The Jew in Benjamin Disraeli, The Earl of Beaconsfeld
My late father had certain heroes whom he idolized and about whom he often related stories to me during my youthful years. He would read every book and biography relating to their lives. These heroes included Don Isaac Abarbanel; Behrend Lehmann, the 17th century great Court Jew of Halberstadt and possibly one of our ancestors; the Rothschilds; the Sassoons; Sir Rufus Isaacs; the Viceroy of India, and—Disraeli.
Benjamin Disraeli has therefore fascinated me for a very long time. My impression of him was the common one: the skilled British Prime Minister who won the Suez Canal for Queen Victoria, and although a baptized Jew, was attacked throughout his political career by anti-Semites who reveled in the nasty caricatures of him which regularly appeared in the British press.
It is only now that I have gained an insight into his colorful personality, his great artistic talents as a writer, his boundless pride in his Jewish ancestry, and his knowledge of everything Jewish, whether ritual, historical or Messianic. A recently published book has enriched my acquaintance with Disraeli immeasurably. I recommend it to everyone as a source of true pride and gratitude—for in my opinion, we would probably have no Jewish State today if Disraeli had not lived. The book is Disraeli, by Stanley Weintraub, published by Penguin Books.
Disraeli's family originated in a small Italian town, Cento. Since "Cento" means "One hundred," Jews used to call it "Meah," Hebrew for 100. Disraeli was the son of Isaac d'Israeli, a highly literate but individualistic Jew who had built up a large library and engaged in literary activities.
On December 28, 1804, Isaac d'Israeli made a Brit Milah, ritual circumcision for his new-born son, Benjamin, in the d'Israeli home. The special chair—the "Kisseh shel Eliyahu"—on which the sandak, who holds the baby, sits, was brought over from the old Bevis Marks Synagogue, which Disraeli's grandfather joined when he came to England from Italy in 1748. Disraeli's uncle, David Abarbanel Lindo, was the mohel who performed the brit. Disraeli would muse that his ancestors must have fled Spain because of the Inquisition and "found a refuge in the more tolerant territories of the Venetian Republic." Some of the most famous Sephardic and Italian Jewish names figure in his family tree: De'Rossi, Furtado, Villa Real, Calimani, de Gabay, Shiprut, Basevi.
His father, Isaac, the poet and writer, was at one point elected "warden" of the Bevis Marks synagogue, but rejected the honor. He was then, according to the rules of the congregation, fined forty pounds for refusing an honor. This caused his rift with the Jewish community. When his father, Benjamin the Elder, died and left him an important heritage, Isaac Disraeli resigned from the synagogue in 18 l 7, just as his son Benjamin's Bar Mitzvah was nearing. He already had a private tutor preparing him for the great event, although it could not take place in a synagogue because of his father's idiosyncrasy and querulous nature. On July 11, 1817, just a few months before Benjamin's Bar Mitzvah, his father, long non-observant, took him (as he later wrote he only "half-consented") to an Anglican Church to be baptized. It was around the time that another great European, Heinrich Heine, the great German-Jewish poet, was baptized to Christianity. It reminds me of the story that one of Heine's friends in later years confronted him with the question: "Chayim [his Jewish name], do you really believe in Jesus?" Heine answered: "Have you ever met one Jew who believed in another Jew?" Disraeli would certainly have given the same answer!
In 1830 Disraeli embarked on a trip to the Middle East. When he passed Gibraltar, he wrote to his father singling out "Jews, with gabardines and skull caps." His encounter with Jerusalem made a profound impression on him. In a book resulting from the trip he clearly expressed his desire to restore Jerusalem to the Jews. The leading character in the book says: "My wish is a national existence which we have not. My wish is the Land of Promise and Jerusalem and the Temple, all we forfeited, all we have yearned after, all for which we have fought, our beauteous country, our holy creed, our simple manners, and our ancient customs."
Several of his later books, especially Tancred, were literally manifestos of his love for Judaism, for the restoration of the Jewish people to its soil. These books profoundly influenced the Christian world of England, and, no doubt, to a great extent helped formulate England's desire for control of the Holy Land. At the same time, Sir Moses Montefiore, his great and immediate neighbor on Park Lane (Disraeli occupied the stately mansion at 95, Montefiore the town house at 99 Park Lane) conducted his many trips to the Holy Land to render political and financial help to the growing Jewish community there. The two—Disraeli and Montefiore, backed by their intimate friends and partners, the Rothschilds, thus performed a truly historic role: they prepared the return of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people!
Meanwhile, in the Yeshivot in Lithuania and Poland, Kabbalists had reckoned that the Mashiach would come in 1840. How right they were! That was the pivotal year in which all the components for the beginning of the Messianic age, through truly miraculous circumstances, had fallen into place! In studying this chapter in history, we must be overwhelmed by the realization how divine Providence worked—yet totally unbeknownst to the Jewish people itself!
Disraeli was an intimate friend—both financially, socially and politically—of the Rothschilds. In fact, he once considered marrying a Rothschild daughter and only shrank back because it would undermine his career. He was hounded enough as a Jew, and could not "afford" to identify himself openly with the Jewish religion. He was attracted to Baron Lionel de Rothschild, in part because like himself, a Rothschild was an "outsider" in English society.
When his propaganda for the restoration of Palestine to the Jews resulted in the Anglican Church sending, as the first Bishop in Jerusalem, a converted former rabbi from Posen, Germany, Disraeli defined the mission as "consisting of the Bishop's own family, the English and Prussian consuls, and five Jews whom they have converted at twenty piastres a week, but I know they are going to strike for wages."
Entry into the House of Parliament of England was barred to Jews, through the technicality that every member had to give an oath by Jesus.
Year after year a "Jew Bill" was introduced to eliminate this oath, and admit Jews into Commons. Year after year Disraeli would support the bill, yet it would be defeated in the Upper House, the House of Lords. Disraeli's great zeal to accomplish the admission of Jews, was mainly intended to facilitate Lionel de Rothchild's entry, since he had been elected to the House. When after countless attempts the oath was finally abolished, Rothschild nevertheless refused to take his seat in a House that had shown so much hostility to him and his fellow Jews.
Disraeli mocked Christians and their anti-Semitism by saying: "Half of Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half, a Jew." He referred to the Mary worship of the Catholics, and the Jesus worship of the Protestants.
England was always and constantly aware of his Jewishness, whether in politics or in literature. A review of one of his books said: "To the Hebrew fraternity it will be particularly acceptable, for the author goes much farther than he has done in his previous works toward exalting the character, talents, and religion of the Jews." When his father died he sold all of his rich library except his Jewish books. These included books by Menasseh ben Israel and Moses Mendelssohn, both of whom no doubt had influenced Isaac Disraeli.
Disraeli displays detailed knowledge of Jewish customs, possibly observed in the houses of the Montefiores or Rothschilds. Thus in Tancred he gives detailed descriptions of the Shabbat including the Kiddush, of Sukkot and other customs. Like Heine, who pined for the warmth of his Jewish youth, Disraeli felt great nostalgia for Judaism and Jewish life.
His dreams of restoring Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish state to his people, is recorded in the memories of a friend, who recalled that "Disraeli spoke with great apparent earnestness about restoring the Jews to their own land and outlined details of his plan. The Holy Land has ample natural resources—all that we needed was labor and protection for the laborer. The very land might be bought from Turkey, money would be forthcoming: the Rothschilds and leading Hebrew capitalists would all help. All that was necessary was to establish colonies, with rights over the soil, and security from ill treatment. He added that these ideas were extensively entertained among the Jewish nation. The man who would carry them out would be the next Messiah. He saw only a single obstacle: arising from the existence of two races among the Hebrews of whom one, those who settled along the shores of the Mediterranean, look down on the other, refusing even to associate with them. Don Isaac Abarbanel, 'Sephardim' I think he called the superior race."
I have no doubt that Disraeli gained all this knowledge from his next door neighbor for 40 years, Moses Montefiore, who devoted much of his efforts to making peace in Eretz Yisrael between Sephardim and Ashkenazim! The fact that Jews already plan for a return to their land, which he mentions, means that he knew of the early migrations of the Chassidim and "Perushim" (Disciples of the Gaon of Vilna) which had taken place before 1840, the "Messianic" year. Maybe he saw himself as that Messiah, who could bring about the Restoration he had dreamt about since his childhood.
When Disraeli managed to give England control of the Suez Canal, through the financial help rendered by the Rothschilds, and thereby assured England's entry into the Middle East, he may have, consciously or unconsciously, intended to help the return of the Holy Land to the Jewish people, through England's assistance! Interestingly, some centuries earlier, another man of Jewish descent, Christopher Columbus, had hoped to help rebuild Jerusalem according to Biblical prophecies, through his maritime discoveries and exploration of new sailing routes.
Disraeli showed his preference for friends in whom he could find something Jewish. One of his greatest lady admirers was Mrs. Sara Brydges Willyams, with whom Disraeli exchanged hundreds of letters. He insisted that she always use her maiden name—Sarah Mendez da Costa, to indicate her descent from noble Sephardic families.
In Disraeli's political activities, it is interesting to note that he actively supported Bismarck's Germany against England's traditional foe, France. This helped Germany win the wars of 1864 and 1870, and established the German Empire. I wonder if German history books make any mention that the very existence of Germany is built on the support of a Jew?
Disraeli's disdain for the alleged originality of Christianity was expressed when he said: "Everything gentle and sublime in the religious code of the Christian Gospel, is a mere transcript from the so-called Oral Law of the Jews."
His political foe, Gladstone, led attacks on Disraeli using methods which nowadays would certainly be condemned. He published a poem which began with the lines:
They call me merry Ben the Jew
The leader of the Tory crew"
Gladstone also attacked Disraeli by claiming that "he was holding British foreign policy hostage to his Jewish sympathies, and that he was more interested in relieving the anguish of Jews in Russia and Turkey than in any British interests." Of course, Gladstone was totally wrong, since the British Empire never flourished as brightly as under Disraeli's tutelage, for which Queen Victoria was especially grateful and appreciative.
But certainly he must have been aware of Montefiore's efforts to alleviate Jewish suffering in so many countries. In a sense, Disraeli and Montefiore were comrades-in-arms. Yet, although their homes were back-to-back, I have yet to find written records of their conversations or correspondence. Such records must have existed; perhaps they were destroyed, as were so many of Disraeli's and Montefiore's records.
By 1879 Disraeli had moved from Park Lane to 19 Curzon Street, where he died in April, 1881. His tomb is inside Westminster Abbey—but I am sure that his soul is in the Jewish hereafter.
Disraeli was one of the greatest Jewish personalities in history. I can well see why my father idolized him, and wished to pass that admiration on to future generations.
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