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Cover of the book under review.

Isaac D'Israeli was a member of the Bevis Marks synagogue in Houndsditch and paid his annual membership fee (the finta) which initially was £10 and moved upwards to over £22. He lived in Bloomsbury, attended rarely and was far from observant. In October 1813 the governing body of the synagogue chose him to be an official for a year. He was surprised and refused to serve. This was not uncommon but routinely led to a "fine" of £40 which had become a useful source of income to the synagogue. Unlike others Isaac argued that he should not have been asked and should not be required to pay the fine. He stopped paying the annual fee and the matter lapsed until Isaac's father died in 1816. That prompted the governing body to return to the charge in March 1817 which in turn led to Isaac asking to have his name removed from the membership list.

Soon afterwards, Isaac's four children were baptised as Christians in St Andrew's Holborn in July and August 1817. Mr Sharon Turner, a friend of Isaac, had a hand in this but there is no indication as to why Isaac chose to go along with it despite a clear scepticism about all organised religion. Benjamin, the eldest son, was baptised on 31 July 1817. He was twelve (not thirteen as stated on the first page).

Left: The Bevis Marks Synagogue. Right: The interior of St Andrew's Church, Holborn, where Disraeli was baptised in 1817 (photograph by JB).

David Cesarani's rather short book, of 236 pages, examines Benjamin Disraeli's approach to his own Jewish ancestry, to Jewish history and to Jewish friends in his work as a novelist and as a politician. Cesarani, who died in 2015 and was well-known as a twentieth-century historian, was commissioned to write this book for Yale in a series called "Jewish Lives." The series ranges widely including volumes on Einstein, Kafka, Trotsky, Jesus and Stephen Spielberg as well as many others. There are extensive footnotes but no bibliography and no suggestion that the author spent much time with original sources. He writes warmly of the London Library where he was able to find almost everything he needed to read in order to write the book.

It has to be said, therefore, that this is emphatically not the place to start on Disraeli either as a politician or as a novelist, and does not aspire to meet those needs. Important aspects of Disraeli's life and achievements are not mentioned, or touched on only in passing. On the other hand, the standard texts on Disraeli do not examine his Jewishness anything like as thoroughly as this, and in this respect the book fills an important gap for someone already well informed about Disraeli.

Cesarani's introduction sets out the argument for Disraeli as a committed Jew and a major figure in Jewish history. It is followed by the opposite interpretation of him, as one who asserted that Christianity was a completed form of Judaism; was lukewarm in his support for the repeated efforts to make it possible for Jews to become members of the House of Commons; and was never seen by his friends, the Rothschilds, as a reliable support to them or their community. Cesarani aimed to avoid both these contrasting views and also set out to show the danger of reading too much into Disraeli's preoccupation with Jews, Judaism and race in his novels. He warns specifically of the danger of reading the novels in the light of his life, and vice versa.

Because of its focus the book gives more attention to Disraeli's family background and to his novels than would be conventional. Part One covers his first thirty-three years in seventy-five pages; Part Two covers the next twenty-two years in another seventy-five pages; Part Three covers the final twenty-two years, which are far and away the most important politically, in sixty-six pages.

Those who are not well-informed on the politics of the period — that is, lacking in previous background on Disraeli as a politician, but simply interested in reading about prominent Jews — might find his account confusing. For example, in order fully to understand the course of political events, one needs to know that Lord Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranbrooke and Lord Salisbury were one and the same person; and, for instance, to understand how Salisbury came to be Disraeli's Foreign Secretary despite having been severely critical of him just a few years before. Similarly, little effort is made to explain that for many years the Tories were led by Lord Derby in the Lords, with Disraeli leading the party in the Commons, or to explore their relationship — an important relationship that inevitably conditioned much of what Disraeli did or refrained from doing.

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Editorial cartoon in Fun magazine, depicting Disraeli as a character in his own novel, Vivien Gray — a dandy who wants to become an influential politician.

Any book that concentrates on one dimension of its subject's life is liable to fall into versions of the trap against which Cesarani warns us. For example, his discussion of Disraeli's record of voting and speaking on successive Whig/Liberal bills intended to make it possible for Jews to become MPs makes too little of the difficulties created for Disraeli by the hostility of almost all Tories, and specifically by Derby's own outspoken criticism of the change. Disraeli may not have been as eloquent or energetic in the cause as Cesarani would have liked, but he remained obviously at odds with his party on the subject and was known to be so — although it was very much against his own interests.

Similarly there is half an implication that Disraeli's role in the purchase of the Suez Canal, and his contribution to the outcome of the Congress of Berlin in 1878, should be understood in light of events in Palestine and Israel in the twentieth century. The admittedly obvious and banal explanation, that Disraeli was driven by British interests generally and a concern for the Empire in particular, is rather more convincing.

As for the central subject that the book was written to address, confusion here is rather more Disraeli's responsibility than Cesarani's. In every aspect of life he was unpredictable and inconsistent, and in none more so than in relation to his Jewish heritage. Cesarani is driven to conclude that not only did he himself become "the focus of everyday, common-or-garden prejudice," but, through his own "racial rhetoric," he succeeded in "convincing people that he was a Jewish genius at the centre of a web of Jewish influence." Because of this he "almost single-handedly invented the lexicon of modern racial anti-Semitism" (234-35). Cesarani adds: "If his racial myth-making was intended to boost his fortunes and comfort his ego, it was, as [Harold] Fisch maintained, an act of monumental solipsism and irresponsibility" (235).

This is a thoughtful and useful addition to the material available on Benjamin Disraeli, which leads one to agree with Cesarani that his life spans two Jewish eras: "he was one of the last court Jews and one of the first victims of modern anti-Semitism" (236). But it will be much more satisfying and comprehensible to those who have already read more rounded accounts of his life before turning to it.

Related Material


(Book under review) Cesarani, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. Jewish Lives series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016. Hardback. £20.00. xii + 320pp. ISBN 978-0-300-13751-4.

Last modified 29 December 2016