Disraeli the cad, Disraeli the bounder

By David Cesarani, November 17, 2013
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To many Jews there was a pleasing symmetry when Ed Miliband invoked Benjamin Disraeli in a much-trumpeted speech in Manchester in October 2010. Here was a Jewish leader of the Opposition Labour Party, with a fair chance of becoming the next prime minister, recalling the vision of Britain articulated by the country’s sole Jewish-born premier. It was “a vision of Britain coming together to face the challenges we faced. Disraeli called it ‘One Nation’.”

Unfortunately, only a politician selectively acquainted with 19th century political history and the life of Disraeli could have made such a claim in all seriousness. Closer inspection of Disraeli’s background and his career suggest that both Jews and leaders of the Labour Party should steer well clear of him.

Benjamin Disraeli was born in London in 1804 and grew up in a typical Jewish milieu. Typical, that is, of Sephardi Jewish immigrants to London and their descendants. His forebears were “port Jews” who had migrated along trade routes from northern Italy to London, a cosmopolitan maritime trading centre. London offered them an easy-going environment, but they were only loosely attached to Judaism anyway.

Benjamin’s father, Isaac, visited Paris in the 1780s and imbibed the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Although he reacted against the French Revolution and became a vehement Tory, he embraced the Enlightenment critique of Judaism. In 1798 he penned an article praising the reformer Moses Mendelssohn and 35 years later published an excoriating attack on Jewish Orthodoxy, perversely entitled The Genius of Judaism. Isaac famously broke with the Bevis Marks community and had his son baptised in the year that Benjamin ought to have had his barmitzvah.

Obdurate, malignant, odious and revolting — Benjamin Disraeli on lower-class Jews

Such total assimilation was hardly unusual amongst Sephardim at that juncture. What distinguished the young Benjamin was the combination of Tory opinions, absorbed from his father, and vaulting ambition.

Disraeli’s quest for fame and fortune quickly ended in disaster. He gambled on the Stock Exchange with other people’s money and lost. He led efforts to establish a Tory newspaper, but ended up deceiving all concerned, costing the investors a fortune. He then tried to clear his debts by writing a novel about the escapade. It was based on real incidents and people, but though he cloaked his authorship in anonymity the truth leaked out. The result was further scandal, leading to a nervous breakdown.

By his early 20s it seemed he was finished. He was revived by a trip to the Near East, including Jerusalem, in 1830, which furnished material for a new novel. But when he returned England was in turmoil over parliamentary reform and he saw politics as the better route for advancement.

It didn’t matter to him that he had no party and no ideas other than an inherited loathing for the Whigs. He unsuccessfully contested High Wycombe three times on three different platforms. Once, when asked what principles he stood on, he replied: “I stand on my head”.

Disraeli clawed his way up by writing gutter political journalism and serving as factotum for Lord Lyndhurst, a Tory grandee with a dubious reputation. At this point Benjamin, who had a busy sex life, was conducting an affair with Henrietta, the wife of Sir Francis Sykes. Lyndhurst took a fancy to her so Disraeli loaned his lover to his employer and they all went off for a weekend in the country, including Sir Francis.

Some time later Sykes caught Henrietta in flagrante delicto with Daniel Maclise, a society painter. Maclise had earlier sketched a superb likeness of the gorgeous young Disraeli. His subject only narrowly avoided being cited as a correspondent in the subsequent divorce case.

Meanwhile, Disraeli was being pursued for debts, amounting to over £2 million at today’s values. Lyndhurst’s efforts to obtain a safe Tory seat for his protegé was not just about politics. A seat in Parliament carried immunity from prosecution, so it was a race between the House of Commons and debtors’ prison. Disraeli was lucky. He was elected for Maidstone in 1837.

After his death in 1881, when he was lauded as a great MP and statesman, British Jews appropriated Disraeli as proof that it was possible to be both a proud Jew and a patriot. Yet from the moment he arrived in the Commons he was excruciatingly ambivalent about his Jewish heritage.

As a young man Disraeli showed little interest in Jews or Judaism. His trip to Jerusalem was an impulsive diversion. Although his novel Alroy depicts a Jewish hero leading a revolt against oppression, it ends in defeat. The descriptions of Jewish life are absurd.

In other books Disraeli vaunted the role of Jews in history, mocked assimilation, and condemned anti-Jewish prejudice. Hence, Jews are apt to cite the relevant passages from such works as Coningsby and Lord George Bentinck. Rather less attention is given to the fundamental contribution he made to modern literary antisemitism.

In his romance Henrietta Temple, Disraeli conjured up the figure of a Jewish money-lender, Mr Levison, who vies with Fagin as a stereotypical Jew. “Times is very bad”, Levison tells his client. “Me and my pardner don’t do annuities now”. But he knows another financier and is “in with him wery deep”.

At the other extreme is Sidonia, Coningsby’s enigmatic mentor. “He was lord and master of the money-markets of the world, and of course virtually lord and master of everything else.” In depicting Sidonia as a denizen of the “subterranean agencies” that “exercise so great an influence on public events”, Disraeli sketched the first draft of the Jewish world-conspiracy theory.

He avoided Jewish London and was silent on Jewish issues. In December 1837, soon after his election, Disraeli kept his head down when MPs debated whether Sir Moses Montefiore or any other professing Jew could take office as a sheriff of London.

He said nothing about the blood libel charge against a dozen Syrian Jews, the Damascus Affair, that triggered protests across the Jewish world in 1840. Indeed, it was his mutually rewarding friendship with Lionel de Rothschild that brought him to the defence of Jewish rights, not the other way around. When he was finally, grudgingly obliged to advocate the right of Jews to sit in Parliament, he conceded half the case that their antagonists made.

In his renowned oration of December 1847, he confessed: “I feel that the race are deficient in many of the qualities, as well as in numbers, which would make a statesman, for reasons of state, undertake the advocacy of their interests”. He pleaded for Jews to be treated equally because they gave the world Christianity and he spurned the “responsibility of excluding from the Legislature those who are of the religion in the bosom of which my Lord Saviour was born”.

In Bentinck, he described lower-class Jews as “obdurate, malignant, odious and revolting”. He noted that Rothschild could not swear the oath required of an MP as a consequence of “being not only of the Jewish race, but unfortunately believing only in the first part of the Jewish religion”. He hoped that eventually all Jews would see their error since “just a few points of doctrine” separated the creeds. Disraeli was actually a Christian supercessionist who saw no merit in Judaism enduring for its own sake.

His posturing and the racial fantasies in his novels were then amplified by his numerous enemies. Disraeli became a dynamo generating antisemitism. If this were not reason enough for a Jewish Labour politician to give him a wide berth, his contribution to British politics ought to give pause.

When the Tories were returned to power in 1840, Disraeli embarrassed his leader, Sir Robert Peel, by pleading for office. Having been justly rebuffed, he morphed into a petulant backbencher. Despite having shown no interest in the Corn Laws, he savaged Peel for seeking their repeal. He finally brought Peel down over repression in Ireland, although a constant in Disraeli’s life was contempt for the Irish. Once in power he did nothing to restore the Corn Laws and actually fanned anti-Catholicism.

The government that Disraeli led from 1874 to 1880 passed a raft of (tame) social reform laws, but the prime minister snoozed through cabinet sessions where they were discussed. He preferred foreign policy, nearly dragging Britain into war with Russia against the wishes of a vast anti-war movement, led by his nemesis, Gladstone.

Disraeli’s lasting contribution to British politics was the language of imperialism. He evolved the populist discourse, Jingoism, designed to fool ordinary people into believing that they shared a great imperial mission with the rich and powerful.

Nationalist rhetoric blended with the illusion of social reform was the mainstay of fascism between the wars. It is still a menace. Politicians today would do well to think twice before summoning up the Great Wizard.

Professor David Cesarani’s book on Disraeli, for the Yale Jewish Lives series, will appear in 2014

Last updated: 8:45am, November 17 2013