The acclaimed historian, David Cesarani, tackles the complicated, nuanced, and both personal and political life of Disraeli in Disraeli, The Novel Politician, Yale University Press, 2016. Cesarani’s compelling and highly lucid thesis helps us better understand the one-of a- kind ”dandy” Disraeli and sheds light on the state of English Jewry in that Victorian era of religious struggle and emancipation. The main thrust of his thesis, simply put, goes as follows: Benjamin Disraeli’s political principles, if indeed he had any beyond the ambition to climb to the top of the “greasy pole” were not formed, as many contended and continue to argue, by his Jewish roots. Rather, they were secondary to the cause of a strong British Empire combined with a conservative Tory outlook and a belief in the bedrocks of a stable society; and all of these ideas were actually secondary to his ambition. Five score and fifty years ago, before the advent of Donald J. Trump, England boasted its own flamboyant, eccentric, “reality show”, prime minister. Born a Jew in 1804, converted to Christianity by his father at a tender young age, yet vilified his whole life as a Jew, Benjamin Disraeli served as the British Empire’s leader from 1874 - 1880. How Jewish was this non-Jew?
Did the popular view that Disraeli consistently acted through the prism of his Jewish heritage have any credence?
The opponents of Disraeli were many. The opposition to Disraeli because of his Jewishness was vociferous. The accusation of dual loyalty (“Can Jews be Patriots”), a Semite guiding Christian England, was constant. At the same time Disraeli had his admirers, first and foremost Queen Victoria, for whom Disraeli was her overwhelming favorite of all the ten men who served as prime minister during her reign. Disraeli was a successful, best-selling, author of popular novels and this also earned him much acclaim among the general populace. To the great German diplomat Otto von Bismarck, Disraeli was simply, “der alte Jude”; a title that was probably meant as a compliment. Disraeli the Jew was an intimate of the English (Liberal, not Tory) Rothschilds; they viewed him warily yet sympathetically. Yet, as Cesarani cogently argues, when it came to critical issues facing world (or British) Jewry, Disraeli was stone silent. Examples include the infamous Mortara kidnapping and the outbreak of the Damascus blood libel. Yes, Disraeli the Jew, was a staunch defender of organized religion. However, it was the Christian religion, which he believed as a conservative bastion of society “essential as a social cement”. And, in an irony of history, Disraeli’s strange ideas on race were later quoted and twisted to fit demonic Aryan race theories. Like the Rothschilds, we might find room to sympathize and identify with Disraeli whose very being was marked: JEW! But clearly Disraeli does not count as one in the tradition of the great Jewish leaders whose life commitments and blood sweat and tears, were devoted to their own people above all else. Cesarani has done an excellent job to help us understand and appreciate the life of this extraordinary historical figure.. Read it. You will enjoy it.