Jewish Identity, Through the Eyes of Benjamin Disraeli
We may think that current political discourse is crude and vicious. But, believe me, beneath a veneer of gentility, politics in the British Empire was worse. Hobbes called it “nasty and brutish,” and if Benjamin Disraeli were alive today, he would agree.
Disraeli (1804 –1881) was born in London, after his family emigrated to England from Italy. His father, Isaac, held membership in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue — though he never attended, even as he served mandatorily on the board for a time — but a dispute led to Isaac’s official resignation, and the Disraelis then left the Jewish community altogether. Benjamin and his sister were converted to Anglicanism as children, and brought up in the Church of England. Benjamin had hardly any knowledge of Judaism and its practices and came to believe that it was a racial phenomenon, a barbaric faith that had been superseded by Christianity. All Jews should abandon the Old Testament for the New, he believed. He rebuked his friends, the Rothschilds, for hanging on to their Jewish identities. But, when it suited him, Benjamin played up his supposed Jewish aristocratic lineage.
He wrote popular novels throughout his life and had an attraction to journalism, but he entered politics professionally, first — unsuccessfully — as a member of the Radical party. Benjamin soon went conservative, joining the Tories — the party of aristocratic landowners, supporters of the monarchy, the Church of England and protectionism. In 1868, he became, briefly, prime minister, before leading his party to a majority win in the 1874 election, after which he served as premier until 1880.
Over his career, he developed a very close friendship with Queen Victoria, though he was also quite the ladies’ man and was accused of using his wiles to charm the monarch. Benjamin was a proud Brit, and he threw his support behind its imperial interests, including looking to maintain the declining Ottoman Empire in order to thwart Russian expansionism, and buying the Suez Canal (with the help of the Rothschilds) to facilitate British access to its Eastern colonies.
Throughout all this, Benjamin tried to distance himself from Judaism, rather like Henry Kissinger in his prime. Benjamin avoided getting involved in the long struggle to allow a Jew to serve as MP, without taking the oath of office that included the line, “[A]nd I make this declaration upon the true faith of a Christian.”
When he visited the Middle East and Jerusalem, he spoke to no Jews and visited no synagogues. He refused to support Sir Moses Montefiore and Albert Cremieux’s attempts to aid the Syrian Jews imprisoned and tortured over the 1840 blood libel known as the Damascus Affair, or to speak out on the 1858 kidnapping by the Catholic Church of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara. He also would not back Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist who came to him in 1879, asking for his support to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Yet, for all his attempts to escape his Jewish identity, he was hounded and reviled throughout his life — and beyond — as an oily, devious, dishonest Jew.
British society’s aversion to Jews was so intense that when the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 — granting Jews civil rights — was passed by Parliament and signed by King George, it was revoked because of outcry from the church, commerce, aristocracy and the middle classes. It would take another 100 years for Lionel de Rothschild to be finally allowed to take his seat in Parliament as a Jew, when he was permitted to take the oath of office on the Old Testament and not swear fidelity to Christianity. There were philo-Semites too, of course, like George Eliot and Laurence Oliphant, but they were few and far between, and overwhelmed by the primitive hatred of Jews by both England’s educated and ignorant, its upper and middle classes.
In 1877, Disraeli took steps to block a Russian military assault on the Ottomans, who had reacted to a Christian rebellion in Serbia and Bulgaria with barbaric force and cruelty. But the political establishment and public opinion were looking for the Turks to be punished. When Disraeli refused and worked with Germany and France to hold off the Russians, he was scurrilously attacked as a Jew who undermined Christianity in favor of the Turks because they were more sympathetic to Jews.
Benjamin later came to acknowledge his Jewish birth with pride, crediting his race with having bequeathed nobility upon humanity by inspiring Christianity and Islam. His novels were sprinkled with Jewish heroes and portraits of Jewish wisdom and generosity. True, they were all without an iota of Jewish religious commitment or identity, and on the few occasions he tried to insert something of the Jewish religion, he got it completely wrong. Yet, his famous reply to an antisemitic attack was, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
The late, much-lamented and talented British historian David Cesarani was commissioned to write a short biography of Disraeli for the Yale University series called Jewish Lives. (A series so inconsistent that it covers anyone from King David to Rothko to Spielberg. The inclusion of Disraeli shows just how widely the net has been thrown.) The book is not an easy read, but a very worthwhile one, if only to remind us of the deep antisemitism that led to Disraeli being so excoriated, despised and mistrusted because of his Jewish birth. Cesarani notes that his subject’s view of his Jewish blood as a racial, not a religious, matter was eagerly adopted by the evil pantheon of European Jew-haters: “Ultimately he fits squarely into modern Jewish history for the worst reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse. Within a few years of his demise his words were being cited by Baurer, Marr, Drumont, Chamberlain, Hillaire Belloc, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even Hitler, to justify their insane and pathological hatred of Jews.”
In the end, Disraeli was, in Bismarck’s words, just considered “the Old Jew.” His successes resulted from an ability to use the rigged system to his advantage. If anything, he proved that you don’t have to be loved to be successful. Some of the most effective politicians have been the least likable. Times have not changed as much as we like to think they have.