Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a Christian. His marriage took place in a church. So did his funeral. He had been baptized as a boy of twelve. Had he not been, he would never have been able to pursue the political career that brought him world fame, since, until 1858, new members entering the British House of Commons were required to take their oath “on the true faith of a Christian.”

Nor was there much in Disraeli’s political career that reflected his Jewish origins, certainly not in an obvious or explicit fashion. It is true that he consistently supported the admission of Jewish MPs to Parliament, but this was the exception. On other Jewish issues, such as the Damascus blood libel of 1840, which created an international outcry, he remained silent. Robert Blake’s classic modern biography (1968), which concentrates on his politics, runs to over 800 pages. It devotes only a dozen of them to Jewishness and Judaism.

Yet it makes perfect sense for a book about Disraeli to appear, as Adam Kirsch’s does, in a series called “Jewish Encounters.” He was born a Jew, and his Jewishness was central to his personality if not to his politics. We don’t have to guess at the fact; he makes it clear in his writings. It was also something of which everyone was constantly aware. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Bismarck, who admired him, famously referred to him as “der alte Jude.” By this stage he had been ennobled, and had changed his emblematically Jewish name. He was now Lord Beaconsfield. But that fooled no one. In Berlin, humorists took to calling him “B.A. Kohnfeldt.”



Kirsch’s admirable study is a portrait rather than a monograph. Concentrating on Disraeli’s Jewish aspects, it also sets them in the context of his career as a whole. The reader is left in no doubt that, whatever existential questions may have haunted Disraeli, most of his working hours were devoted to the hard details of everyday politics and party maneuvering. Complex issues are sketched in: the struggle over the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws, the extension of the suffrage in the Second Reform Act, the diplomacy of the Eastern Question in the 1870’s. The necessary political information is woven neatly and painlessly into Kirsch’s narrative—but then, as befits an author who is a poet and the book critic of the New York Sun, the whole work is conspicuous for its literary skill.

Above all, Benjamin Disraeli is infused with the sense of drama that its subject matter demands. For the story is one that seems no less remarkable for having been told many times before. That a Jew, born in the early years of the 19th century, should have become prime minister of what was then the most powerful state in the world; that he should have done so as leader of the conservative interest; that he should have begun his career, moreover, as a raffish adventurer—it sounds like the stuff of romantic fiction.

There was never anything half-hearted about Disraeli’s ambition. At the age of nineteen, he gave up studying law. Like the autobiographical hero of his first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), he could visualize enjoying “the most brilliant success” at the bar, but it was not enough for him: “to be a great lawyer, I must give up my chance of being a great man.”

Plainly he could never have succeeded in translating his power fantasies into reality if he had not been exceptionally intelligent and a notably gifted writer and orator. But he owed at least as much to his nerve, and to his spirit of defiance. He was reckless in his handling of money, bold in his approach to women, and undeterred (except for a period in his twenties when he suffered a breakdown) by insults and setbacks. If he was doomed to be an outsider, then he would go the whole way and turn himself into a positive exotic—wearing flamboyant clothes, striking Byronic poses.

He did not initially draw attention to his Jewish background. He didn’t have to; he would have been regarded as a Jew under any circumstances. But his colorful conduct served to underline the fact: he was thought of as a flashy Jew, not as a quiet and more or less acceptable one.

Here he stood in marked contrast to his father. Isaac D’Israeli was a respectable citizen and respected author, much admired for his Curiosities of Literature and many similar books. He was the first Jew who sought to win salvation through writing about English literature—a distant ancestor, you might say, of Lionel Trilling. He moved at ease in literary society, and even received an honorary degree from Oxford, that bastion of Tory and Anglican orthodoxy. As for his own religious affiliation, if he had lived in Germany he might well have found a home in the ranks of Reform Judaism. But no English equivalent was available at the time.

There were many different strands in the relationship between father and son. Isaac bequeathed to Benjamin both his underlying political assumptions (he was a Tory) and a strong vein of 18th-century skepticism. But Benjamin’s sense of Jewish identity, when it surfaced, was very different from the older man’s, and far more aggressive.

In his early novel Alroy (1833), he portrays a medieval Jewish superman who rages against the degradation of the Jews and restores the national honor by establishing a new empire in the Middle East. In his far more mature political trilogy of the 1840’s, consisting of Sybil, Coningsby, and Tancred, the setting is contemporary industrialized England, but we again encounter a mythic Jewish hero. This time it is the mysterious Sidonia, who is wise, ironic, cosmopolitan, fabulously rich, endlessly well-connected. As somebody in the novel says, Sidonia “seems to know everyone as well as everything.” At the same time, he is prevented by his Jewishness from playing a direct part in political life. His influence is immense, but he has to exercise it behind the scenes.

Sidonia does not only exemplify the gospel of Jewish supremacy; he proclaims it, seeing Jewish influence at work everywhere, among czarist diplomats no less than among German revolutionaries. He assures us that “the first Jesuits were Jews,” and, with a reckless disregard for facts, identifies famous people—Mozart, for instance—as Jewish. To make matters worse, he sets out his view of the world in uncompromisingly pseudo-biological terms. “Race is everything,” he declares, “there is no other truth. And every race must fall which casually suffers  its blood to become mixed.”



Kirsch naturally recoils from this stuff, as an enlightened reader must. From today’s perspective, he writes, Sidonia looks like nothing so much as an uncanny distillation of anti-Semitic slander and paranoia, and he shows us how easy it was for an early forerunner of the Nazis like Houston Stewart Chamberlain to cite Coningsby and Tancred with approval.

Even at the time Disraeli was writing, his ideas were liable to cause offense. In retrospect, it seems surprising that they did not cause more. In part this may simply be because they were not taken very seriously, in contrast to the more interesting sections of the novels dealing with the condition of England. Still, many non-Jews (and no doubt some Jews as well) were annoyed. “My Gentile nature kicks most resolutely against any assumption of superiority in the Jews”—such was the reaction of the young George Eliot, writing about Disraeli’s trilogy in 1848; no doubt other readers would have expressed themselves even more strongly.

A certain amount can be urged in mitigation. Disraeli was far from unique: he lived at a time when ideas about race that would now be impermissible were commonplace. His primary aim was benign—to speak up on behalf of a group that had suffered long centuries of prejudice and oppression. And at least there can be no doubting his sincerity. As a politician, he had nothing to gain and much to lose by harping on the unique qualities of the Jews. He wrote out of conviction.

As for the source of his belief, one can only guess. But Kirsch’s explanation seems to me by far the most likely one. There was little in Disraeli’s immediate family background, or in his father’s example, to make him feel as vehemently as he did. His first exposure to truly hurtful anti-Semitism took place, as several episodes in his early novels hint, in the school playground, that often far from playful place. It was there that his pride received its deepest challenge, there that he received blows he never forgot and made resolutions from which he never wavered.

This can make his Jewishness sound like a purely private affair, and that indeed is what it sometimes feels like. But there is another element. Alroy may be rather trashy, but it has one sure claim to fame: as Kirsch says, it brings into the open, for the first time in modern literature, the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The same dream also figures in the political trilogy—intermittently and incoherently, mixed up with home-made theology and Disraeli’s own brand of orientalism, but still discernible.

Kirsch rightly draws attention to one episode in particular: an account in Tancred of the festival of Sukkot being celebrated in a poor home in London. It is a powerful evocation of Jewish continuity. In its most visionary moment, we are told that

the vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persist in celebrating their vintage, though they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards.

Curiously, Kirsch omits these particular sentences, but he quotes enough from the passage to show that it points forward, not perhaps to Zionism itself, but to the kind of feelings from which Zionism might spring.



There is nothing else quite like this in Disraeli’s work, and there was certainly no follow-up. Within a year or so of Tancred’s publication, he had become leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons. His life was now swallowed up by British politics. In 1876, the year in which George Eliot published her Zionist novel Daniel Deronda, he was prime minister, busy purchasing shares in the Suez Canal (with the help of the Rothschilds) and arranging for Queen Victoria to be made Empress of India. Daniel Deronda has a recognized place in the pre-history of the state of Israel. All that remain of his own writings on a Jewish homeland are a few brilliant intuitions.

The one Jewish issue that he could not escape was anti-Semitism. It dogged him to the last. In the 1870’s, when he was determined to prop up the Ottoman empire against the advancing power of Russia, it was widely assumed (quite wrongly) that he was motivated by “crypto-Judaism,” including resentment at the czarist regime’s mistreatment of its Jewish subjects. He incurred a great deal of abuse as a result. But politically he had his way.

His career was an exemplar of many things—of new possibilities for Jews, and the new complications thereby added to the notion of Jewish identity; of worldly calculation and romantic daring; of an attachment to the idea of aristocracy worthy of Proust (both men were grandsons of Jewish stockbrokers, incidentally), and of a conservatism that learned to adjust to mass democracy; of both the tenacity of prejudice and the prospect of its decline.

Disraeli retains far more interest than most bygone politicians, and it is a pity that Kirsch did not have space to deal with his posthumous legacy, or his popular legend. But it would be unreasonable to expect more of a book that already packs in so much.

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