Dis­raeli: The Nov­el Politician

David Cesarani
  • Review
By – April 19, 2016

This dense, care­ful­ly craft­ed biog­ra­phy explores both Disraeli’s life as an eman­ci­pat­ed ex-Jew” in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Eng­land, and how his career may have unin­ten­tion­al­ly con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of anti-Semi­tism in mod­ern Europe. While cov­er­ing Disraeli’s life in a straight­for­ward, chrono­log­i­cal fash­ion, Cesarani focus­es on two par­tic­u­lar areas — Disraeli’s fic­tion­al writ­ings and his polit­i­cal positions. 

The pro­tag­o­nists of Disraeli’s nov­els often embod­ied ver­sions of his per­son­al strug­gles to be rec­og­nized as an influ­en­tial pub­lic fig­ure. Dis­raeli set these fic­tion­al­ized con­flicts against racially/​religiously charged back­drops involv­ing Chris­tians, Jews, and oth­ers — invok­ing stereo­types that lat­er came back to haunt him. Dis­raeli also float­ed the idea that since the Jew­ish peo­ple pro­duced Jesus, Chris­tian­i­ty could be seen as a high­er stage of Judaism. Writ­ing flashy nov­els was one of Disraeli’s few legit­i­mate sources of income, so a cer­tain amount of hyper­bole might be forgivable.

Disraeli’s polit­i­cal posi­tions were arguably more straight­for­ward. While we are accus­tomed to peo­ple with Jew­ish back­grounds enter­ing pol­i­tics from stage left, as chal­lengers to a sta­tus quo that has dis­crim­i­nat­ed against Jews and oth­ers, Dis­raeli was a defi­ant Tory. Although this did not pre­vent him from cam­paign­ing for the needs of work­ing peo­ple on many occa­sions, he stood proud­ly for the monar­chy, the Angli­can Church, and con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues. Dur­ing his career in gov­ern­ment, two key issues test­ed his Jew­ish affini­ties — the debates over the oath of office, and the debates over the so-called Balkan Ques­tion in the 1870s. When Dis­raeli entered Par­lia­ment in the 1830s, new­ly elect­ed mem­bers were sworn in with a Chris­t­ian oath (which the elect­ed Jew Lionel de Roth­schild refused to utter). Debates over laws to change this oath (so-called Jew bills”) erupt­ed peri­od­i­cal­ly in Par­lia­ment; Dis­raeli either remained silent or revert­ed to his the­o­ry that since Chris­tian­i­ty came from Judaism, there could be no real rea­son to exclude Jews. Lat­er, near the end of his life, Dis­raeli want­ed Britain to fight to keep Rus­sia from annex­ing Turk­ish land. While the res­o­lu­tion of this con­flict in the 1878 Con­gress of Berlin was hailed as Disraeli’s great­est for­eign pol­i­cy achieve­ment, Glad­stone and oth­er oppo­nents viewed it as incon­tro­vert­ible evi­dence of his secret Jew­ish agen­da to cham­pi­on Mus­lims over Chris­tians. And so Dis­raeli, at the end of his life, became the Jew’ — not by his own design, but in the eyes of others.

Ben­jamin Dis­raeli is often called Britain’s first — or only — Jew­ish prime min­is­ter, some­times with clar­i­fi­ca­tion that he was Jew­ish-born, although lat­er bap­tized Chris­t­ian. Indeed, Disraeli’s retort to anti-Semit­ic remarks by O’Con­nell in the House of Com­mons is wide­ly quot­ed: Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ances­tors of the right hon­or­able gen­tle­men were bru­tal sav­ages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the tem­ple of Solomon.” Biog­ra­ph­er Cesarani asks us to con­sid­er, apart from the acci­dent of birth to Jew­ish par­ents, what it means to say that Dis­raeli lived a Jew­ish life.”

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions