“Disraeli: The Novel Politician” by David Cesarani, Yale, 304 pages, $25
“Dizzy,” “The Old Jew,” and “eminently clever, but superlatively vulgar,” were just some of the epithets Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had to face down in his time as leader of the British nation. His time in the government, as well as his family origins, extensive writings and world travels are detailed in “Disraeli: The Novel Politician” by David Cesarani, one of the books in Yale University’s “Jewish Lives” series.
Cesarani’s book takes a different tack than many previous biographers of Disraeli. Instead of presenting the perpetually indebted novelist/politician as a defender of his nation, he shows us a more nefarious side of Disraeli: social climbing, image obsessed and reluctant to embrace — and sometimes even acknowledge — any part of his Jewish heritage.
It’s suggested that the antipathy, or at the very least, apathy, for his religion was something Disraeli inherited from his father, Isaac, who refused a position as parnass (warden) at the Bevis Marks synagogue, lamenting the “utter impropriety of the choice,” since he had been only partially observant for some time. Shortly after, he would sever ties with the synagogue and his religion and have his children baptized at St. Andrew in Holborn.
The author argues that Disraeli’s many novels have been used by critics and writers as a kind of diary and that the characters within speak for Disraeli himself: novels like “Tancred,” which details an aimless youth who travels to the Holy Land and falls in love with a Jewish girl, who teaches him all about the Jewish faith. Many biographers of Disraeli used this book to show his sympathies for his nation, but Cesarani sees it as more damning. In it, Disraeli avails himself of many stereotypes about Jews, creating stock characters who are naive at best.
Instead of looking to his novels to understand the man, Cesarani looks to his political career. There were several other influential Jews in England at the time — most notably members of the Rothschild family, with whom Disraeli was close — who were active in campaigning for more rights for their brethren. One of the most contentious battles in Parliament while Disraeli was an MP was the swearing-in ceremony for new officials. In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild, who had just been elected, asked that he be sworn in with an Old — not New — Testament, and that his oath omit the words, “on the true faith of a Christian.” The attempts to pass a new bill allowing Jews to swear in with an alternate form of the oath would span 11 years and countless amendments between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In all this time, Disraeli remained mostly silent, except for the few occasions when he spoke up in favor of the government’s choice not to amend the original oath. The Jewish Chronicle in London lamented, “If ultimately any Jew does enter Parliament it will not be due to Disraeli’s efforts.”
Cesarani also notes how Disraeli remained silent during the Damascus Affair, when 13 high-profile members of that Jewish community were arrested on suspicion of murdering a monk for ritualistic purposes. Despite widespread outcry from most of the British Jewish community, it was a matter Disraeli chose not to comment on.
Perhaps most problematic for the author is Disraeli’s novel “Coningsby,” about a young man looking to solve the problems in England by attaining a government position. During the course of the novel, he meets a Jewish character named Sidonia, who seems to speak only in quasi-sermonizing monologues — most of them about the few pure races in the world, of which the Jews are one. This novel would be appropriated in later generations by notable anti-Semites, and the sections that speak of these unadulterated nations would be co-opted for their own use. The first English edition of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the well-known — and oft-disproved — text that seeks to prove that Jews secretly run the world, would quote directly from the novel, as would Der Stürmer, the official newspaper of the Nazi Party, and even Hitler himself. In trying to present a different view of Jews in his novels, Cesarani postulates that instead, Disraeli ended up strengthening and creating new and damaging stereotypes.
Cesarani considers Disraeli little more than a modern hof jude, a “court Jew” bankrolling the government behind the scenes in return for social privileges. Though Disraeli’s deep debt did not enable him to financially back any venture, the idea behind the term — that of a mere figurehead — still applies. Though he faced a tirade of anti-Semitism throughout his career, first as a novelist and later a politician, it seems to be insinuated that in some sense, Disraeli brought it upon himself.
“Disraeli: The Novel Politician,” is not a biography for those who have merely a casual interest in the former prime minister. It is overtly academic in tone, and words like “gallimaufry,” “suzerainty,” and “desideratum” will have readers constantly checking the dictionary. But though the book may not be easily perused, for those wishing to understand the upward social migration of Jews the world over, expressed through Disraeli’s rise to power, as well as anti-Semitism in the modern age, this is required reading.
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.