Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewishness explored through his writings

“Disraeli: The Novel Politician” by David Cesarani; Yale University Press, 304 pages, $25

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Jewish Lives is a major series of interpretative biographies that explores the range and depth of Jewish experience, from antiquity through the present.

The books in this series, in partnership with Yale University Press, include Jews in every field of endeavor. They are not meant to be long, definitive biographies, but are designed simply to “illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures in diverse fields such as politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences.”

The latest biography in this series is “Disraeli: The Novel Politician” by David Cesarani, a former research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and director of the school’s Holocaust Research Centre.  A prolific author, Cesarani was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for his work in establishing a Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom. He died in October at the age of 58 prior to the publication of this biography of Benjamin Disrael.  

Cesarani’s biography is a well-crafted work about the life of the man considered the only Jewish prime minister of England, even though he was a practicing Anglican who never actually denied his Jewish heritage. 

This complex book contrasts with earlier Disraeli biographies in two ways. First, most biographers have emphasized Disraeli’s political importance and rise to power and wrote about both topics in great detail.  Although Cesarani acknowledges Disraeli’s political contributions, this is not the major thrust of his book. Because it is an addition to the Jewish Lives series, Cesarani focuses on Disraeli’s “Jewishness.”  

Cesarani concludes that Disraeli was a manipulative man with few principles or beliefs, a man who was quite adept at knowing where and when to invoke his Jewish origins.  On one occasion, when a fellow member of Parliament derisively called him a Jew, Disraeli retorted, “When your ancestor’s ancestors were savages on an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Yet Cesarani’s research produced evidence that as a politician, Disraeli was inconsistent on and insensitive to a multitude of Jewish issues. He remained silent when Parliament was debating the question of whether Jews should be allowed to hold public office. On another occasion, Disraeli sat passively during discussion of the Damascus Affair in 1840, when several Jews in that city were tortured and confessed to murdering an Italian friar in order to use his blood for ritual purposes.  

Cesarani also admonishes Disraeli for looking the other way while members of the British establishment orally  attacked Jews. Finally, the author condemns Disraeli for making no effort to seek out Jewish sites or groups during his numerous travels to Europe and the Middle East, and for his lack of interest in Jewish history.  

The second difference from previous biographies is that Cesarani makes extensive use of Disraeli’s writings. Disraeli, like his father, Isaac,  took a keen interest in literature, publishing at least five novels from 1826 to 1880 — hence the title of the book,  “The Novel Politician.” Writing novels was an additional source of Disrael’s income, and his writings help give readers a better insight into his Jewishness. 

Cesarani believes that Disraeli, in many of his novels, especially “Tancred” and “Endymion,” stressed the idea that scientific change and social forces do not explain the rise and fall of nations.  

“All is race; there is no other truth,” Disraeli wrote. 

When Cesarani discovered that Disraeli believed that “there is one thing which makes a race, and that is blood,” the author accused Disraeli of indirectly adding fodder to the Nazis who mouthed Disraeli’s own words: “The racial question is the key to world history.”  

“Even Hitler quoted Disraeli in a 1941 speech to the Reichstag” Cesarani writes, adding that Disraeli had no idea that his words would be employed in such a manner, which is why he found Disraeli such a fascinating subject for a biography.

Cesarani has used a multitude of primary and secondary sources for this book, including earlier biographies, recent studies of English politics and Anglo-Jewish history, and Disraeli’s voluminous published correspondence.

 Cesarani does not agree with all of the conclusions of Disraeli’s many other biographers, nor do they necessarily agree with him. But all agree that Disraeli was a complex figure who contributed much to British history. 

 Those interested in 19th century British history will find this biography a valuable book to read prior to embarking on more detailed biographies of Disraeli, such as Adam Kirsch’s “Benjamin Disraeli,” Stanley Weintraub’s “Disraeli: A Biography,” or Cecil Roth’s “Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield.”