The complicated Jewishness of Benjamin Disraeli

Disraeli: the Novel Politician by David Cesarani reveals the complex identity of the Tory icon.

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David Cesarani, who died last year at the tragically early age of 58, was one of the most distinguished and authoritative historians of the Holocaust. His books on Adolf Eichmann and the Final Solution have been widely admired. The last of his books is this biography of Benjamin Disraeli, published in a series called Jewish Lives.

Disraeli stands tall among Tory heroes: though not without his detractors, he is generally regarded as one of the founders of the modern Conservative Party. His domestic achievements included the extension of the franchise, the Public Health Act 1875, his amendments to the Factory Act and the Education Act 1876. His foreign policy led to the purchase of Britain’s share in the Suez Canal, the acquisition of Cyprus and the ending of hostilities between Russia and the Ottoman empire at the Congress of Berlin, at which he was recognised as one of the foremost statesmen of his age.

Cesarani’s book is not, however, concerned with Disraeli’s political legacy. And there is no mention of his legendary exchanges, across the floor of the House of Commons, with Gladstone. In line with the series to which the book belongs, he views his subject’s life almost entirely through the prism of his Jewishness.

Disraeli was not Jewish by religion. His father had him baptised at the age of 12. And, as Cesarani makes clear, his early life was marked by a considerable lack of interest in his Jewish heritage. Yet it was an extraordinary life. Before he had reached the age of 25 he had borrowed and lost a large amount of money in South American mining ventures – a debt it took him more than 20 years to pay off – and had published his first novel, Vivian Grey. His early forays into politics displayed a proclivity for ambivalence and inconsistency which was remarkable by any standards.

Despite this, at the age of 32, he became a member of parliament. As Cesarani observes, it is remarkable how lightly he escaped criticism despite his record of profligacy, insincerity and opportunism. And his Jewish origins do not seem to have been an obstacle. In Cesarani’s words: “Disraeli’s early life is a story of ambition, nothing more and nothing less. His Jewishness did not impinge on it either way; not as a spur nor as an obstacle.”

As his political career progressed, his opponents began to pay more attention to his Jewish origins. Disraeli contributed to this by making frequent references to his Jewish background, or rather, the mythical version of it that he constructed, particularly in his writing. His biographers disagree on which was cause and which effect.

It is on the writing that Cesarani focuses in his search for a Jewish dimension to the man’s life. In 1833 The Wondrous Tale of Alroy was published. David Alroy is a brilliant, handsome, young Jewish inhabitant of a 12th-century caliphate who, after a journey to Jerusalem, where he receives advice from Chief Rabbi Zimri, returns to overthrow the caliphate and liberate its Jewish inhabitants. Subsequently, his own regime is overthrown, and when given the choice of conversion to Islam or death, Alroy chooses the latter. Another novel by Disraeli, The Rise of Iskander, was published simultaneously with Alroy. Loosely based on the life of an Albanian Christian nobleman who led a successful rebellion against Ottoman rule in the 1440s, it is the story of a Christian hero who succeeds where Alroy failed.

There has been much speculation about the reasons behind Disraeli’s decision to write on a Jewish theme (however much he may have got the details wrong). Cesarani rejects the theory that Disraeli would have sympathised with his Jewish character because he was born a Jew. Instead, he argues, not altogether convincingly, that it would be more consistent with the pattern of the man’s fiction to conclude that he identified with aimless aristocrats seeking an outlet for their energy, intelligence and idealism.

But it is one of the later novels that provides Cesarani with his major condemnation of Disraeli. Tancred – or, The New Crusade was published in 1847. Its hero believes he can find inspiration in the Holy Land, where his ancestors once crusaded. Before departing, he takes advice from Sidonia, who articulates his belief in Jewish superiority and the centrality of race in human affairs. Tancred and Sidonia share a disdain for modern ideas of equality and democracy. Sidonia regards progress as a sham. Scientific change and social forces do not explain the rise and fall of nations:

“It is an affair of race . . . And when a superior race, with a superior idea to Work and Order, advances, its state will be progressive, and we shall, perhaps, follow the example of the desolate countries. All is race; there is no other truth.”

These ideas are expressed in an even more extreme form in Disraeli’s last finished novel, Endymion (1880). Here, a foreign aristocrat, Baron Sergius, argues that understanding race is vital to any political practice.

“No man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key of history, and why history is often so confused is that it has been written by men who were ignorant of this principle and all the knowledge it involves.”

Then he embarks on a series of observations culminating in the sentence: “Language and religion do not make a race – there is only one
thing which makes a race, and that is blood.”

This enables Cesarani to level his principal accusation against Disraeli: that he played a formative part in the construction of an anti-Semitic discourse. He cites the use of those words on race in subsequent anti-Jewish tracts, culminating in the appropriation of Disraeli by the Nazis. The banner of Julius Streicher’s hate-filled weekly newspaper Der Stürmer proclaimed Disraeli’s words: “The racial question is the key to world history.” Hitler even cited Disraeli in a speech to the Reichstag in 1941:

“The British Jew, Lord Disraeli, once said that the racial problem was the key to world history. We National Socialists have grown up with that idea.”

But Cesarani concedes that Disraeli could not have foreseen that the words in his novels would be used in this way. And it is by no means clear that those words reflected his own views. His whole life was characterised by ambivalence and ambiguity. That is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to pin down his character and why he will always remain a fascinating subject for historians and biographers.

It is impossible to be an unqualified admirer of Disraeli. But when all the speculation about his motives and intentions is done, the achievements remain. They have stood the test of the time. And they surely entitle him to a high place in our pantheon of prime ministers.

Michael Howard is a Conservative peer and was leader of the Conservative Party from 2003 to 2005

Disraeli: the Novel Politician by David Cesarani is published by Yale University Press (304pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster