- - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

DISRAELI: THE NOVEL POLITICIAN

By David Cesarani

Yale University Press, $25, 304 pages

When Benjamin Disraeli was 12 years old, his family converted from Judaism to Christianity. Yet the Christian convert who became the United Kingdom’s first (and, to date, only) prime minister with a Jewish lineage never truly abandoned his roots.

David Cesarani examines this subject in “Disraeli: The Novel Politician.” The author, a respected University of London research professor in history and Holocaust Research Center director, passed away last October before this volume, part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series, was published. Alas, his final book is disappointingly contentious.

Mr. Cesarani argues that Disraeli’s life “spans two Jewish eras: he was one of the last court Jews and one of the first victims of modern anti-Semitism.” It’s preposterous to call Disraeli a court Jew. He was nothing of the sort, and remains one of the most revered of Tory politicians and a father of British conservatism. And while there’s no doubt he faced anti-Semitism, he tackled it head-on as an adversary, not a victim.

Chapter after chapter, the author’s bias rears its ugly head.

Here’s an example. Mr. Cesarani makes three controversial statements in three pages. First, he argues that Disraeli “rarely, if ever, adverted to this traumatic moment” of religious conversion to Anglicanism, when no example proves he ever felt this way. Second, he brazenly claims Sharon Turner, a family friend who helped convince Disraeli’s father, Isaac, to baptize his children in 1817, was a “zealous Christian” and “early apostle of racial thinking.” Third, he suggests Isaac had a “hostility to Judaism” based on his less-than-complimentary comments (at times) about the religion in his 1833 book, “The Genius of Judaism.”

Disraeli was, therefore, “infused with a contempt for traditional Judaism,” in Mr. Cesarani’s view, “and taught to think of Christianity as its worthier successor.” (As Disraeli wrote in his 1845 novel, “Sybil,” “Christianity is completed Judaism, or it is nothing.”) In fact, he would “prove to be his father’s most slavish disciple.”

Throughout the book, Mr. Cesarani critiques his main subject’s role as a Jewish figure, as imagined or interpreted by others. He doesn’t agree with the “reevaluation” of Disraeli being part of “the sweep of European Jewish history,” which was aided by earlier writings of Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin. When it comes to Disraeli’s statements about his old religion, his “exertions were as inconsistent as they were equivocal.”

In fact, any mention of the man affectionately nicknamed “Dizzy” publicly defending Jews and Judaism often contained a significant caveat.

After a perceived anti-Semitic taunt by Radical MP Daniel O’Connell in the House of Commons in 1835, Disraeli famously wrote in an open letter to The Times, “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” This impressive quote isn’t reprinted in the book, and is only briefly alluded to. Mr. Cesarani preferred to discuss the “feebleness” of Disraeli’s reply to O’Connell in Parliament, which included the line, “I admire your scurrilous allusions to my origins.”

While Disraeli “showed no interest in Jewish issues between 1837 and 1847,” the author identifies a return to “Jewish themes” in the mid-1840s. For instance, Disraeli supported the Jewish Disabilities Removal Bill, which required Jewish politicians to take the Christian oath if they wanted to sit in Parliament. This oath had prevented Lionel de Rothschild, a Liberal, from taking his seat on several occasions. The Bill caused infrequent debates on the Commons floor until a version was finally passed in 1858.

It’s been well documented that Disraeli and the Rothschilds maintained a close friendship and powerful alliance. Yet, Mr. Cesarani takes an opposite view. He believes the Rothschilds “never felt entirely comfortable” with Disraeli because while “he did not directly denigrate their religion, he tacitly reproached them for not being Christians.”

In fact, the author believes the Rothschilds who expressed criticism, like Charlotte and Louisa, “shrewdly observed something that has eluded many of Disraeli’s biographers.” That is, “[i]f anything sheds light on Disraeli as a Jewish figure, a man motivated by Jewish impulses, as against one painted as a Jew by others, it is the record of his gyrations throughout the campaign for Jewish civic equality.”

It’s regrettable that a great politician who lived in two religious worlds, and opened doors to many people, would receive this sort of harsh treatment. There are moments, I suppose, when historical analysis is unable to properly connect with the difficult act of religious conversion.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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