Climbing the slippery pole

Climbing the slippery pole

Yale’s Jewish Lives series takes on Benjamin Disraeli

This photograph of Benjamin Disraeli, by W&D Downey, was taken around 1878.
This photograph of Benjamin Disraeli, by W&D Downey, was taken around 1878.

He charmed a glacial Queen Victoria with flattering attention and love of empire — and by securing the title Empress of India for her. The monarch, initially wary of the “exotic” prime minister, returned the favor by naming him a peer, thus relieving decades of crushing debt despite his constant seductions of the rich and famous and a marriage to the older, wealthier widow of a creditor.

He had tasted life as a bon vivant, a fabulist, an indifferent lawyer, a reckless newspaper and mine investor, a continental traveler, and a visitor to the Levant before turning his attentions to elective office, more as a way to avoid debtor’s prison than as a path to uplifting the greater good. And he failed abysmally in his first few tries at Parliament, despite switching political beliefs and election districts as only the opportunistic can.

When he did finally arrive as a so-called new Tory in 1837, he was shunned by many in his own party, as much for his foppish dress and demeanor as for his backstabbing and vacillating on the issues. His maiden speech flopped, his own leaders spurned his first few cabinet attempts, and he seemed relegated to life as an eternal backbencher.

The lone constant to his career trajectory came from churning out novels with fantastic political, racial, and religious creeds expressed through characters in outlandish plots. Yet the writings succeeded in keeping the name of this Victorian rebel before the public, despite the odor and disrepute attached to his reputation. For someone who sought fame and wealth as ends in themselves, the results proved gratifying.

In addition to this frothy resume, Benjamin Disraeli also was Jewish. And while being Jewish in Britain during this period was incomparably better than being Jewish on the continent, Jews still were limited in their memberships on the stock exchange, in professional organizations, and in medical societies.

The Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290. Oliver Cromwell allowed them to return in 1656, but they remained classed as non-Christian “aliens” who had to swear fealty to the Anglican church if they were fortunate enough to make it to an office or career that required the oath of abjuration. Their collective limitations were classified euphemistically as “disabilities.”

Despite all the baggage and negatives inherent in his behavior and religious background, Dizzy, as he was called, went on to become one of the notable prime ministers and power brokers of his age, mastering the byzantine ways of Parliament through calculation and callousness. And he accomplished this as the first and still the only member of his faith to occupy 10 Downing Street.

The confounding and compelling twist is not so much that he was Jewish and became prime minister, but that this particular Jew was the one to ascend the heights. While never denying his religious birthright, Disraeli spent his entire life dodging, circumnavigating, or even flaunting his Jewishness, depending on the situation and the political capital to be gained.

Several historians have tried to unlock the intricate tumblers of the Disraeli narrative, bringing along their biases and clarities. Now David Cesarani, perhaps better qualified than previous biographers, adds to the canon with his aptly titled and double-word play “Disraeli: The Novel Politician.”

Dr. Cesarani distinguished himself as professor of history and director of the Holocaust Research Center at the University of London until his untimely death last year. In 2006, he won the National Jewish Book Award for “Eichmann: His Life and Crimes.” And now, posthumously, “Disraeli” becomes the latest addition to the flourishing Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press.

The cover photograph is riveting, showing the subject in nearly three-quarters pose, his arms folded, wearing a rich, tightly checked waistcoat. His thinning hairline is painstakingly arranged with spit curls suspended at his temples, the most prominent one bisecting his forehead. But it is the eyes that mesmerize, somewhat world-weary but aware of everything.

Dr. Cesarani meticulously aligns his subject’s Jewish roots to the Sephardic diaspora after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. So calculating by nature was Disraeli, that his version of the family migration asserts that his grandfather, Benjamin D’Israeli (note the apostrophe), came from upper-class Venice. In fact, he was from the humbler Jewish community in Livorno.

Ever the social predator, Disraeli may have fudged his geography and pedigree in an attempt to put his forbears on par with the Rothschilds. Lionel Rothschild and Disraeli were political frenemies, with Dizzy inextricably bound to the British branch of the dynasty through loans and friendship with the women of the family.

But where the Rothschilds boasted cachet and entree, Disraeli floundered in notoriety and the contemporary perception of otherness. Yet Dizzy condescendingly held it against the clan that they didn’t act Christian enough, something he and his forbears had cultivated since grandfather Benjamin arrived on British shores in 1748 and went on to develop a thriving trade in coral.

His son, Isaac, spurned entreaties to join the family enterprise and morphed into a literary critic and scholar of some repute. Isaac’s skepticism, cosmopolitanism, and ultimate hostility toward Judaism crested with his break from Bevis Marks synagogue, which the family had helped to sustain, over a dues and office-holding disagreement.

Isaac married a Jewess, just as his father did, and bequeathed a tribal birthright to his son, Benjamin, in 1804 by having him circumcised. Following the shul dispute, an all-too-eager gentile friend convinced him that baptism would free his children from the restrictions attached to British Jewry. Thus Benjamin Disraeli (apostrophe dropped) was immersed in the waters of Christian profession at a time when he should have been studying for his bar mitzvah.

The effect of his father’s decision, according to Dr. Cesarani, allowed Disraeli both admission and propulsion (though at a slight remove) to the education, investment opportunities, writing, traveling, idling, and political circles of the English post-Enlightenment elite. It was during this period when he developed bizarre racial theories positing Jewish “superiority” and Christian “completion,” scrambling history and theology in the process. He also, like his father, suffered a nervous breakdown.

It is quite instructive to note that when Disraeli was at the height of his powers and could most help his people he failed a crucial litmus test. During the years-long Parliament debates on “Jew Bills” (his diary entry), sparked by Lionel Rothschild’s refusal to take the oath of an MP “on the faith of a true Christian,” Disraeli chose silence and dissembling over clarity and leadership. As Dr. Cesarani tartly observes: “One can only conclude that the achievement of Jewish emancipation did not matter that much to him.”

But fame and legacy certainly did, and when the Balkans exploded during the 1870s Disraeli played the diplomatic and military bluffing game to the hilt, bringing Britain to the edge of war but convincing the Russians to back down on their territorial claims and extracting guarantees for and from the decaying Ottoman empire. He also delighted Queen Victoria by snagging Crete in the bargain.

Yet even these exertions seem tainted with self-aggrandizement. His actions were largely interpreted in Britain’s Jewish community as more a boon for the Christians of the region than as a shield for their beleaguered Jewish neighbors, an uncomfortable reminder of his previous amnesia toward his co-religionists during his Mideast visit years earlier.

While it is difficult to peg Disraeli on the scoundrel-to-statesman-scale, Cesarani does a remarkable job establishing him as sui generis. Despite a deeply flawed character and a distinct discomfort with his religion, he proved to be a remarkable one-off.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former news editor of the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.

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