A well-documented life of the Victorian statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) devotes much attention to his strong sense of being a Jew and an outsider.
Reading this succinct life of Disraeli as a “transitional figure” between the old order and the modern is often troubling, as his own copious words in novels and polemics about race played right into the hands of the growing cadre of anti-Semites. As part of the publisher’s Jewish Lives series, Cesarani (Director, Holocaust Research Centre, Royal Holloway, Univ. of London; Major Farran's Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the Jewish State, 2009, etc.) examines the question, what kind of a Jew was Disraeli? Indeed, from early on, he was a perfunctory Jew of Sephardic roots who was baptized as an adolescent by his father, an enlightened man of letters who had grown disenchanted with Jewish law and rabbinical authority and from whom Disraeli gleaned his literary bent and cosmopolitanism. “He was infused with a contempt of traditional Judaism and taught to think of Christianity as its worthier successor,” writes the author. Playing the “Jewish trope” in his fictionalized portrayals—i.e., that Jews “gravitated to radical ideologies and subversive causes,” that their resilience in outliving persecution honed their intelligence and made them privy to “subterranean agencies,” and so on—made Disraeli a highly paradoxical figure as he began his move into the political realm and “respectability.” A Tory by default, although more reactionary, plagued by chronic debt, married to a non-Jew, and hugely ambitious, Disraeli rose to become head of his party and a favorite of Queen Victoria. The author continually reveals how difficult it is to situate his legacy—such as in negotiating the purchase of the Suez Canal and mediating the Turkish-Russian crisis of 1878—outside of the anti-Semitic vitriol aimed at him and often extracted from his own words.
A focused biography that derives its excellent specificity from Disraeli’s writings.