Conservative Party convention last month in the UK.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week’s elections in Britain were marked by the Tories’ majority win, the Scottish National Party’s dominance up north, and the inability of the polls to predict either of these outcomes.
Importantly, the elections were not marked by anti-Semitism.
One of the candidates for prime minister was Jewish, yet the non-anti-Semitism of the elections seems like a non-story.
When a Jewish leader, Benjamin Disraeli, was previously at the heart of an election campaign in Britain, it provided an occasion for an unprecedented and far-reaching brand of anti-Semitism, which even influenced the racist ideology of Nazi Germany decades later.
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Does the absence of anti-Semitism in the 2015 elections mean that this post-Holocaust world has become much safer for Jews, or are there still some significant lessons to be learned about the anti-Semitism developed to reject a leader in the 1870s? Disraeli was born Jewish, the son of English-born Isaac Disraeli.
A Jew by birth, Benjamin Disraeli became an Anglican by choice.
Seemingly, having a Jew for premier speaks volumes for a society’s level of tolerance, but for Disraeli, whose political career was made possible by his baptism, it meant that his Jewishness was to be used against him once he made it to the very top of British politics. His political rivals were the ones who sought to highlight the Jewishness in him, as if a weakness and a cause for suspicion.
Being that Disraeli was a Jew by ethnicity, and not by practice, the anti-Semitic discourse that was designed to suit his profile did not center on theological differences or economic arguments but on racial beliefs. At the time this was a new kind of anti-Semitism. The shift to a focus on “Jewish blood” is now commonly related to the Nazi view of Jews, but then it was the political expression of Darwinism’s popularity.
Both Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, who provided the theoretical framework for applying the concept of survival of the fittest to the categorization of human races, were supporters of the Liberal party that stood opposed to Disraeli’s Conservative government between 1874 and 1880. Neither of them seemed to mind it when their findings were used to justify the Liberals’ version of imperialism.
The main point of dispute in Britain’s foreign policy was known as the Eastern Question. Disraeli maintained the Palmerstonian tradition of backing the Ottoman Empire to keep Russia from expanding. However, the Liberals, who wanted to be back in power, presented Disraeli’s status quo in relations with the Ottoman rule as if in betrayal of core English values. To them, Darwinism and morality dictated that the Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire should be encouraged by Britain to become independent states. The imperial interest was to keep colonized India free from a Russian threat through this idea of Christian buffer-states, but the rhetoric focused on how the Jew was in the way of Christian progress and the mission of civilizing the world.
William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberals, and Disraeli’s main political rival, returned from a hiatus in 1876 to head the accusations that Disraeli was letting Christians be massacred by Muslims in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian Agitation became the more famous example of the Liberal attempts to promote Christian nationalisms in Eastern Europe. This development meant an increase of anti-Semitism in the region, where leaders were given a nationalist pretext to persecute Jews. For example, Ion Bratianu, the leader of the Romanian national-liberal party, who maintained a correspondence with Gladstone, issued anti-Semitic decrees in keeping with the Liberal party’s policy.
To add pressure on Disraeli, in 1878 James Bryce, of the Gladstonian circle, called to organize Armenian militias and facilitate their rebellion in “Asiatic Turkey” so that the Armenians could establish an independent state on Ottoman territory in Eastern Anatolia.
To him, the Turks were too inferior to serve British interests well enough, and Disraeli was too foreign to know what was right for Britain. Bryce later wrote that Disraeli “felt himself no Englishman.”
Edward Freeman, Bryce’s mentor, was known as the leading campaigner among the Gladstonian historians. In his role as the Liberal party’s mouthpiece, for which he was later rewarded with the prestigious position of Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, Freeman argued the following: “[W]e cannot sacrifice our people, the people of Aryan and Christian Europe, to the most genuine belief in an Asian mystery.
We cannot have England or Europe governed by a Hebrew Policy...[ Disraeli] is the active friend of the Turk. The alliance runs through all Europe. Throughout the East, the Turk and the Jew are leagued against the Christian.”
It is widely overlooked that Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a British expatriate in Germany, was directly influenced by the Liberal party’s anti-Semitic campaign. Chamberlain, who has been described by scholars as the spiritual father of the Nazi racist-ideology, was in his twenties a fervent supporter of the campaign against Disraeli. In order to fully understand that the fire of anti-Semitism could still be sparked when it becomes politically profitable to do so, there is a need for a more careful study of the election campaign against Disraeli and its impact.
Britain’s peaceful election campaign in 2015 does not mean that the anti-Semitism of the Liberals’ campaign in the late 1870s can be tucked away even further; it might mean the very opposite.
Perhaps the 2015 British election- campaign was free of anti-Semitism because the Jewish candidate was not pro-Israel. It could be that the campaign against Ed Miliband actually did have anti-Semitic elements, such as in The Daily Mail’s portrayal of Miliband’s father in 2013 as a disloyal foreigner. It is quite possible that Miliband’s position on Israel was forced on his political career for fear of the anti-Semitic reactions that would have followed a positive attitude by him toward Israel.
Either way, a rise in anti-Semitism, or the seeming absence of it, is, as in the heyday of Darwinism, still subject to calculations of political gain.
The author has a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah.