In 1813, Isaac D’Israeli—a well-to-do member of London’s oldest and most prestigious synagogue—refused to pay a fine levied against him by the congregation’s trustees for declining to serve as warden for a year. The dispute culminated in his leaving the congregation and then having his children—including the future British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)—baptized into the Church of England. Taking stock of the younger Disraeli’s career, Robert Philpott defends him from charges of political opportunism, details his struggle with anti-Semitism from both his own Conservative party and from the Liberals, and examines his ambivalent relationship with his Jewish heritage.
[W]hile Jews featured prominently in Disraeli’s many novels—written before and after he entered politics—he seemed to have little understanding of Jewish practices and made more than a few errors. Disraeli’s writings were also seemingly contradictory. His novels occasionally featured Jewish characters that clearly drew on then-common anti-Semitic depictions—his description of a Jewish money-lender, Levison, is particularly vulgar—while the Jewish wise man Sidonia in Coningsby outlines a picture of Jews working through “subterranean agencies” to control world events that was later gleefully seized upon and repeated by virulent anti-Semites. At other times, however, Disraeli’s novels laud Jews and the superiority of “the Hebrew.” . . .
Despite his deep patriotism, Disraeli was the subject of vicious anti-Semitic attacks from his political opponents. They charged that his failure as prime minister to do more to protect Christians in the Balkans from massacres by their Ottoman masters stemmed from his Jewish roots. . . . But Disraeli’s actions were not, as his critics suggested, the result of his “Jew feelings” or a reflection of an “Oriental indifference to cruelty” but a realpolitik calculation, strongly shared by Queen Victoria, that Russian expansionism posed a danger to British interests. . . .
Disraeli’s conservatism was deeply held. The purpose of the Tory party, he believed, was “to maintain the institutions of the country”—the monarchy, the Church of England, the aristocracy. But that belief also necessitated knowing when it is best to reform in order to preserve. . . . Disraeli’s romance [with England’s past] reflected his abiding reverence for England’s long history—a subject which almost always featured in his speeches—and his desire to etch himself a place in it.
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