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Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewish and Conservative Commitments

Feb. 27 2018

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.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Anti-Semitism, Benjamin Disraeli, British Jewry, Conservatism, England, History & Ideas

The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah