By Adam Kirsch
Schocken/Nextbook, 288 pages, $21.
Queen Victoria once asked Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister, about his “real” religion.
“You were born a Jew and you forsook your great people,” she said. “Now you are a member of the Church of England, but no one believes that you are a Christian at heart. Please tell me, who are you and what are you?”
“Your Majesty,” Disraeli famously replied, “I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.”
The answer, New York Sun books critic Adam Kirsch says in his account of Disraeli’s Jewishness, perfectly encapsulates the ambiguous identity deliberately nurtured by Britain’s first — and, so far, only — Jewish-born prime minister. Disraeli was a practicing Christian who attended church on Sundays and, unlike Jews, could sit in Parliament. Yet he believed that Christianity was incomplete without Judaism — and vice versa — and saw himself as part of a noble, powerful Jewish race.
It was an empowering image he carefully cultivated, in person and as a novelist, in order to counter regular antisemitic attacks and give himself the confidence to withstand them.
“Disraeli’s Jewishness,” Kirsch ultimately concludes, “was both the greatest obstacle to his ambition and its greatest engine.”
Disraeli was born in London in 1804, to a Jewish woman who was hostile toward Judaism and to a Jewish man who admired the biblical Jewish commonwealth but despised rabbis and rituals. In 1817, after falling out with the local synagogue, Disraeli’s father had his four children baptized.
Benjamin’s early years were marked by failure. He withdrew from school at 15; Kirsch extrapolates from his novels that this was because of antisemitism, but he brings no real proof. By the time he was 22, he was in deep debt and a social pariah, after being outed as the anonymous author of the novel “Vivian Gray,” supposedly an insider’s exposé of high society. A nervous breakdown followed. It took three years until he felt well enough to embark on a tour of the Mediterranean that included Palestine.
There, Jerusalem seized his imagination as a potential site of Jewish national sovereignty. He began writing “Alroy,” a proto-Zionist novel loosely based on the life of a 12th-century Kurdish Jew who rebelled against the Turks. In Disraeli’s version, Alroy faces a choice between his own glory and that of the Jewish nation — and chooses the latter.
But by the time the book was published in 1833, Disraeli had chosen the opposite path. “Writing Alroy served Disraeli, it seemed, as a kind of exorcism,” Kirsch writes.
Hugely ambitious, Disraeli ran for Parliament, and after five tries he was finally voted in as a Conservative.
An aspiring aristocrat, Disraeli believed that the privileges of the nobility had to be preserved even as England modernized. He cared deeply for the working class, however, arguing simply that the peers were best placed to look out for their interests.
The vision ultimately transformed his elitist party into a national one. But Disraeli was, for decades, on the wrong side of history, at one point even flirting with feudalism. He spent most of his career in opposition, showing off his celebrated rhetorical skills rather than implementing policy.
Meanwhile, he continued writing successful novels. “Coningsby,” “Sybil” and “Tancred” all advocated solving England’s problems by empowering the rich. They also, however, featured the recurring figure of Sidonia, Disraeli’s “fictional avatar.” A wandering Jew incapable of feeling love, the wealthy Sidonia exercised vast power behind the scenes. He also advanced the theory that the Jews were “to be defined solely on the basis of race.”
He was a classic antisemitic figure, on whom leading antisemites later explicitly drew. But to Disraeli — detached from the realities of everyday Jewish life — Sidonia’s superiority was a source of pride. And his theory of race allowed Disraeli, who was continually labeled an “outsider” and an “alien,” to “turn the English theory of pedigree to his own advantage.”
It is ironic, therefore, that the political power he craved finally came to him through the question of Jewish emancipation. Disraeli chose to support the right of Lionel de Rothschild, who in 1847 was the first nonbaptized Jew to be elected to Parliament, to take up his seat. Disraeli argued not for equality, but that Christians owed Jews a debt as the inventors of Christianity. His party forgave this renegade position. But they ousted their leader in the House of Commons, the only other Conservative to support Rothschild — leaving the prestigious position open for Disraeli.
In the mid 1850s, he served two brief terms as chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain’s finance minister. It was not until 1868, after passing a historic bill granting the vote to most men — a move he had opposed for decades — that he finally became prime minister, and then only for a few short months. Not until 1874, when he was almost 70, did he win his first full term in office.
Disraeli had become such a fixture on the benches of the opposition that the nation, it appears, had finally gotten used to this eccentric Jew. Yet it was not a totally dazzling premiership. There were some historic achievements, including some important social legislation, the purchase of a minority share in the Suez Canal with a loan from Rothschilds and a triumph at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where Disraeli limited Russian expansionism, to great acclaim. For the most part, though, Disraeli was hampered by old age, widowhood and lack of executive experience. When power finally came, he was past his prime.
Kirsch, in his compelling and elegant account, nevertheless frames Disraeli’s story as one of triumph, that of his political and Jewish imagination. It is unclear whether this is completely true. The myth of the noble, oriental Jew was a common motif among London Sephardim, reflected in the architecture of some major synagogues from that period, such as the New West End synagogue in Westminster’s Bayswater, built to look like a Moorish fantasy. Furthermore, despite decades of effort, it is unclear whether Disraeli convinced anyone but himself of the superiority of the “Jewish race.”
Still — seeing as the fantasy gave him the confidence to climb right to the top of the political ladder and earn an enduring place in popular imagination — perhaps that was enough.
Miriam Shaviv is the comment editor of The Jewish Chronicle of London.