A New Look at Benjamin Disraeli
Of the so-called “Victorian Giants”—William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Palmerston, Joseph Chamberlain—none have fascinated the public as much as Benjamin Disraeli, later Lord Beaconsfield, the man who transformed the Conservative Party into a dominant force in English politics.
Disraeli’s career generated a voluminous literature including contemporary biographies and a classic multi-volume “Life” by W. F. Monypenny and George Buckle, culminating in Robert Blake’s definitive biography in 1966. Specialized studies of Disraeli’s career have appeared, along with a couple of new biographies, but they have added little beyond what Blake discovered.
Now the late David Cesarani, one of the leading scholars of Jewish history in England, turned his hand to unlocking the mystery of just who Disraeli was. Disraeli: The Novel Politician takes a different approach to Disraeli’s life and character. Instead of a typical biographical study, Cesarani finds the key to Disraeli in his ambivalent attitude toward being Jewish and how this background influenced his political career. Along with the emphasis on the Jewish factor in Disraeli’s life, Cesarani, more than past biographers, also analyzes Disraeli’s novels for clues to the man behind the mask.
Disraeli’s story is extraordinary and resembles the plot of one of his romantic novels. His father, Isaac, a distinguished literary figure in England, rejected his Jewish background and had Disraeli baptized into the Anglican Church. The young Disraeli knew little about Judaism, had no interest in it, and developed contempt for the traditions of the Jewish faith.
As Disraeli matured he began to take a deeper interest in Judaism, and especially in the history of the Jewish people through the ages. He was particularly fascinated by the Jewish relationship to European culture. Cesarani argues that Disraeli’s interpretation of the Jewish past was distorted—he stressed the idea that Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism. As he noted on more than one occasion, after all the founder of Christianity, the man Christians worshipped, was nothing more than a young Jew. Disraeli preferred to see Judaism in racial terms, making him a typical figure of the racial philosophizing of the mid-nineteenth century. Believing in the centrality of race, he spoke of the Jews not in religious terms but as a peculiar and special race, one marked by ambition and talent. To understand history, he once wrote, one must remember that “All is race,” a way of thinking on a par with the great racists of the age, Gobineau and Huston Stewart Chamberlain.
Initially, Disraeli took little interest in Jewish political causes, in particular the movement to remove the ban on Jews entering Parliament. He showed no support for those Jewish groups working for greater emancipation. The Jewish cause promised few rewards to a young, ambitious individual who longed for political success. He was regarded as unscrupulous, willing to do anything to gain office and influence. To the charge that he changed his positions for political reasons, he wrote that it was the mark of the statesman to change his views in response to changing events.
In an important insight, Cesarani notes that Disraeli’s lack of interest in his Jewish past can be explained because he rose politically despite being Jewish. Cesarani shrewdly observes that if his racial background “had been a real hindrance it would have preoccupied him more.” Once Disraeli began to achieve political prominence from the 1860s on, he discovered that his Jewish roots were being used against him and began to take a greater interest in all things Jewish. As the first Jewish politician in England, Disraeli experienced the kind of anti-Semitic attacks that would become commonplace in the emerging age of nationalism.
The most interesting part of Cesarani’s study, chapter three, “The Old Jew”—the phrase Bismarck once used to describe him—deals with the highpoint of Disraeli’s career, the years between 1859 and 1881. The higher Disraeli ascended in English political circles, the greater the antipathy he aroused. The coarseness and crudity of the attacks on Disraeli as a Jew are shocking. Cesarani cites examples of amazing vituperation by English political and cultural leaders in dealing with Disraeli’s Jewish roots. His rival Gladstone began to speak of Disraeli as an “alien” whose major purpose in life was “to annex England to his native East and make it the appendage of an Asiatic Empire.” The distinguished historian E. A. Freeman indulged in the kind of vitriolic anti-Semitic language that would have suited the pages of the Nazi organ, Der Sturmer. Writing of Disraeli’s policies, Freeman argued that while no one wanted to put English Jews under any disability, “it will not do to have the policy of England, the welfare of Europe, sacrificed to the Hebrew sentiment.”
Despite the attacks on his character and background, these years saw Disraeli cement his reputation as a great figure in English history. He helped transform the Conservatives into a broad-based political party by enacting a major Reform Bill that extended the franchise—“Dishing the Whigs” as Disraeli’s long-time partner, Lord Derby, described the bill. Between 1874 and 1880, Disraeli also formed the first successful Conservative administration in English history since Robert Peel’s government of the 1840s, which had collapsed partly at Disraeli’s hands. His administration was responsible for a series of social reforms, including one of the first Public Health acts, an Artisans’ Dwelling Act to provide cheap housing for the working classes, and an act to protect seaman’s lives, legislation that foreshadowed the modern welfare state. He also took special pride in his handling of foreign policy, extending the British Empire by securing control of the Suez Canal, making Queen Victoria Empress of India, and helping to check the rise of Russian power in the Balkans. During these years, the bitter attacks on his Jewish background led Disraeli to reconsider his Jewish past and draw closer to his Jewish brethren. The young Jew who disparaged his Jewish roots now began to speak and write with pride about his past.
Cesarani sums matters up nicely—Disraeli had begun life as a Jew, ended it “The Jew,” and was proud of it.
Cesarani’s study is not without its flaws—it was, for example, Lord Grey not Lord Russell whose administration passed the first Reform Bill. But these are minor details in a book that helps explain the life and times of one of the most fascinating characters of English history. Anyone interested in what made Disraeli “tick” should read Cesarani’s special study of “the old Jew.”
John Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Posted: April 24, 2016