“Disraeli: The Novel Politician” by David Cesarani. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, 236 pages. $25.
When we play the Jewish pride game — you know, slapping ourselves figuratively on the back and naming Albert Einstein in physics, Sigmund Freud in psychiatry and Karl Marx in political philosophy as Jews of the modern era who were the outstanding people in each discipline — another name often makes into our Jewish pantheon: Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th-century Briton who rose to the heights of politics by becoming his country’s prime minister.
There is one small problem with including Disraeli — although born Jewish, he converted to Christianity at age 13.
A mere technicality, say Disraeli advocates. Despite his conversion, his Jewish inner core remained unscathed, and his Jewishness was very consequential in his life.
Not so, says author David Cesarani, a history research professor at the University of London.
Cesarani looks at the evidence and refutes the idea that Disraeli is someone driven by his inner Jewishness. (Cesarani’s argument starts off with a handicap — the inclusion of his book about Disraeli as part of Yale University Press’ “Jewish Lives Series.”)
One way to measure Disraeli’s Jewish substance is by looking at the novels he wrote. “Contarini Fleming,” for example, includes a trip to Jerusalem in which the protagonist meets a wealthy Hebrew merchant called Besso.
This novel shows “how marginal Jews were to his interests,” Cesarani writes. “The references to Hebrews are all stock. Besso is essentially de-Judaised and inhabits a city that in terms of morphology could be anywhere in the Arab world. Disraeli lavishes more detail on his description of Bedouins and ‘the Orient.’ ”
“The Wondrous Tale of Alroy” deals with a Jew living in the Arab world. But, notes the author, only someone who was completely ignorant of, or cared little about, Judaism could believe that “a Jew setting about his devotions ‘took off his turban, and unfolded it, and knelt and prayed.’” Disraeli also “mangled” Jewish dietary laws, suggesting that animals with cloven hooves are unclean. In addition, he claimed that Jews make sacrifices in synagogue.
In 1831, he visited Palestine as part of a trip in the Mediterranean region. He visited Jerusalem and waxed poetic about the city in letters home. The author notes: “He does not mention the Jewish Quarter or Jews at all.”
When he entered politics in the 1830s, he often encountered hecklers who made vulgar references about his Jewish background. Nonetheless, the author concludes that Disraeli’s ambition propelled him to succeed in politics and that his Jewishness was neither “a spur” nor “an obstacle” to his achievements.
There were Jewish issues during his political career about which Disraeli was strangely silent. His friend Lionel de Rothschild was elected to the House of Commons but refused to take the oath of office, which included the words “on the true faith of a Christian.”
The political conflict about the oath went on for several years until eventually it was changed, allowing Rothschild to take his seat in the legislature. Although he voted to change the oath, Disraeli did not take part in the parliamentary debate, nor was the matter mentioned in his autobiographical notes.
The blood libel scandal in Damascus, in which two Jews from that city were tortured until they confessed to having taken part in the disappearance of a Christian clergyman, also riled the Jewish world, with appeals for those men’s release from prison coming from many Western countries.
But during the uproar over the incident, “there was not a squeak from Disraeli,” writes the author.
But it’s not only his apparent disinterest in Jewish affairs but also his very un-Jewish belief system and his sometime shameful behavior that might lead to a re-evaluation of Disraeli’s Jewish bona fides and of our enthusiasm for claiming him as one of our own.
The portrait that Cesarani paints is one of a person motivated almost entirely by ambition; of someone who was greedy and self-indulgent, and thus constantly in debt; of an individual who took credit for other people’s achievements and exploited his friends by taking their money.
It’s his ideas and beliefs, however, that should cause today’s Jewish community the most discomfort. He was contemptuous of democracy, urban life and the middle class, and ridiculed the anti-slavery movement as “middle-class sentimentalism.”
He favored rule by the country’s aristocracy, thus harking back to a time in English history that was most inhospitable to Jews.
Disraeli also pictured Jews as the world’s leading subversives. They headed many secret societies designed to destroy “aristocracy, property and religion.”
Disraeli, writes Cesarani, “played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse.”
Of course, it is unfair to judge a person who lived in another era by our standards and, certainly, Disraeli’s role in the development of anti-Semitic ideology was entirely inadvertent.
Nonetheless, maybe we should substitute Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis or former Sen. Joe Lieberman for Disraeli in our virtual Jewish Valhalla.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.