Disraeli and Jewish Emancipation
To the Editor:
Philip Rieff’s article (“Disraeli: The Chosen of History” in the January issue) passes over one interesting aspect of the conflict between Disraeli’s Jewish pride and his Christian-Tory principles. Disraeli was the leader of the House of Commons when, after a long struggle for Jewish emancipation, Parliament finally allowed Baron Lionel de Rothschild to take his oath of office without professing allegiance to Christianity (1858). Nonetheless, neither Disraeli nor his colleagues deserve any credit for the Jewish success. As late as May 1858, the Earl of Derby, Disraeli’s superior in the “Derby-Disraeli” government, had been steadfastly opposing the Jewish claims, although, two months later, he had been brought to see the advantages of compromise with the Liberals. To be sure, Disraeli was always verbally in favor of the right of Jews to sit in Parliament. But he succeeded in finding one obstacle after another to delay the passage of the emancipation bills.
In his first parliamentary address on the subject (December, 1847), Disraeli began by agreeing with the most stalwart of the reactionaries that the “principle of religious truth” should carry more weight in government than the “principle of religious liberty.” But, he continued, that was precisely the reason why Parliament should admit the Jews, who are, after all, the true authors of the Christian religion. The need to maintain the Christian character of the Parliament was, he believed, the best grounds for admitting Jews as members. Needless to say, such an argument won no converts from the Conservatives.
Possibly sensing the hostility which he was arousing, Disraeli ceased to interest himself actively in the Jewish problem. In 1850, Rothschild was attempting to test the validity of the laws requiring a Christian oath of all members of Parliament; on the strength of certain precedents, he entered the House of Commons and attempted to take the seat to which the votes of the London electors had entitled him since 1847. The Liberal majority of the House were sympathetic, but did not know how far the law permitted them to modify their oath without the consent of the upper house. Theoretically, they might have found a loophole which would have permitted Rothschild to take his seat, and might thus have avoided the usual frustration of passing an emancipation bill, only to have it vetoed by the Lords. Such a possibility was prevented, among others, by Disraeli. Notwithstanding his Jewish sympathies, he demanded that the debate be cut short in favor of the Irish Franchise Bill. Likewise in 1851, when David Salomons was trying the same strategy as Rothschild, Disraeli was aligned with those who objected to wasting any time on an issue which was considered to have been already resolved.
Disraeli showed less concern for the wasted time and opportunity of the Jewish candidates for Parliament, or of the electors who, time after time, had returned them, and were now unrepresented in the Commons. After all, he argued, the Jews did not fare so badly in England. “. . . there is no class of religionists in this country who have less cause to complain of the spirit of the community or the temper of the Legislature. When I remember what was the position of that class a very short period back—hardly, indeed, a quarter of a century ago—when I contrast that position of social degradation and political disability with the position which they now occupy and enjoy, I own that I am proud and gratified by the comparison.” With such arguments did Disraeli salve his conscience and counsel patience. . . .
The dissatisfaction of the Jewish community with Disraeli’s behavior is therefore hardly to be wondered at. Even the Philadelphia Ledger compared him with Josephus, who “followed in the adulterating train of Titus the day the sacred vessels were borne in triumph through Rome.” The Jewish Chronicle was equally vindictive towards one whom they still half regarded as a renegade. . . .
But perhaps the Illustrated London News came closest to an understanding of Disraeli’s motives. Describing the restrained atmosphere of the Commons when Rothschild appeared to subscribe, legally, at last, to the necessary oath, it comes finally to Mr. Disraeli. . . . Rothschild had satisfactorily taken the oath, and the Liberals had greeted him with mild applause. Now Disraeli was approaching to offer his congratulations. “The faint tinge of color that came over the pallid cheeks of Mr. Disraeli as he grasped the hand of the first Judaic member of Parliament, and the momentary gleam of his eye, indicated a sense of the triumph of race; and perhaps at that moment there may have been a deeper feeling still in his heart-one of regret that he was not leading the House of Commons without having been compelled to use those hitherto cabalistic words upon the true faith of a Christian.’”. . .
Rabbi Hillel A. Fine
Hebrew Union College