This dense, carefully crafted biography explores both Disraeli’s life as an emancipated “ex-Jew” in nineteenth century England, and how his career may have unintentionally contributed to the development of anti-Semitism in modern Europe. While covering Disraeli’s life in a straightforward, chronological fashion, Cesarani focuses on two particular areas — Disraeli’s fictional writings and his political positions.
The protagonists of Disraeli’s novels often embodied versions of his personal struggles to be recognized as an influential public figure. Disraeli set these fictionalized conflicts against racially/religiously charged backdrops involving Christians, Jews, and others — invoking stereotypes that later came back to haunt him. Disraeli also floated the idea that since the Jewish people produced Jesus, Christianity could be seen as a higher stage of Judaism. Writing flashy novels was one of Disraeli’s few legitimate sources of income, so a certain amount of hyperbole might be forgivable.
Disraeli’s political positions were arguably more straightforward. While we are accustomed to people with Jewish backgrounds entering politics from stage left, as challengers to a status quo that has discriminated against Jews and others, Disraeli was a defiant Tory. Although this did not prevent him from campaigning for the needs of working people on many occasions, he stood proudly for the monarchy, the Anglican Church, and conservative values. During his career in government, two key issues tested his Jewish affinities — the debates over the oath of office, and the debates over the so-called Balkan Question in the 1870s. When Disraeli entered Parliament in the 1830s, newly elected members were sworn in with a Christian oath (which the elected Jew Lionel de Rothschild refused to utter). Debates over laws to change this oath (so-called “Jew bills”) erupted periodically in Parliament; Disraeli either remained silent or reverted to his theory that since Christianity came from Judaism, there could be no real reason to exclude Jews. Later, near the end of his life, Disraeli wanted Britain to fight to keep Russia from annexing Turkish land. While the resolution of this conflict in the 1878 Congress of Berlin was hailed as Disraeli’s greatest foreign policy achievement, Gladstone and other opponents viewed it as incontrovertible evidence of his secret Jewish agenda to champion Muslims over Christians. And so Disraeli, at the end of his life, became ‘the Jew’ — not by his own design, but in the eyes of others.
Benjamin Disraeli is often called Britain’s first — or only — Jewish prime minister, sometimes with clarification that he was Jewish-born, although later baptized Christian. Indeed, Disraeli’s retort to anti-Semitic remarks by O’Connell in the House of Commons is widely quoted: “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” Biographer Cesarani asks us to consider, apart from the accident of birth to Jewish parents, what it means to say that Disraeli lived a “Jewish life.”
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.