December 25, 2008
Disraeli: The curious case of England’s Jewish prime minister
Benjamin Disraeli was born Jewish, baptized as a boy but (mostly) considered himself to be Jewish.
He famously proclaimed to Queen Victoria -- who began by hating him and ended adoring him -- that he was the "blank page" separating the Old and New Testaments. He was an unconventional Tory, a reactionary with the glimmer of a radical peeking through. This proud defender of the majesty of his ancient people remains to this day the only Jewish prime minister England has ever known.
Into this career, tangled with old political fights and unclear motives, comes Adam Kirsch. Kirsch is an accomplished poet and critic with a deservedly formidable reputation. In addition to writing for various literary periodicals, he was a regular book columnist for the now defunct-New York Sun, whose serious book coverage was rare among newspapers. From his early days at The New Republic, this son of a local lawyer, historian and much-loved man of letters Jonathan Kirsch, has shown an erudition and judgment far beyond his years. Just as well, for few subjects require discernment as rigorous as the complex, vertiginous character aptly known as "Dizzy."
French writer Andre Maurois began his biography of Benjamin Disraeli: "In the year 1290, on All Saints' Day, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England." English historian Robert Blake began his celebrated biography as follows: "Benjamin Disraeli's career was an extraordinary one; but there is no need to make it seem more extraordinary than it really was."
Peculiar, is it not? Why begin a biography more than 500 years before the birth of its subject, or begin by proclaiming its subject less remarkable than he is sometimes portrayed? But taken together these biographical choices tell us something about this fascinating character and about how Kirsch set about portraying Disraeli in a distinctive and persuasive way.
These opening sentences form the vectors that shape Disraeli -- his Jewishness and his maddening mixture of achievement and artifice. Nobody was ever quite sure about the Lord of Beaconsfield; he was mightily gifted, but what, exactly, did he believe in, other than himself?
Benjamin Disraeli was born to a Jewish family in 1804. Despite his early baptism (at the age of 12), his contemporaries continued to see him as Jewish. Disraeli alternately evaded and relished his heritage. When his most undiplomatic enemy, Daniel O'Connell, attacked him in the House of Commons -- referring to Disraeli's Jewish lineage -- Disraeli answered "Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."
History designates some people to travel in tandem. Disraeli, with his mocking wit, will always be paired with the earnest, brilliant and periodically bizarre William Gladstone. Gladstone, among the most successful prime ministers in British history, detested Disraeli; Disraeli, it is said, when asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, said that if Gladstone fell into the Thames River, it would be a misfortune. If someone fished him out, it would be a calamity.
In addition to Gladstone's liberalism and Disraeli's Toryism, what distinguished them was that Gladstone was an insider. Here is where Kirsch's biography particularly shines. Recently, Yirmiyahu Yovel demonstrated in an important biography of Spinoza how much of the philosopher's thought could be understood through the prism of exile and alienation. Kirsch does something of the same for Disraeli.
This biography is part of the exemplary Schocken/Nextbook series, under the editorship of Jonathan Rosen. Kirsch uses this natural Jewish emphasis to show us that Disraeli was constantly tacking against the wind of his outsiderness. Part of the insincerity intuited by others was that more than most politicians, Disraeli could not answer with untempered instinct; everything had to be calculated, because he would never be accepted as 'fully English.' To be a prime minister and yet not thought part of the real polity of the country is an extraordinary situation indeed.
Kirsch takes us through the controversies of Disraeli's career -- the corn laws, the Reform bill, the Chartist movement, the Eastern question -- all of them recounted briskly and with a clarity that enables us to understand these buried controversies. Page by page, we are reminded how precarious it was for Disraeli to have one foot in each testament.
Kirsch ends the book with a helpful bibliography. At the conclusion, he reminds us of the wonderful biography of Blake, saying it "remains the best starting point for any reader who wants to get to know him." Now we can say -- read Blake, by all means, but begin with Kirsch.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears frequently in The Journal.