Benjamin Disraeli has a unique place in history: He is the only person born Jewish to serve as the British prime minister.
But given that he was baptized at age 12, should he be considered a Jewish politician? Indeed, as historian David Cesarani wonders in his sharp biography of the first earl of Beaconsfield, should Disraeli have a place in Yale’s “Jewish Live” biographical series, of which this book is a part?
Cesarani, who died in October, draws a thorough, fair but less-than-flattering portrait of Disraeli. The biography provides all the details of a long political career, showing how he largely created the modern British Conservative Party; charmed Queen Victoria, who considered him her favorite prime minister; won the Suez Canal for Britain while stifling Russian expansionism; drove crazy his top rival for Victorian political pre-eminence, William Gladstone; and won the admiration of his German peer Otto von Bismarck, who called him der alte Jude (the old Jew).
Disraeli was friends with England’s best-known Victorian Jews, the Rothschilds and Montefiores, at a time when they fought for and eventually won full political rights for Jews. He included fanciful images of the Near East in the novels he wrote to address his perpetual indebtedness. And he seemed to relish the anti-Semitic invective thrown at him by political enemies.
But Cesarani shows that Disraeli identified with Judaism only as a precursor to Christianity — that is, he presented Christianity as perfected Judaism. He seems never to have looked back after his highly assimilated father converted the family over a dispute with his synagogue. He supported the privileges of the Church of England and did nothing to advance Jewish political rights. He showed no interest in the problems of Jews near or far, nor did he even bother to admire Jerusalem while traveling around the Mediterranean as a young man.
Most damaging to his legacy, Disraeli perpetuated negative stereotypes and declared that “the racial question is the key to world history.” His novels perpetuated the idea of powerful Jewish cabals manipulating history and served anti-Semitic propaganda. Sadly, the man Cesarani depicts would have felt no connection to the millions slaughtered when the Nazis ran amok with his own beliefs.
Disraeli: The Novel Politician
By David Cesarani
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $25