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The Last Court Jew

An excerpt from David Cesarani’s new biography of Benjamin Disraeli shows the British Prime Minister living in a time of innocence, before ‘race science’

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
June 01, 2016
Photo: W&D Downey via Wikipedia Commons
Benjamin Disraeli, circa 1878.Photo: W&D Downey via Wikipedia Commons
Photo: W&D Downey via Wikipedia Commons
Benjamin Disraeli, circa 1878.Photo: W&D Downey via Wikipedia Commons

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

In the decades after his death Disraeli was generally perceived as a Jewish figure. The Jews of England, who had once shunned him, embraced his memory. Readers of the long and warm obituary in the Jewish Chronicle on 29 April 1881 were assured, “The fact is recognised on all sides: the Jews may claim Lord Beaconsfield as one of their representative men.” In his presidential lecture for the Jewish Historical Society of England in 1904, Lucien Wolf managed both to demolish the myth of Disraeli’s origins and claim him for the Jews as an example of patriotism and public service: “In Lord Beaconsfield some of the best blood in Jewry—the blood of men and women inured to hardship, a thirst for freedom, and invincibly attached to high ideals—was touched by the sympathetic genius of British traditions and forthwith produced a great Englishman.”

The early biographies also depicted him as essentially Jewish, albeit for different reasons. Froude used Disraeli’s foreignness to explain his unusual, innovative way of seeing problems: “Being in reality a stranger in the country of his adoption, he was able to regard the problems with which he was engaged in the light in which they appeared to other nations.” His apartness contributed to his genius: “Though born an Englishman, and proud of the position which he had won, he had not an English temperament and was unembarrassed by English prejudice.” Froude maintained that he had a unique perspective on the facts of human nature because “the interpretation of those facts which had been revealed to his own race, Disraeli actually believed to be deeper and truer than any modern speculations. Though calling himself a Christian, he was a Jew in his heart.” To those who resented Disraeli’s politics or were antagonistic to Conservatives who donned the mantle of Tory Democracy, this allegedly alien mindset explained a great deal. Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, who for many years presided over the British occupation of Egypt, declared, “Disraeli was a thorough oriental. The taste for tawdry finery, the habit of enveloping in mystery matters as to which there was nothing to conceal, the love of intrigue, the tenacity of purpose—though that is perhaps a more Jewish than an invariably Oriental characteristic—the luxuriance of the imaginative faculties, the strong addiction to plausible generalities set forth in florid language” all marked him out as such. He was a man of genius, but he used that brilliance for opportunistic ends; he suborned the Tory Party and seduced the nation. Ultimately, he “contributed to the degradation of English political life.” In words that mixed admiration with contempt, Cromer continued, “This nimble-witted alien adventurer, with his weird imagination and excessive Western cynicism … succeeded in spite of every initial disadvantage of race, birth, manners and habits of thought, in dominating a proud aristocracy and using its members as so many pawns on a chess board which he had arranged to suit his own purposes.”

Even Disraeli’s official biographers, William Monypenny and George Buckle, who lauded him as a great English patriot, detected an essential Jewish streak in his makeup that distinguished him from other Englishmen. Monypenny sensed “a Semitic feeling for religion,” while Buckle concluded that he “seemed never quite of the nation which he loved.” “The fundamental fact about Disraeli was that he was a Jew.” But in what sense? These late nineteenth and early twentieth-century biographers were operating with racist assumptions, reducing Disraeli to some racial essence that was supposedly shared with other Jews. This was, it must be said, what Disraeli believed himself; but it was no more than a fantasy of the pseudoscientific racial thinking that dominated society for a century until it was utterly discredited by Nazism.

This does not mean we cannot understand Disraeli as “a Jew” in other ways. He was typical of that significant portion of European Jewry that came to maturity in the decades between the emergence from “the ghetto” and the entry of Jews into gentile society on equal terms. They viewed traditional Judaism as desiccated or irrelevant in the modern world, at odds with the currents of enlightened thinking swirling around them. The descendants of Moses Mendelssohn and many of the early maskilim, enlightened Jews of Berlin, exemplify this trend. In the years of reaction that followed the defeat of Napoleon, many Jews impatient to take the opportunity of careers denied to them as Jews, or just to sample the delights of an exclusive culture, converted to Christianity as their “ticket of entry.” Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Borne epitomize this cadre. Later in life some came to express nostalgia for the tradition they apostatized; others denigrated it relentlessly, a phenomenon described as self-hate.

Disraeli did not convert by choice, but his father’s decision to have him raised as a Christian reflected a similar thought process. Isaac D’Israeli was typical of the Sephardi Jews, cosmopolitan migrants who by the time they settled in London were already semidetached from the faith of their ancestors. An admirer of Mendelssohn and a pale reflection of the European maskilim, he did not believe that adherence to Judaism was worth the price it carried. Disraeli grew up with his father’s schizoid attitude: pride in what Judaism had been and disdain for what it had become. Nevertheless, Benjamin was always conscious of a dual identity. What makes him unusual amongst Jews in England who became Christians, like Ralph Bernal and Sir Francis Palgrave (born Francis Cohen), was his willingness to accept that other identity and even flaunt it.

However, there is little evidence that this duality preoccupied him overmuch in his youth. He may have felt an outsider, but he never ascribed this to his birth. During his travels in Europe and even when he visited Jerusalem, he showed little interest in Jews. Jewish sites, Jewish people, Jewish history simply did not arouse in him the passion or excitement reflected in his letters on a hundred other topics.

What he did maunder on about was his sense of being a misunderstood genius (also something cultivated by his father) and thwarted ambition. His early novels mainly explore this theme. Even Alroy is more about the urge to greatness and the dilemmas of leadership than any particular cause. Disraeli may have been fantasizing about another life in which he could have been a Jewish messiah, a rebel hero; this may have been a release for frustrated pride. But if he identified with Alroy, why could he not have identified equally with his Christian hero Iskander? It is arbitrary to claim that because Disraeli was born a Jew he would identify with a Jewish character. It would be more consistent with the pattern of his fiction to maintain that he identified with aimless aristocrats seeking an outlet for their energy, intelligence, and idealism. Indeed, this is the impression that comes through his early letters and the evidence of his first political activity. Disraeli was not a frustrated Jewish leader; he was torn between a life of contemplation and writing, for which the model was Isaac, and a life of action, typified by the Tory politicos with whom his father had rubbed shoulders in John Murray’s office. The dilemma he faced was how to enter society and forge a political career without aristocratic privileges, family connections, or a fortune.

Disraeli’s Jewish roots were not an obstacle compared to these deficiencies. On the contrary, they added to his allure. As well as being a beautiful youth, he was exotic. His hybridity gave him license to be unconventional; it was the perfect complement to the image of the dandy, the Bohemian, the poet and wit. Disraeli made his way into society riding on the back of several moderately successful novels and other writing. But, inevitably, he worked his way in from the margins, where he was first befriended and patronized by “raffish” individuals. It is crucial to grasp just how immersed he was in the demimonde to understand the suspicion and disapproval he faced from straitlaced politicians. He first became known as a result of Vivian Grey, a succès de scandal. Lady Blessington, Count D’Orsay, Lord Lyndhurst were disreputable figures; although adultery was hardly unusual, his dalliance with Henrietta Sykes culminated in a horrible denouement. On top of this he was perpetually indebted. Many of his creditors were pursuing him for money borrowed in his first, disastrous speculation; it was difficult to escape the odour of irresponsibility and failure. Financial imprudence was hardly unusual either, but with Disraeli it took on almost epic proportions. His frivolity, his extravagance, his dandyism jarred with the increasingly somber mood of the country in the late 1830s, with the emergence of Chartism and the arrival of the “hungry forties.” While he adapted his posture, his manner of speech, his dress to befit a serious politician, his youthful indiscretions bequeathed a legacy of distrust and suspicion that had nothing to do with his Jewish origins, even if some of his critics thought of him as a “Jew Boy.” The fact that his early political ventures were so bewilderingly inconsistent added to the impression that he was insincere, willing to change his views, his party, his entire demeanor in order to further his ambition.

If his Jewishness was less of an impediment to his progress than his youthful follies, it is hardly surprising that when he did confront the Jewish question it was reluctantly, equivocally, intermittently. As a member of parliament Disraeli showed no interest in Jewish issues between 1837 and 1847, despite regular debates about Jewish disabilities and shocking events such as the Damascus affair. Why, then, in the mid-1840s, did he return to the Jewish themes first explored in Alroy a decade earlier? Arendt and Berlin were the first to suggest that he conjured up Sidonia and the notion of Jews as a powerful, pure, and noble race in order to compensate for the anti-Jewish abuse he encountered and to place him on a par with the aristocrats with whom he had to deal. Endelman, building on Arendt’s hypothesis, argued that he “staked his claim to admission to the Tory elite on the basis of his racial nobility.” His racial thinking then developed a momentum of its own and turned into an obsession. Summing up his strategy, Smith asserts, “[He] took out membership of a racial elite and a natural aristocracy prouder and more select than the nobility of England.”

However, the chronology of this explanation does not work. Disraeli had rubbed shoulders with both raffish and respectable aristocrats like Wellington, Lord Chandos, and Lady Londonderry since the mid-1830s, even if he was not yet invited to their country houses. That changed in the early 1840s: the aristocratic cadre that made up Young England found their way to Disraeli, and they looked up to him rather than the other way around. By 1843 he was on familiar terms with numerous aristocrats and a visitor to their stately homes. He did not actually publish the myth of his own noble, Sephardi heritage until 1849, after he had assumed leadership of the Conservatives. Despite this incongruity, Smith predates the discovery or invention of his superiority to his trip to the East in 1830–31, where he went “to find nobility in his blood,” while Ridley suggests that Alroy, which he wrote on his return, displayed “his newfound confidence about his race and his determination to conquer England as a Jew.” Unsurprisingly, Ridley is puzzled that “the pride of race, first expressed in Alroy,” was “oddly dormant after 1837.”

More important, Disraeli’s Hebraic rhapsodies did not endear him to the aristocrats he was, according to these theories, supposed to be impressing with his Jewish genealogy and racial genius. On the contrary, they were offended by the claims made in Tancred, irritated by his speeches during the Jew Bill debates in 1847, and outraged by chapter 24 of Lord George Bentinck. By contrast, if they were not euphoric about his interventions, the Rothshilds were at least mildly flattered. A more credible explanation of Disraeli’s “Jewish explosion” is that it served neither compensation nor consolation; it was intended to make him appear more Jewish to get closer to the Rothschilds. Like his relationship with Sarah Brydges Willyams, he played up his Jewish aspects for meretricious reasons. It should be recalled that he had previously used his pen to flatter Lyndhurst and Peel in the hope of gaining their attention. Such a tactic fits his pattern of behavior and requires no convoluted explanations or contorted chronology.

Disraeli’s approach to the Rothschilds was largely successful, although they never felt entirely comfortable with him. The nub of the problem was his attitude towards Judaism. When he did not directly denigrate their religion, he tacitly reproached them for not being Christians. The only way he could connect with them was by stressing their racial affinity. Smith notes shrewdly that there was an inverse relationship between his devaluation of Judaism, inherited from his father, and his exaggerated claims for the potency and genius of the Jewish race, which Isaac would have deplored. Disraeli’s selfracialization was the curious solution to his dual identity: it enabled him to be a Jew and a Christian at the same time.

Then again, his imagined nobility may have been a necessary form of compensation once he was “hired” by the Tory magnates to lead the party in the House of Commons and installed in Hughendon on near-humiliating terms. Disraeli is thereby typical of another type of Jewish figure in European history: he can fairly be described as a Hof Jude, a court Jew. Smith writes, “He was for twenty years Lord Derby’s court Jew, surviving at the summit by patient deference to a traditional aristocratic elite which had need of his skills, but for the most part no interest in his ideas or comprehension of his nature.” Like the Prussian conservative thinker Friedrich Julius Stahl, who was also a Jewish convert to Christianity, “Disraeli was an upper servant.” Even if the historian John Parry is right that Disraeli genuinely shared the outlook of those who held his purse strings, that did not alter one bit the power relationship between them. When Lord Titchfield called in the loan from the Bentinck family, Disraeli faced ruin. He was not financially independent until the last phase of his life, when, ironically, the Conservative Party had come to value him for his talents and wanted to retain him as leader.The comparison between Disraeli and Stahl is illuminating for other reasons. Stahl was born into a Jewish family in Würzburg in 1802 but converted to Lutheranism in his late teens after a genuine crisis of faith. He was then able to pursue an academic career and eventually became a professor of law. Stahl believed all law was rooted in Christian precepts and championed the idea of the state as the embodiment of Christianity; thus he was a vehement opponent of liberalization. He and Disraeli stand out as exceptions amongst the Jews who, professing or converted, entered politics between 1830 and 1848. The vast majority, such as Adolphe Crémieux, Gabriel Riesser, Daniele Manin, Eduard von Simson, Ludwig Bamberger, Adolf Fischof, Ferdinand Lasalle, and Karl Marx, aligned with liberal parties (including liberal nationalists), radicals, socialism, or revolutionary movements. It was odd indeed for Jews to defend and even seek to perpetuate the ancien régime that had excluded and persecuted their kind. Yet, as Edgar Feuchtwanger points out, while Disraeli and Stahl were swimming against the same current, they differed profoundly in their stroke. Stahl converted by choice and after deep reflection. He was knowledgeable about Judaism and always had a respect for Jewish Orthodoxy even if he believed it had been superseded by Christianity. By contrast, Feuchtwanger describes Disraeli’s sensibility as a “reactive Jewish consciousness.” He knew relatively little about Judaism and was not really interested in it but was driven to consider the possibilities of his Jewish heritage by the hostility he faced. Because he was deemed “a Jew” he constructed a compensatory myth that also conferred on him a singular mediating role between Jews and Christians. He used his mythical lineage to adopt the “pose of the outsider whose genius removes him from the ordinary ruck of humanity” and affords him special insights that qualify him for leadership.

Whether Disraeli needed to take comfort from his invented noble ancestry and the achievement of the Jewish prophets is open to dispute; the timing of his Jewish turn counts against such speculation. What is undeniable, however, is the persistence and sheer volume of prejudice he experienced throughout his life. Nearly every page of Weintraub’s biography discloses an insulting reference to Disraeli pegged to his Jewish birth. Almost no one amongst Disraeli’s contemporaries was immune to such expressions of prejudice. The most dramatic case is that of Edward Stanley, who started his political career as an admirer and disciple of Disraeli only to end it excoriating him for holding unEnglish beliefs. When Gladstone renovated his country house at Hawarden, the new study was fitted out with false bookends, one of which was entitled An Israelite Without Guile “by Ben Disraeli Esq.”

That Disraeli was the focus of everyday, common-orgarden prejudice should not be surprising. He was a prominent public figure and a lightning rod for bigotry, just like other high-profile Jews. The Rothschilds fulfilled this function right across Europe. What is more, Disraeli positively invited attack by bruiting his Jewish origins and bragging about the ubiquity and power of “the Jews.” His racialization of the Jews also incited critics to deduce that he was in his inner being a Jew, acting in concert with others of his kind: an alarming sort of crypto-Jew who had insinuated himself into the highest counsels of the nation. The result was that observers both friendly and hostile sought to explain him in terms of Jewishness. This trend was most notable and most obnoxious during the Eastern crisis of 1876–78.

Later, Jews like Cecil Roth colluded in the fantasy by tracing his mode of thought, his policies, and his conduct of foreign affairs back to his alleged Jewish sentiments. To Roth, the social legislation over which Disraeli presided between 1874 and 1880 “expressed that Jewish craving for social justice which is one of the heritages of the Bible, and that Jewish sympathy for the underdog which is one of the results of his history.” Harold Fisch detected a displaced Jewish messianism in his imperialism: Disraeli “made available to Toryism a Hebraic set of ideals and metaphors.” Yet detailed studies of Tory domestic policy making and legislation reveal the absence of any consistency or idealism, let alone a Jewish dimension. The voluminous accounts of Disraeli’s foreign policy, his imperialism, and the Eastern crisis likewise entirely reject the “Judaic” motives or intentions attributed to him by his critics.

Unfortunately, Disraeli’s racial rhetoric was only too successful in his lifetime, and for decades afterwards, in convincing people that he was a Jewish genius at the centre of a web of Jewish influence. Ultimately, he fits squarely into modern Jewish history for the worst of reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse. Within a few years of his demise his words were being cited in anti-Semitic tracts by Bruno Bauer, Wilhelm Marr, and Edouard Drumont. Houston Stuart Chamberlain acknowledged his debt to Disraeli for proclaiming the truth that “race is all.” In England, Hilaire Belloc quoted Disraeli’s words on the indefatigability of a pure race to prove that Jews were beyond assimilation. The authors of the English version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Causes of the World’s Unrest, published in 1920, noted in the introduction how Sidonia’s speechifying on the covert power of the Jews prefigured the Protocols. Lord Sydenham, a leading figure in antialien and anti-Zionist circles in Britain throughout the 1920s, encouraged the readers of his book, The Jewish World Problem, to read Disraeli’s novels. The Nazis appropriated Disraeli with undisguised glee. Julius Streicher’s hate-filled Der Stürmer proclaimed from its banner his apothegm, “The racial question is the key to world history.” At a rally in July 1925 Adolf Hitler plucked Disraeli’s name as proof that Jews obtained economic and political domination. He cited Disraeli again in a speech in the Reichstag in 1941: “The British Jew, Lord Disraeli, once said that the racial problem was the key to world history. We National Socialists have grown up with that idea.” By this time the genocide against Europe’s Jews was under way. In this sense, Arendt was right: Disraeli almost single-handedly invented the lexicon of modern racial antiSemitism. If his racial mythmaking was intended to boost his fortunes and comfort his ego, it was, as Fisch maintained, an act of monumental solipsism and irresponsibility.

Disraeli could not have foreseen the vector of racial thinking, and he lived in a time of innocence, before “race science” was explicitly and deliberately conjoined with discrimination, persecution, population displacement, and genocide. Even so, the way his own words were hurled back at him in his lifetime, by O’Connor, for example, is a sobering indication that guilelessness is not a sufficient explanation for his racial rodomontade. At best he was a tragic, transitional figure; at worst, he was a reckless egoist. Disraeli’s life can therefore be seen as Jewish both in the sense of one that was lived according to a pattern evident amongst the Jews in his era and as one that was read as being “Jewish” according to traditional tropes and modern, racial terms. His life thus spans two Jewish eras: he was one of the last court Jews and one of the first victims of modern anti-Semitism.

Excerpted from Disraeli: The Novel Politicianby David Cesarani. Copyright © 2016 by David Cesarani. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


David Cesarani was a research professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and director of the Holocaust Research Centre. He died in 2015, at the age of 58.