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The Road Not Taken

Decades before Herzl, Benjamin Disraeli wrote a novel that grappled with Zionism

Adam Kirsch
August 26, 2008

By the beginning of 1830, when he was twenty-five, Benjamin Disraeli was tired of England. For three years, he had been suffering from acute depression, brought on by the triple fiasco that marked his entrance into public life. Before he turned twenty-two, Disraeli had lost thousands of pounds in stock-market speculations; alienated the publisher John Murray after their plan to launch a newspaper ended in failure; and caused a scandal with his first novel, Vivian Gray, a satirical roman à clef about high society. For the young Disraeli, already supremely ambitious, these reverses had come as a terrible shock, and it took him years to recover his nerve.

Now, with his second novel completed and the advance in his pocket, Disraeli was set on traveling. But he did not want to follow the usual itinerary of the Grand Tour, which took rich young Englishmen to the churches of Rome and the salons of Paris. Instead, he set his sights on the East—Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine. In part, he was following the example of his beloved Byron, who had created a vogue for the East in his highly colored poems. But for Disraeli, a journey to Jerusalem had more than literary significance. Although he had been baptized at the age of twelve into the Church of England, Disraeli’s very name made clear that he was a Jew, and the experience of visiting the Jewish homeland was to transform the way he thought about himself, his ancestors, and politics in general. Almost fifty years later, when he was Prime Minister of England, it would be his destiny to redraw the maps of the countries he visited as a young man.

The first fruit of Disraeli’s pilgrimage, however, was a novel—The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, published in 1833. Disraeli wrote that he had been “attracted” to the “marvellous career” of David Alroy even as a child. But Disraeli’s Alroy bears little resemblance to the minor figure mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, the Spanish Jew whose Travels are a classic of medieval Hebrew literature. According to Benjamin, Alroy, a Kurdish Jew, raised a revolt against the Seljuk Turks in Azerbaijan around 1160 AD. He was credited with magic powers by his followers, who proclaimed him the Messiah, but this pretension won him the hostility of Jewish leaders in Baghdad, who begged him not to antagonize the Turks. Finally he was betrayed by his father-in-law and killed, probably without winning a single battle.

Disraeli’s Alroy is a much grander figure, a kind of Jewish Alexander the Great. In his novel, Alroy wins victory after victory, conquers Baghdad, and comes close to establishing a new empire in the Middle East. Disraeli also provides his hero with a loyal sister, Miriam, and a lover, the Princess Schirene. There is also a good deal of what Disraeli called “supernatural machinery” in the novel, including a magic ring, a secret underground temple, and the Scepter of Solomon, which Alroy must claim if he is to conquer Jerusalem.

Disraeli writes that all this is based on Jewish tradition—“Cabalistical and correct,” he puts it—but it is clear that the real sources of the novel’s mysticism lie in The Thousand and One Nights, the Eastern tales of Byron, and the quest poems of Shelley. In general, Alroy is better understood as high Orientalist fantasy than historical fiction. Even Disraeli’s prose, the emphatic rhythms and repetitions of which suggest that some sections started out as verse, is kitschily intoxicated: “‘Ah! bright gazelle! Ah! bright gazelle!’ the princess cried, the princess cried; ‘thy lips are softer than the swan, thy lips are softer than the swan; but his breathed passion when they pressed, my bright gazelle! my bright gazelle!’”

But if Alroy seems impossibly overripe today, its psychological core remains entirely serious. Disraeli said that he began to write the novel in Jerusalem in 1831, at a moment when he was pondering the role Jewishness might play in his own life and career. And in his hands, the story of David Alroy becomes a veiled meditation on the state of the Jews in Europe, and a parable of his own possible future.

From the beginning of the novel, Alroy, a scion of the house of David, rages against the degradation of the Jews under Muslim rule. But as Disraeli makes clear, the condition of the Jews is hardly unbearable. On the contrary, Alroy’s uncle, Bostenay, is a rich man, and enjoys the honorary title of Prince of the Captivity. “The age of power has passed; it is by prudence now that we must flourish,” he declares. He is, perhaps, Disraeli’s critical portrait of the wealthy English Jews of his own day—men like the Rothschilds and Montefiores, who had all the advantages of wealth, but none of the dignity of power.

Alroy, like Disraeli himself, cannot be satisfied with making money. He is an ardent patriot, disgusted by the state into which his people have fallen: “I am ashamed, uncle, ashamed, ashamed,” he tells Bostenay. When he sees a Turkish official accost his sister, Alroy impetuously kills him and flees into the desert. He is about to die of thirst when he is rescued by Jabaster, a magician and fanatical Jewish patriot. When Alroy has a dream of being acclaimed by a vast army as “the great Messiah of our ancient hopes,” Jabaster decides that the young man represents his long-awaited chance to reestablish the kingdom of David. After a series of romantic adventures, Alroy begins to put Jabaster’s plan into action, scattering the Turks and conquering Baghdad.

But in the meantime, Alroy acquires another advisor—Jabaster’s brother and mirror image, Honain. Honain represents the tempting path of Jewish assimilation: He has achieved wealth and honor, but only at the price of “passing” as a Muslim. In his own view, however, he has not betrayed his people, but simply effected his own liberation. “I too would be free and honoured,” he tells Alroy. “Freedom and honour are mine, but I was my own messiah.” Honain introduces Alroy to the beautiful Princess Schirene, the daughter of the Caliph, and though she is a Muslim he falls in love with her. (“The daughters of my tribe, they please me not, though they are passing fair,” Alroy admits—a sentiment Disraeli himself shared.)

But now, at the height of his fortune, with an empire in his grasp and a princess for his wife, Alroy begins to succumb to Honain’s worldly counsel. Why, he asks, should he exchange rich Baghdad for poor Jerusalem? Why not rule over a cosmopolitan empire, rather than a single small nation? “The world is mine: and shall I yield the prize, the universal and heroic prize, to realise the dull tradition of some dreaming priest, and consecrate a legend?” Alroy asks. “Is the Lord of Hosts so slight a God that we must place a barrier to His sovereignty, and fix the boundaries of Omnipotence between the Jordan and the Lebanon?” Mischievously, Disraeli even makes Alroy begin to speak in the stock phrases of modern English liberalism: “Universal empire must not be founded on sectarian prejudices and exclusive rights.”

Jabaster tries to recall his king to the righteous, Jewish path, but to no avail. At last he attempts a coup against Alroy, but he is defeated and sentenced to death. From that moment, however, God’s favor deserts Alroy. In his next battle he is defeated, and a Muslim king, Alp Arslan, takes him prisoner. Now Honain reappears with one last, Satanic temptation: If Alroy converts to Islam, his life will be spared. But the scion of the house of David has learned his lesson. His strength is not his own but his nation’s, and individual glory means nothing next to the redemption of the Jews. He taunts Alp Arslan with his refusal, and the king, in a rage, cuts off his head.

For Disraeli, writing at the very beginning of his own career as an English politician, the moral of Alroy was deeply ambiguous. After all, David Alroy is a gifted youth like himself, but one who sacrifices worldly ambitions for love of the Jewish people, and is exalted by that love. The novel does not endorse the Jewish sectarianism of Jabaster—Disraeli expresses a Voltairean hatred of priestcraft—but it clearly repudiates the plausible assimilationism of Honain, which leads only to dishonor and disaster. Indeed, it is Disraeli’s distinction between Jewish belief and Jewish solidarity, and his insistence that it is possible to have the latter without the former, that makes Alroy a significant proto-Zionist text. If Disraeli had obeyed the novel’s logic in his own life, if he had tried to translate Alroy’s vision to the nineteenth century, he might have become a real-life Daniel Deronda.

But Alroy was a fantasy, not a program, and by the time he published it Disraeli had already decided that English history, not Jewish history, would be his theater of action. Writing Alroy served Disraeli, it seems, as a a kind of exorcism. By imagining a fantastic alternative career for himself as a Jewish political leader, he convinced himself that such a career was impossible. And, in fact, there is no way that Disraeli, in the 1830s, could play the role that Theodor Herzl would play in the 1890s. It was not until after Disraeli’s death that the rise of political anti-Semitism and the increasing persecution of Jews in Russia made the necessity of Zionism clear to the Jews themselves, and it was not until Zionism became necessary that it could appear credible. In the Europe Disraeli knew, the proto-Zionism of Alroy could only be what he called an “ideal ambition.”

In fact, Disraeli followed the advice Honain gives to Alroy: “With your person and talents, you may be grand vizir. Clear your head of nonsense.” But in some corner of his mind, he always kept faith with Alroy’s nationalist “nonsense.” The diaries of Lord Stanley, Disraeli’s younger Conservative colleague, offer a surprising confirmation of this. In the 1850s, when Stanley was serving his apprenticeship in politics, he was more than a little fascinated by the exotic figure of Disraeli. In his journals, he is continually trying to figure out whether Disraeli was ever in earnest—whether he had political principles, or merely political tactics. “There is certainly a very prevalent impression,” he writes, “that Disraeli has no well-defined opinions of his own: but is content to adopt, and defend, any which may be popular with the Conservative party at the time.”

There is just one moment in the diaries when Stanley believes he is seeing Disraeli genuinely inspired. It comes during a visit Stanley paid Disraeli at the beginning of 1851, twenty years after he visited Palestine.

“On one occasion, during this very visit, he talked to me with great apparent earnestness on the subject of restoring the Jews to their own land. . . . The country, he said, had ample natural capabilities; all it wanted was labour, and protection for the labourer: the ownership of the soil might be bought from Turkey: money would be forthcoming: the Rothschilds and leading Hebrew capitalists would all help: the Turkish empire was falling into ruin: the Turkish Govt would do anything for money: all that was necessary was to establish colonies, with rights over the soil, and security for ill treatment. The question of nationality might wait until these had taken hold. He added that these ideas were extensively entertained among the nation. A man who should carry them out would be the next Messiah, the true Saviour of his people.”

It is almost exactly the program Herzl would advance in The Jewish State in 1896. Who knows what might have happened if Disraeli, who knew so many English and European statesmen, had advanced it half a century earlier? Yet by the time Disraeli revealed this plan to Stanley, he had long since realized that being Prime Minister of England and being “the next Messiah” were incompatible goals. Indeed, Stanley writes, “he never recurred to it again,” and in later years mentioned that he had “heard of no practical step taken, or attempted to be taken, by him in the matter.” Stanley was left to wonder whether “the whole scene was a mystification. . . . But which purpose could the mystification, if it were one, serve?” The answer, as Alroy shows, is that it was not a mystification; it was another life, which Disraeli was destined never to lead.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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