Review of David Cesarani’s "Disraeli: The Novel Politician”

tags: book review, David Cesarani, Disraeli The Novel Politician

An independent historian, Henry D. Fetter's writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, The Public Interest, New York History, and Israel Affairs. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History (ABC-CLIO) and was awarded the Kerr History Prize by the New York State Historical Association in 2009.

The appearance of David Cesarani’s posthumously published Disraeli: The Novel Politician in the “Jewish Lives” series published by Yale University Press prompts the unavoidable question which the author himself poses in the first sentence of his book: “Does Benjamin Disraeli deserve a place in a series of books called “Jewish Lives?” After all, not only was its subject baptized at the age of 13 and thereafter a practicing member of the Church of England, but the political career culminating in his tenure as Prime Minister (briefly in 1868 and then from 1874 to 1880) would not have been possible in nineteenth century England without his embrace of Christianity. Simply put, had Disraeli remained a Jew this series would, in all probability, not be devoting a volume to his “Jewish life.”

Cesarani, who passed away in October and was primarily known as a historian of the Holocaust, grounds his book on earlier biographies of Disraeli, recent studies of English politics and Anglo-Jewish history and Disraeli’s voluminous published correspondence. He takes his double-edged subtitle to heart, subjecting Disraeli’s novels to a close examination to determine what light (if any) they cast on his life and recounting the novel political career which brought Disraeli to the pinnacle of power despite the lack of “aristocratic privileges, family connections or a fortune,” the standard prerequisites for a successful career in nineteenth century politics.

Cesarani provides a concise account of Disraeli’s literary and political careers but rather than simply being the type of summary biography that is customary in a series such as this, Cesarani’s book is a combative intervention in the long-standing debate over the extent to which Disraeli should be understood as a Jewish figure. “It would certainly be possible," Cesarani acknowledges, “to construct one narrative of his life that piled up evidence of his attachment to the people from whom he sprung.” Indeed, Cesarani notes, “since the early 1980s a succession of revisionist biographers have placed Disraeli’s Jewishness at the heart of his private life, his fictional writing, his political thought, and his career as a politician.” But he vigorously dissents from this view.

Cesarani begins his discussion by claiming “there is little evidence” that Disraeli’s Jewish origins “preoccupied him much in his youth. He may have felt an outsider but he never ascribed it to his birth. During his travels in Europe and even when he visited Jerusalem he showed little interest in Jews” or “Jewish sites, Jewish people or Jewish history,” of which his actual knowledge was shaky, fanciful or non-existent. Both then and later in his writings, when Disraeli turned to Jewish subjects he was prone to traffic in archetypal pejorative Jewish stereotypes as well as fantasies of secretive Jewish power brokers - which provided grist for racial anti-Semitism which ultimately redounded on Disraeli himself.

Cesarani also rejects the “standard view” that Disraeli’s early novels of schoolboy life can be read as ”autobiographical representations depicting a childhood and youth in which Disraeli was tormented by a sense of being different” or that “Disraeli was conscious of being Jewish and aware that this posed a problem for him.” For Cesarani, the novels do not provide a reliable source of biographical details and they have nothing to do with any alleged struggle over religious identity. “If anything, the early novels brilliantly render the maundering behavior of a frustrated adolescent. Disraeli may or may not have faced taunts from other boys because he was a Jew or an ex-Jew; he certainly does not write anything that implies that sort of treatment. What he does make abundantly clear is the effect of ambition and ability on a young person who has not yet found an outlet for his energies.” But it is hard to resist the idea that there was something about his Jewish origins in a Christian society that fed the unrelenting ambition to make it to the “top of the greasy pole” as Disraeli memorably phrased it.

As to Disraeli’s entry into politics, Cesarani contends that his Jewish origins were no more of an obstacle than his dubious reputation as a writer of scandalous novels, association with a “demimonde” of raffish aristocrats, embarrassing love affairs, dandified image and habitual indebtedness. “His genealogy may have been a drag on his progress but no more than his impropriety and perhaps less so.” Once in Parliament, he was conspicuous in his reluctance to embrace Jewish causes. “Disraeli’s most captious critics must find it hard to censure his conduct over the Jewish question,” Robert Blake wrote in his classic biography, but he never met David Cesarani. “Disraeli,” Cesarani writes “never took a stand on the issue of general prejudice against Jews, either as a matter of principle or on pragmatic grounds... Nor did he contribute to the parliamentary debates” in the 1840s “over measures to relieve Jews of civil disabilities and correct historic wrongs against them.” He was silent amidst the widespread condemnations of the Damascus Affair (claims of Jewish ritual murder of a priest in that city) and the kidnapping of the young Jewish boy Edgar Mortara in Italy.

In 1847, Disraeli did speak in favor of the newly elected Jewish MP Lionel Rothschild’s bid to take his seat in Parliament without having to take the required oath as a Christian but Cesarani faults him for remaining silent over the next decade as the question was repeatedly debated before Jewish disabilities were removed. Moreover, Cesarani contends that Disraeli’s belated embrace of a Jewish cause (and increased references to his Jewish origins in his writing) “was intended to make him appear more Jewish to get closer to the Rothschilds” whose wealth and secure position in society he envied and wished to capitalize on. “He played up his Jewish aspects for meretricious reasons” is Cesarani’s harsh verdict - and an unfair one considering that support for Rothschild threatened to derail his aspirations to lead a Tory party most of whose members insisted that places in Parliament remain barred to non-Christians.

Turning to one of the high points of his premiership, the Congress of Berlin in 1878 which defused tensions between Russia and the Ottoman Empire and provided protections for Jews in the Balkans, Cesarani writes that “Disraeli was subsequently celebrated for helping to achieve this apparent breakthrough in the fight for Jewish rights in Europe,” but “such claims are spurious. Disraeli was largely ignorant about the Jewish communities of the Balkans and at Berlin paid little attention to the discussion of Jewish religious rights.” The credit, according to Cesarani, rightly belongs to Bismarck’s Jewish banker Gerson Bleichröder.

As these passages illustrate, most of the book adds up to a running argument against the view, as expressed by an early biographer, that “the fundamental fact about Disraeli was that he was a Jew.” Then comes the twist. We can, Cesarani writes, understand Disraeli as “a Jew’” in the way in which 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.” Moreover, by his very prominence he became the object of persistent anti-Semitic prejudice and “this makes him a Jewish life of sorts.” Indeed, Cesarani contends that Disraeli “invited attack by bruiting his Jewish origins and bragging about the ubiquity and power of ‘the Jews.’ ” Although his actual conduct in office “reveal[s] the absence of any ... Jewish dimension” or of the ‘Judaic’ motives or intentions attributed to him by his critics,” Cesarani insists that Disraeli’s own racially charged rhetoric (a means of respecting his origins while distancing himself from any allegiance to Judaism as a religion) “almost single-handedly invented the lexicon of modern racial anti-Semitism” - a dubious overstatement.

Cesarani concludes by writing that “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.” Disraeli never denied his origins and indeed celebrated his supposed kinship with an ancient Jewish aristocracy of his own imaginary creation, but if Disraeli is now deemed to have lived a “Jewish life” it was, Cesarani has argued, in spite of his efforts to avoid one.

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