At a time when most European Jews lived in abject poverty and weren’t even allowed to vote, Benjamin Disraeli’s career reached stratospheric heights. Intimate with royalty and the elite of British society, he was twice prime minister, and served as leader of the Tory party. Yet, because of his Jewish background, his loyalty was questioned, his motives thought suspect, and his honesty was a frequent topic of debate.
Born into an unobservant, middle-class Jewish family, Disraeli was baptized by his father—who was irate over a perceived snub by his synagogue—at the age of twelve. Ambitious, driven, and charming, Disraeli embellished his Jewish ancestry with great flair, creating a vibrant (albeit false) aristocratic personal history to compensate for his status as a relative outsider in British society. Blending his talents as the author of almost twenty novels with astute political skills, Disraeli was in the public eye for over fifty years, as writer, politician, and statesman. In his new biography of Disraeli (to be published next week as part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series), Adam Kirsch elegantly untangles the mythology to reveal a man who in many ways lived his life as a character in one of his own novels, a creation unique to himself.
Is Disraeli’s life story a particularly Jewish one? Is it more particular to the Jewish experience in England than to the experience of Jews in the rest of Europe?
It’s a story that couldn’t have happened anywhere but England, because England did have this very liberal, tolerant attitude toward Jews, compared to other European countries. It was still very difficult for him. He had this remarkable self-confidence and towering ambition, and also a very deep, instinctive sense of how to turn his Jewishness into something appealing to the English, making it an asset rather than a handicap in politics. Compared to the men who were his rivals and colleagues, he was always the lowest born and the one with the least advantages. But he recognized that because there was this margin of opportunity in England, he could make being Jewish something that was not contemptible, but was great and aristocratic.
For all of Disraeli’s success and integration into the highest levels of English society, he was, for the most part, pretty much an outsider.
I was surprised to see how much that remained true during his life and even long after his death. I asked English people as I was writing this book, “How were you taught about Disraeli in school?” And they always said that, to this day, he’s taught as the brilliant but unreliable Jew. Churchill, The Encyclopedia Britannica, very established sources, the very first thing they all say about Disraeli is he wasn’t an Englishman.
What do you mean when you talk about Disraeli as an “exception Jew,” in the words of Hannah Arendt?
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt talks about Jews who made a place for themselves in nineteenth-century European society by virtue of their great talents and gifts, but always knew that they were exceptions. They were able to have success because they were not like the ordinary Frenchman or the ordinary Englishman; they were exotic and interesting. Arendt says Disraeli is the great example of the exception Jew who managed to do everything he wanted.
But there was also a great psychological cost, which you see in all kinds of Jewish stories in Europe leading up to the Holocaust. Between emancipation, beginning in the early nineteenth century, and the Holocaust, there was this open question—could Jews belong in Europe? Could they succeed in Europe? That question, for the Jews as a whole, was answered negatively. But for Disraeli, it was answered positively. So that is the tragic tension in his life: He had to accommodate himself to the expectations of England in order to get what he wanted.
Earlier in his career, he had a more nationalist leaning, and then, when he became a greater political actor, he favored these large multiethnic empires that, if you think of the Austro-Hungarian empire, really worked better for the Jews in the long run. But at the same time, he didn’t really work in any way to further Jewish causes.
Before he really got into politics, in the 1830s, when he was beginning to make his name as a politician, he was able to entertain these Zionist fantasies. In his novel Alroy, he imagines what it would be like to be a Jewish national leader, which at that time was a completely hypothetical prospect, because there were no Jewish national movements to be the leader of! I think that there’s a part of his nature that was very proud of being Jewish and wanted to make that the basis of his career. But he was also very practical and worldly, and he recognized that that was not in fact a possibility for him. He basically decided that he was going to be an English leader, not a Jewish leader. An observer of the time said that England was the Israel of his imagination. And that’s a good way of saying that he transferred the idealism and historical imagination that might have gone toward Judaism and Jews into England and the British empire.
He liked that idea of power, of running the world. He preferred the powers-that-be pretty much always; that was part of what it meant to be a conservative in the nineteenth century. At the time when the Liberal party, especially in England, was associated with national liberation movements, Disraeli was always on the other side. He wanted to be the person who controls the great empire rather than the person who liberates the people.
Which brings to mind the character Sidonia, who appears in not one but three of Disraeli’s novels. He’s an admirable character—full of power, has lots of prestige—but carries with him so many nineteenth-century stereotypes about Jews.
Sidonia was a Jew who exercised power, but always behind the scenes. He was very rich, was the kind of person everybody respected, was attractive to women—he has all of these fantasy elements. To Disraeli, who often found himself being snubbed and excluded, this was an appealing image. Today, in a post-Zionist context, I think we now see that this is the opposite of what Jews want to present to the world. All of these ideas of secret power and operating behind the scenes and being not quite human, we now associate with anti-Semitism. That’s a good example of the tragedy of Disraeli: In order to feel proud of himself as a Jew, he had to erect this image of Judaism that’s actually reprehensible.
Do you have a favorite of his novels?
I find his novels slightly difficult to read. The early ones in particular, the ones that aren’t about politics, you wouldn’t necessarily read them unless you were a student of Disraeli or the period, novels like Vivian Grey or Contarini Fleming.
Which was his favorite, wasn’t it?
Contarini Fleming was his favorite, yes. It’s a very romantic book that fits in perfectly with the literature of the period. It’s about a brilliant young artist and how he realizes that he’s gifted and different from everyone else. And in that sense, it tells in an allegorical form the story of Disraeli’s own growing up. It’s significant in that unlike any other novel that I know of, it’s one in which the poet character decides that actually he would rather be a politician. I do think that although he was a natural-born novelist, he wasn’t really a great novelist. Sybil and Coningsby, I’d say, are probably the best. Tancred, I think, is the biggest surprise, or would be the most interesting for someone today. It starts out being the story of a naïve aristocrat and his education, but then the action moves startlingly to Palestine, and it suddenly becomes this Zionist fantasy of a Jewish society that didn’t really exist at the time. He imagined this whole Jewish world, with Jewish tribesmen on horseback and Jewish debutantes and merchants. You see how it might be to live in a Jewish society and belong to it, rather than living as an exception. Later, he transferred his imaginative abilities from novel writing to politics. I think he actually always preferred politics and wrote novels only so long as he couldn’t get anywhere in his political career.
What was his relationship like with Queen Victoria?
He started off on the wrong foot with Queen Victoria. She didn’t trust him and she particularly disliked the way that he came to power by overthrowing Robert Peel. She and Prince Albert thought of him as dangerous and disgraceful. The real turning point came after Albert died in 1861, when Disraeli, with his talent for flattery, became one of Albert’s most vocal eulogists and gave speeches about how he represented the ideal human being. All of that was music to Victoria’s ears, because she was so deeply in mourning for him and thought that he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated. And then, as he served in offices where he had to deal with her officially, he charmed her very much by his manner—he gave her the sense that she was hearing things about politics that other people wouldn’t tell her. He was very reverential toward her in a way that had a definite romantic tinge to it, a courtier’s way of dealing with a queen.
Although this may make Disraeli seem like a court Jew, or a Jew behind the scenes, he was a politician in a democracy, or a limited democracy. He managed to win the approval of the electorate in a way that would have never been possible before. He was actually in front of the scenes, at center stage, and had to win power on his own account.
What do you think being Jewish meant to Disraeli beyond a means of aggrandizing his own background?
It meant contradictory things. He was an outsider in the land that he was born in and could never truly belong to the class that he admired the most, which was the English aristocracy. As a response to that, he made his Jewishness into a racial aristocracy with a very ancient tradition that he was proud of belonging to. I don’t think that he thought very much about Judaism as a religion or knew much about it. He didn’t necessarily care about existing Jews so much as the idea of what Jews and Judaism could be. That’s both what kept him from being a Zionist or Jewish leader, and also what allowed him to reinvent Judaism as this gorgeous myth.
Do you think ultimately that his life was a tragedy?
Well, I went back and forth on that. I started out thinking of him as someone who told lies about Jews in order to serve his own ends, and who gave up what might have been a Zionist career for this English political career—which was very successful, but was, as we were saying, an exception, like a flash in the pan that didn’t lead to anything for the Jews, although it obviously had lots of consequences for English history. In the end I came to see that we all have our own ways of dealing with what it means to be Jews in the Western world.