Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield
Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield
DISRAELI, BENJAMIN, EARL OF BEACONSFIELD
DISRAELI, BENJAMIN, EARL OF BEACONSFIELD (1804–1881), British statesman and novelist. His father, the historian and essayist Isaac *D'Israeli, quarreled with the London Sephardi community, and had his children baptized when Benjamin was 13 years old. Disraeli received a Christian upbringing, but his Jewish origins had a marked influence upon him. After unfortunate business ventures and after an abortive attempt to publish a morning newspaper, he wrote a number of satirical novels on English political society, starting with Vivian Grey (1826). This gave him an entry to London society, where his original dress and other extravagances made him a conspicuous figure. In 1828–31, an extensive tour of the Near East helped to determine his future attitude on foreign affairs and imperialism. A visit to Jerusalem made him conscious of the link between Judaism and Christianity and aroused his sympathy for the Ottoman Empire, where Jews were tolerantly treated. The literary harvest of this journey was Alroy (1833), a novel about Jewish messianism in the 12th century, in which the Jewish hero, David *Alroy, fails in his attempt to create a Jewish empire in Asia because it lacks the inspiration of Zion.
Disraeli's social ambitions drew him inevitably into politics, but it was not until 1837 that he was elected to Parliament as a Tory. Thereafter throughout his political career he followed a consistent line. His political philosophy is expressed in his Vindication of the English Constitution (1835), a development of the Conservative ideology evolved by Bolingbroke and Burke in the 18th century. On the one hand, he regarded the nation as a historically developed organism, whose well-being depended upon a balanced hierarchical structure of crown, church, and aristocracy. On the other hand, he wanted to restore the Tory party to its original historical role of leadership, guiding the way to national popular reform. He wished to transform the party from a purely aristocratic one to a popular movement embracing the working class. At first, Disraeli was met with suspicion and hostility, both within his party and outside, but within a few years he had made his mark as a brilliant parliamentary debater. In 1841, in reaction to his failure to receive an appointment in Peel's cabinet and in rejection of its bourgeois policy, he became leader of a group of young Conservative politicians, the "Young England" movement. A romantic party of revolt, which dreamed of gathering the people around the crown and the church under aristocratic leadership, it was hostile both to the middle class and to capitalism. Once again his personal experience found literary expression, this time in three major novels in which Disraeli's specific Tory outlook is the dominant theme. In Coningsby (1844), the rich banker Sidonia, who represents the outlook of the Jewish people, can be recognized as an idealized self-portrait merged into an idealized Rothschild. In the second, Sybil (1845), he warns against the contradiction between capital and labor, denounces the horror of the factory system and the division into two nations, rich and poor, mutually antagonistic. He looks back to a patriarchal medievalism with its natural aristocratic leadership and forward to the future with its demand for new thinking and new solutions. The hero of Tancred (1847), a young aristocrat, seeks to reestablish the harmony of English society. He goes to Palestine to restore to the Christian Church its Jewish foundations which are the bases of European civilization and to revive its moral and religious force.
The year 1846 was a turning-point in his political career. His opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws, which protected the farmer whom he regarded as the backbone of English society, split the Conservative party; this led Prime Minister Peel to resign and left Disraeli as one of the acknowledged leaders of the Protectionist party.
When, in 1848, Baron Lionel de *Rothschild was elected to Parliament but was not permitted, as a Jew, to take his seat, Disraeli supported his right to be admitted. This he did not on the Liberals' grounds of religious tolerance, but rather because of the debt which Europe, and especially England, owed Jewry from whose midst the Christian savior had come. Although this angered high personages in his party, he boldly and constantly reminded them of his own Jewish origin and of their debt to this people.
Disraeli stressed his theory of the link between Judaism and Christianity in his biography of Lord George Bentinck (1852). He regarded the Semitic race as superior, and the Jews as its elite because of their spirituality. This spirituality, in his view, was ultimately and most finely embodied in the Church, in contrast to the materialism characteristic of the northern races. Disraeli attributed the preservation of Jewish vitality and power from ancient times to their purity of blood and their natural conservative attitude toward religion, aristocratic privilege, and property. With this theory he underlined his Toryism; on it he based his belief in the bond between the English people and the Jews. Moreover, the institutions and laws of English society, as well as those of Europe, were based on Semitic principles, and the debt owed to Jews had to be recognized and their proper place fully accorded them.
In 1852 the Tory party came to power under Lord Derby, and Disraeli became chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. He announced his party's rejection of protection but attempted to compensate the protectionists in his budget: when this was defeated after days of acrimonious debate, the government resigned. In 1858, he had another brief taste of power in Derby's second administration, and in June 1866 returned again to office. Disraeli's ideological views were reflected in his political career. Hence in 1867, as leader of the Commons, he proposed and carried an electoral reform bill extending the franchise to the industrial classes. This "leap in the dark" was in conformity with his view that the Conservative party should be popularly based. In 1868, on Lord Derby's resignation, Disraeli had his first brief term as prime minister and consolidated the warm friendship which he had already established with Queen Victoria. Ironically he was defeated at the general election based on the new suffrage. In 1874, he became prime minister once again after a decisive Conservative victory. During his six years of office, he applied the social principles for which he had always stood. He tried to bridge the gap between capital and labor by social and factory legislation directed toward a paternalistic rather than a modern welfare state. His foreign policy was guided by the desire to restore to England the glory which he thought had been weakened by Liberal pacifist policy. An important part of this policy was the attempt to enhance the British Empire, as the stronghold of culture, peace, and liberty. India was for him the heart of the Empire, and the acquisition of shares in the Suez Canal from the khedive of Egypt in 1875 with the financial help of the *Rothschilds was designed to ensure English control over the vital route to India.
In 1876 the Queen was proclaimed Empress of India and Disraeli was rewarded by being created Earl of Beaconsfield. In the ensuing developments, the central problem was Anglo-Russian rivalry. Disraeli adopted an aggressive policy, designed to check Russian penetration into the Mediterranean as well as to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a barrier. Critics of his policy asserted that its criterion was the attitude of these powers to Jews. When the Treaty of San Stefano (1878) resulted in the domination of Russia over the Balkans, he insisted that the agreement be submitted to the great powers, and at the subsequent Congress of *Berlin, Russia was forced to renounce all her acquisitions. This Congress was considered a personal triumph for Disraeli. He also supported the inclusion in the treaty of a clause granting rights to the Jews of the new Balkan countries. However, the anonymous memorandum prepared in 1878 for submission to the Congress, proposing the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine and once ascribed to Disraeli, is now proved to have been written by J.L. *Gordon. Economic crises and failures in Africa and Central Asia led to a Conservative defeat at the polls in 1880 followed by the resignation of the government. In his enforced leisure, Disraeli completed his Endymion, the most fascinating of his political novels.
The attitude of historians to Disraeli has been ambivalent. Some have seen him as an outstanding statesman, others as a political adventurer. He is now felt to have had a coherent philosophy and clearly defined political aims. The extravagant enthusiasms which marked his writings and his life, as well as his practical acumen, aroused suspicion. Yet despite many failures, Disraeli remained an optimist. His knowledge of Judaism was negligible, yet he gloried in his Jewish origin. His effort to prove that Christianity was a continuation of Judaism and his attempts to find a common denominator of Judaism and Christianity were misguided. His theory of race was wholly unscientific. A vaguely Zionist idea, that the Jew and Palestine are linked by destiny, runs through all his novels. A characteristic passage occurs in Tancred: "The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal Law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating their vintage although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards."
As a Novelist
Disraeli's novels are closely related to his political career and ideology. They are not propaganda, but rather visionary statements of those same ideas and beliefs which underlay his special brand of Toryism. From a literary point of view, his works represent a somewhat strange mixture. They look back to the exotic Gothic novels of the late 18th century in their use of extravagant episode and high-pitched language. At the same time, they look forward to a new style later to be practiced by such writers as Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Kingsley, in which the novel deals with practical, social, and political issues with a view to righting wrongs.
In Disraeli's case, the inspiration is to be found in his desire to set up a new political movement (Coningsby, 1844), in his desire to improve the condition of the people in the new industrial towns (Sybil, 1845), and in his wish to revitalize the Church so as to make it a more effective moral and religious force (Tancred, 1847). There is also a certain Jewish strain of messianism in Disraeli's writing. In Tancred he proclaims his wish to set up a theocratic form of government, and his hero desires that the British might "conquer the world with angels at our head." Disraeli's conception of the British Empire is in fact
nourished – unconsciously no doubt – by Jewish sources, but his Judaism is reflected through a distorting glass. He sometimes speaks of Christianity as if it were a slightly modified form of Judaism.
Disraeli also directly discusses Jewish matters in a Life of his friend Lord George Bentinck (1852), as well as in Alroy (1833). In both Coningsby and Tancred he introduces the Jew Sidonia, who is always at hand to assist the hero with his wisdom, munificence, and vast international connections. In Tancred also, Disraeli speaks out energetically in favor of restoring national independence to the Jews, criticizing Jewish assimilationists "ashamed of their race and not fanatically devoted to their religion." Disraeli's style, through its extravagance and enthusiasm, provoked parodies by W.M. Thackeray and A. Trollope.
[Harold Harel Fisch]
It seems clear that Disraeli was obsessed by his Jewishness, just as were most of his contemporaries, for whom a Jewish political leader in Britain was a virtually unimaginable novelty. Historians have recently paid attention to the considerable antisemitic hostility faced by Disraeli, flowing from both the traditional Tory right wing and, more surprisingly, from many Victorian liberals, with an overt or covert evangelical Protestant worldview. Disraeli overcame all obstacles and prejudices to climb to "the top of the greasy pole." Probably only in Britain among Western nations in Victorian times was his career possible. That Disraeli was an iconic figure on the British right – not the left – the founder of the modern Conservative party, probably ensured to a significant degree that, in the troubled 20th century, British Conservatism never acquired an antisemitic tone or edge. In the final analysis, Disraeli's career was truly sui generis.
[William D. Rubinstein (2nd ed.)]
There is a select bibliography on the life and the works of Disraeli in R. Blake, Disraeli (1967) and in P. Bloomfield, Disraeli (1961); W.F. Monypenny and G.E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 6 vols. (1910–20); N. Sokolow, Ḥibbat Zion (1935), index; C. Roth, Benjamin Disraeli: Earl of Beaconsfield (1952); E. Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali (1961), 290–2; H. Fisch, Dual Image (1959), 65–68; idem, in: Essays… I. Brodie (1967), 81–94; B. Jaffe, Benjamin Disraeli (Heb., 1960), 132–6 (incl. bibl.); R.W. Seton-Watson, Disraeli, Gladstone and the Eastern Question… (1963); G. Brandes, Lord Beaconsfield: A Study (1966); B.R. Jerman, The Young Disraeli (1960); S.R. Graubard, Burke, Disraeli and Churchill (1961). add. bibliography: S. Bradford, Disraeli (1983); T. Endelman and T. Kushner (eds.), Disraeli's Jewishness (2002); T. Endelman, "Disraeli's Jewishness Reconsidered," in: Modern Judaism, 5 (1985), 109–23; B. Jaffee, "A Reassessment of Benjamin Disraeli's Jewish Aspects," in: tjhse, 27 (1982), 115–23; W.D. Rubinstein, A History of the Jews in the English-Speaking World: Great Britain (1996), 81–83, index; odnb; M. Jolles, Jews and the Carlton Club, with Notes on Benjamin Disraeli, Henri Louis Bischoffsheim and Saul Isaac, mp (2002).