Commentary Magazine


Disraeli, by Stanley Weintraub

Paradox

Disraeli: A Biography.
by Stanley Weintraub.
Truman Talley Books/Dutton. 717 pp. $30.00.

In August 1867 England took a famous “leap in the dark” by passing the Second Reform Bill, which enfranchised the urban working classes (women excepted), nearly doubled the size of the electorate, and committed the country irrevocably to democracy. The bill had been guided through the House of Commons by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who during the debate spoke no fewer than 310 times on its behalf in order “to prepare the mind of the country and to educate . . . our party”—which happened, of course, to be the Tory party.

That the Tory party should have bestowed upon England the new democratic dispensation must have seemed the ultimate paradox in that age of paradoxes, unless one counts the even greater paradox that the Tories, a party of aristocrats notorious for not reading books, a party derided by J. S. Mill as “the stupid party,” was now being guided by a novelist and literary man with the wildly improbable name of Benjamin Disraeli.

Nor do the paradoxes end there. In Disraeli, Stanley Weintraub gives us a brilliant portrait of someone who aspired to be at once a new Byron and a world-historical statesman; who was a brazen dandy in exotic clothes and jewelry; a witty and inventive novelist who was imitated by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville; a preserver of constitutional monarchy and of the British empire; an outsider, born Jewish, who overcame the initial hostility of Queen Victoria to become her favorite among the eleven Prime Ministers who served her.

As Weintraub demonstrates in his interweaving of Disraeli’s public and private motives, literary and political aspirations, careful observers of the career of this potent wizard should not have been surprised that he ended by “dishing the Whigs” and carrying Reform. He had begun in politics as a “Radical Conservative,” aspiring to adapt popular causes to the Conservative agenda. And in his novel Coningsby (1844), which spans the years from the 1832 Reform Bill to the general election of 1841, he famously defined Conservative government as “Tory men and Whig measures.”

True, in the 1850’s Disraeli promised to oppose electoral reform, and early in the 60’s he attributed England’s greatness to its traditional, undemocratic customs, praising the late Prince Albert for conferring upon the country “the blessings of absolute government.” As this suggests, he was often a fence-sitter; but he was also not without convictions. Although he did genuinely believe in the landed classes and traditional values, he also showed genuine sympathy with popular causes and the plight of the working poor, his subject in Sybil, or, The Two Nations (1845).

Unfavorable reactions to the 1867 Reform Bill and to the elevation of Disraeli to the position of Prime Minister in 1868 tended to stress the most unpalatable paradox of all: that this Christian nation was now to be led by a Jew (albeit one who had been baptized as a child into the Church of England). Weintraub, whose book cannot compare in length with the six-volume classic by Monypenny and Buckle (1910-19), nevertheless gives the fullest picture we have of Disraeli within the context of Victorian political warfare and ideological debate—and nowhere is this amplitude more impressive than in his documentation of the extent to which Disraeli was thought of by friends, colleagues, enemies, and himself as a Jew.

Thus, the relentlessly anti-Semitic and Radical magazine Punch depicted the Disraeli of 1867 in the guise of Dickens’s Fagin, stealing the opposition’s bill from its back pocket. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish sage, ranted against Disraeli as “a cursed old Jew, not worth his weight in cold bacon.” The famous Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett complained that the nation was being run by “a wandering Jew.” The poet Coventry Patmore bemoaned 1867 as “The year of the great crime, / When the false English nobles, and their Jew, / By God demented, slew / The trust they stood twice pledged to keep from wrong.” Lord Palmerston, the former Prime Minister, declared: “We are all dreadfully disgusted at the prospect of having a Jew for our Prime Minister.” W.E. Gladstone, the future Prime Minister and Disraeli’s great rival, would allege: “Though he has been baptized, his Jew feelings are the most radical & the most real . . . portion of his profoundly falsified nature.”

But in what sense was Disraeli a Jew? He truthfully reported that “I was not bred among my race and was nourished in great prejudice against them.” His grandmother, Sarah Shiprut de Gabay, was so venomous on the subject that, Weintraub speculates, she may have provided the germ for Princess Alcharisi, the feminist Jewish anti-Semite in George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. Disraeli’s father, Isaac D’Israeli, did have his son circumcised—an occasion Weintraub wittily describes as “the only Judaic rite in which [Ben] would be a central figure”—but thereafter, in matters concerning Judaism, Isaac showed himself to be a loyal disciple of his beloved Voltaire. In 1813, selected to be a warden of his synagogue, he not only rejected the honor but refused to pay the fine of 40 pounds imposed on anyone who declined such an office.

In March 1817, as young Ben was approaching bar-mitzvah age, his father responded with alacrity to the suggestion of a Christian friend that he have his children baptized into the Church of England, so that they could have the chances available to other English children. On July 11, younger brothers Raphael and Jacobus were duly baptized (and transformed into Ralph and James). Ben was reluctant, but succumbed on July 31, with his sister Sarah following shortly after; the parents remained unbaptized.

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For some time, Disraeli’s inner world, like his outer, showed little sign of his Jewish “background.” Weintraub reports that when he traveled to the Holy Land as a young man, “of Jewish places of worship he saw nothing,” and his glowing description of Jerusalem makes no mention of Jews whatsoever. Such facts would not surprise those of his latter-day critics who have alleged that Disraeli’s ideas of Jewishness were never hindered by any actual knowledge of the subject.

But those ideas did nevertheless permeate his writings, repeatedly and conspicuously so—as did Disraeli’s pride “in that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name.” Why, Weintraub asks, not only at the very beginning of a parliamentary career but frequently thereafter, in a country that still banned real, unconverted Jews from Parliament, would Disraeli go out of his way to glorify his Jewish origins? Weintraub’s answer to this question is essentially circular: however dishonorable Disraeli’s behavior may have been in other areas—toward women, or in finance, or in the grime of political maneuver—he always behaved honorably and “proudly” toward the Jewish background from which he had been severed by his father.

A fuller explanation remains buried deep within the bizarre, discomfiting mixture of sense and (mostly) nonsense that is Disraeli’s theory of “racial Judaism.” Starting from the plausible notion that, as a character in his novel Tancred (1847) says, Jesus “was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew,” Disraeli went on to think of Christianity as “completed Judaism.” In his novels, the spokesmen for the author’s point of view urge Jews to take pride in the fact that “half Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half a Jew,” and that the Church perpetuates Jewish beliefs, history, literature, culture, and institutions.

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Disraeli’s ignorance of Judaism was formidable; he was unaware of the dietary laws, and a clergyman in his employ had to remind him—and was fired for doing so—that the Sabbath of which his master was contemptuous was a Jewish institution. So perhaps it is not altogether incredible that Disraeli should also have seemed blind to the fact that Christianity’s vital energy derived in part from the idea that the Jews, because they had rejected and killed Christ, had been superseded by a new people and a new covenant. Did he not know that his notion of Christianity as “completed Judaism” merely confirmed the sorts of common assumptions about the Jews that he wished to discredit? Apparently he did not.

Another way of putting this would be to say that Disraeli shared the racism that led English anti-Semites to attack him. Like them, he viewed the Jews not as a community with a specific religion, nationality, shared memories and hopes, but as a “race,” united by blood and even by a conspiracy to rule the world. In Tancred, Sidonia, perhaps the most important of Disraeli’s fictional spokesmen, sees crypto-Jews managing affairs everywhere, as professors, ambassadors, generals, cabinet members; he also wonders whether Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were Jewish. In his biography of Lord George Bentinck (1852), we are told: “The first Jesuits were Jews; that mysterious Russian diplomacy which so alarms Western Europe is organized and principally carried on by Jews . . . men of Jewish race are found at the head of every one of [communist and socialist] groups.” In Endymion, a novel that Disraeli (with characteristically unflagging energy) wrote just after retiring from politics in 1880, a sympathetic character observes that “Semites now exercise a vast influence over affairs through their smallest though most peculiar family, the Jews.”

The late Hannah Arendt, in a fierce attack on Disraeli, correctly pointed out that he “produced the entire set of theories about Jewish influence and organization that we usually find in the more vicious forms of anti-Semitism.” And she went on:

Disraeli, though certainly not the only “exception Jew” to believe in his own chosenness without believing in Him who chooses and rejects, was the only one who produced a full-blown race doctrine out of this empty concept of a historic mission.

Weintraub never really faces up to Arendt’s criticism, which he takes note of only in an appendix on sources. Yet it is clear from this book that several of the anti-Semitic assaults on Disraeli by his contemporaries made effective use of his own belief that “all is race.”

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But just as there is much that is irresistible in Disraeli the man, so there is something genuine and redeeming in Disraeli’s Jewish imaginings. In Tancred, he alludes to the “days of political justice when Jerusalem belonged to the Jews,” and says that those days will return because the Jews in exile have diligently gone on pretending they were still living in their ancient homeland. In one of the few passages where he shows some awareness of Jewish religious practice, Disraeli describes Jews in Whitechapel or some other “icy clime” preparing once every year to live for a week in their sukkah. He concludes:

The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persist in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards.

Although Hannah Arendt made Disraeli the type of those who substitute “Jewishness” for Judaism, one might as plausibly argue that he substantiated the witticism that when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist. He was more a Joseph than a Moses, and England was the Israel of his imagination; yet he deserves the street named after him in modern Jerusalem.

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