enjamin Disraeli was and is still the object of pride and admiration, not only among Anglo-Jews, but also Jews throughout the world. After his death, when he was praised as a great statesman, the British Jews talked of him as the example of the one who could be both a proud Jew and an English patriot, and even Orthodox Jews, who condemned apostates as cowards and traitors, have claimed that Disraeli well served the Jewish nation. This is evidenced by naming one of the streets of Jerusalem in his honour. Few meshumadim (apostates) have deserved a similar commemoration. Disraeli’s political opponents accused him of crypto-Judaism and philo-Semitism although his attitude to the Jewish question was tenuous and fickle at best.
The growth of the Jewish community in England
The history of Jews in England dates back to 1070 when William the Conqueror invited Jewish traders from Rouen to England, probably to help the Crown in financial matters. It was not until the end of the eleventh century that Sephardic Jews began to immigrate in larger groups, initially only in London. During Henry I’s reign, the royal decree provided Jews with the right to buy and sell goods and property, to maintain their own courts, to take the oath to the Torah instead of the Christian Bible, and to travel around the country without paying tolls. In 1290, King Edward issued an edict expelling all Jews from England accusing them of usury practices. It is believed that from 4,000 to 16,000 Jews then had to leave the country. Despite the ban, the Jews began returning to England in small groups almost immediately after their expulsion, but for a long time they were denied the right of becoming British citizens. The edict prohibiting Jews from settling in England was abolished in 1656, when Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews who originally came from Spain and Portugal to practise the their religion.
In both pre-Christian times and afterwards, Jews settled as far East as China and India famously often working as traders in partnership with Christians and Muslims. In the Middle Ages, the Jewish diaspora in Europe divided into two groups, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardic Jews (also called Spaniols), who had lived in the Iberian Peninsula, spoke the Ladino language, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish. In 1492 Spain expelled its Jewish inhabitants who refused to convert to Christianity and stole their property; in 1497 Portugal did the same. Sephardic Jews settled mainly in Italy, northwest Africa, and the Middle East. Unlike the Sephardim, the Ashkenazi Jews whose ancestors had settled in Central and Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, a Germanic language dating from the ninth century that added vocabulary from countries where they lived as well as Aramaic and Hebrew. The customs of each group, including clothing, cuisine, and experience of other religions, differed. The relevance of this bipartite religious group to Disraeli lies in the fact that the Jews who first returned to England and settled there were Sephardic and never numbered more than 2,000. The Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to Britain in the nineteenth century arrived looking for homes safe from the murder and rape of Eastern European progroms more than for economic opportunity, as had the Sephardim. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries comparatively large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in England from from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Russia. Many of the Ashkenazi who clustered in London’s East End and similar neighborhoods in other British cities came from Eastern European peasant communities and shared these communities’s poverty and lack of education. Disraeli, who emphasized his Sephardic ancestry, understandably wished to differentiate himself from poorer, less cultured Jews. English Sephardic Jews looked at the newcomers from Central and Eastern Europe, whom they called Tudescos, with a clear sense of cultural and material superiority. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ashkenazi with their Yiddish culture far outnumbered the long-established Sephardimm who had names such as Disraeli, Montefiore, Mocatta, Lindo and Da Costa, who they remained the most influential section of British Jews. In the 1850s, the total Jewish population of England numbered around 35,000, over half of whom lived in London (Lewenthal and Goldstein, 43).
Jews born in England had the status of subjects of the Crown and enjoyed greater rights than their peers in many other European countries. However, because they did not belong to the Church of England, unlike Dissenters and Roman Catholics, could neither participate in parliamentary elections or apply for municipal offices. In 1753, Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalisation Act, but it was repealed the following year as a result of public demonstrations and protests. The status of English Jews did not change until the middle of the next century. Since its foundation in 1826, Jewish students could graduate from University College London, which accepted students from all faiths. By the end of the Victorian era, all restrictions for every position in Britain, except that of monarch, were removed to British Jews.
Disraeli and Anglo-Jewry
Portraits and Caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli: Left: Wood engraving fromThe Illustrated London News. Middle left: Caricature from Punch. Middle right: Pen and ink drawing by Philip H. Tree (fl. 1860-1908). Right: Statue in Parliament Square by Mario Razzi. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Although Disraeli was baptised in the Anglican Church (or Church of England) at the age of thirteen and spent his adult life among non-Jews, he was an open philosemite throughout his life. He never forgot his origins and claimed that Jews are an ‘aristocratic’ race that should become a spiritual and intellectual guide for modern Europe. Disraeli, as an author, eagerly promoted Anglo-Israelism as the semi-official ideology of the British Empire. In his imagination he viewed England as a new Israel, which received a covenant from God to carry out an imperial mission in the world. However, as a member of Parliament in the years 1837-1847, he was quite silent on the issue of emancipation of the Jews, then twice, in 1850 and 1854 voted against emancipation. However, thanks to his literary work, especially the trilogy Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, Disraeli contributed to the abolition in 1847 of restrictions imposed on British subjects of the Mosaic faith, so that they finally gained the right to be elected to Parliament in 1858.
Disraeli believed that he was descended from Sephardic Jews, who had come to England in the Middle Ages from the Iberian Peninsula. The myth of the Sephardic origin Disraeli used in his novels and in shaping his own identity. He understood, however, that his origin and support for Jewish interests could be a burden both in his Parliamentary career and in fashionable London salons. In fact, Disraeli was exposed to racial prejudice all his life. Many contemporaries criticised his Jewishness in an extremely offensive and aggressive way. The press caricatures often portrayed him as a stereotypical Jew.
Three by by John Tenniel in Punch (1876) and one by another cartoonist: Left: New Crowns for Old Ones. Middle left: The Two Augurs. Middle right: Empress and Earl; or, One Good Turn Deserves Another. Right: Decorating his Idol by John Gordon Thomson in Fun (1878). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
In the drawings of Punch, he resembled Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’s Fagin. He was often called ‘Judas’, ‘the Jewish chief’, ‘Sir Benjamin de Judah’, ‘Chief Rabbi Benjamin’, a ‘disgusting Jew’, and even a ‘Jewish supporter of Turkey’. Nonetheless, one also has to point out that editorial cartoonists in Punch, Fun, and other periodicals tended to emphasize his supposedly Jewish characteristic only when they disagreed with particular policies. Note that in the first cartoon below, which is critical of Disraeli, he does not have the big nose we see in most hostile caricatures. In Thomson’s cartoon at middle right Disraeli and Gladstone have similar noses, and cartoon at far right mocks Gladstone more than Disraeli.
Left: Tinct. Reform. Compt.. Punch (1865) by John Tenniel. Three by John Gordon Thomson in Fun (1878). Middle left: Going to the Congress. Middle right: Compliments before parting Right: Excelsior.
Seemingly, he did not care much about such insults. He considered himself better than many others, because he was simultaneously a Jew and a Christian, and above all, an Englishman. He claimed that Christians owe much to Jews, so the latter should not be excluded from Parliament.
In his novels and public statements, Jews and the Jewish question appear with surprising frequency, so that it will not be an exaggeration if we say that Disraeli was obsessed with his Jewishness. However, what he wrote about Jewish matters was often unfortunate, and sometimes even very stupid. He repeatedly emphasised with exaggerated pride about the superiority of the Jews over other nations. In the novel Coningsby Disraeli speaks with the voice of the Jewish sage Sidonia: ‘You never observe a great intellectual movement in Europe in which the Jews do not greatly participate’ (Chapter XV). What is more, Sidonia has earlier outlined the hypothesis of a race hierarchy, in which Jews, acting through ‘secret agents’, have become the power shaping the development of world events. The myth of Jewish superiority, which Disraeli promoted in his mature novels, was possibly the expression of his personal complexes. In his early Oriental novel Alroy on the life of the twelfth century false messiah David Alroy, one can read a rather indifferent if not contemptuous attitude to Judaism. Disraeli scoffs at the false wisdom of the rabbis, while in the political trilogy of Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, he does not write much about the traditional Jewish faith, but clearly emphasises the superiority of the Jewish race. In fact, Disraeli wrote in his novels, especially in Tancred, about a Jewish ‘race’ which represents the type of a higher caste. He concisely expressed his racial obsessions in a letter from 1853 to a friend, Mrs Brydges Willyams: ‘It is race, not religion that interests me’ (Cesarani 100).
Paradoxically, as a Jew converted to Christianity the young Disraeli in Regency England could not have achieved such social advancement of which he dreamed. Although he had no legal barriers to stand for Parliament, he could not develop his political career without the support of powerful protectors from the English aristocracy. For this purpose, Disraeli, as an eccentric dandy and aspiring author of silver fork novels, assiduously courted social contacts in the highest circles of English society, while avoiding association with members of the Jewish community. In December 1837, shortly after his election to Parliament, Disraeli remained curiously silent in the debate whether Sir Moses Montefiore, or another member of the Jewish faith could assume the office of sheriff of London. Disraeli was also silent about the indictment of several Syrian Jews in Damascus for ritual murder in 1840, although the scandal sparked protests across the Jewish diaspora. Much later, perhaps due to frequent contacts with Lionel de Rothschild, Disraeli began to defend the rights of Jews in England. In his first parliamentary address on the Jewish question (December 1847), Disraeli supported Baron de Rothschild when he applied for a seat in Parliament. He argued that the Jews should have the right to sit in Parliament because they are the true creators of the Christian religion.
They are persons who acknowledge the same God as the Christian people of this realm. They acknowledge the same divine revelation as yourselves. They are, humanly speaking, the authors of your religion. [Hansard’s, 1923]
The need to maintain the Christian character of the Parliament was — as he believed — the best reason for admitting Jews to hold seats in Parliament. Needless to say, this argument did not get the support of the conservatives and for a time Disraeli ceased to speak on the Jewish question.
The Jewish community in England generally regarded Disraeli as a renegade, and this opinion was changed only after his death. In 1847, Baron de Rothschild was first elected to the House of Commons. Because the followers of the Mosaic faith could not take part in the deliberations because of refusal to take the oath to Christianity, Prime Minister Lord Russell submitted a draft law on Jewish emancipation to remove the problem of oath. In 1848, the bill was approved by the House of Commons, but was rejected twice by the House of Lords. After being rejected by the House of Lords in 1849, Rothschild resigned from his seat but was re-elected by winning the supplementary election. In 1850, he appeared in the House of Commons, but he did not want to swear to the Bible asking for permission to take the oath to the Old Testament. He obtained such consent, but when he omitted the final phrase in the oath ‘on the true faith of a Christian’, he was called by the Speaker to leave the House. In 1851, a new bill on the emancipation of Jews was again rejected in the House of Lords. Finally, in 1858, the House of Lords agreed to a proposal to change the words of the oath. On July 26, 1858, Baron de Rothschild swore an oath saying: ‘Yes, help me, Jehovah’, instead of the usual oath. Then he took a seat in the House of Commons as the first deputy of the Mosaic faith. The Illustrated London News described the reaction of Disraeli:
The faint tinge of colour that came over the pallid cheek of Mr. Disraeli as he grasped the hand of the Judaic member of Parliament, and the momentary gleam of his eye, indicated a sense of his triumph over race; and perhaps at that moment there may have been a deeper feeling still in his heart — one of regret that he was not leading the House of Commons without having been compelled to have to utter those hitherto cabbalistic words ‘on the true faith of a Christian’ .
Disraeli’s views on the Jewish question, expressed in his novels, were well-known in England and became the subject of negative comments by George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray ridiculed them in his burlesque entitled Codlingsby (1847), which was a parody of Disraeli’s novel Coningsby. Some historians and biographers treated Disraeli’s remarks about the Semitic race as merely a deliberate maneuver of self-creation, while others were convinced of the importance of Judaism for Disraeli.
Unfortunately, Disraeli’s fantasies regarding the Jewish race had lasting and toxic consequences in the first half of the twentieth century. By creating a myth about the aristocratic origins of Sephardic Jews, arguing that they are a higher race, Disraeli contributed to the consolidation of some of the stereotypes of modern anti-Semitism. Disraeli’s comments on the importance of race for understanding history were widely quoted by German racist writers in the 1920s. Cesarani writes in his biography that ‘no one had so far conjured up the image of the Jews as a potent force’ (75). According to him, Disraeli was one of the first who shaped what became a permanently poisonous myth about the world’s Jewish conspiracy. Historians have struggled with this thesis, and some have suggested that Disraeli aspired to become equal to the aristocrats who despised him, although he himself claimed that his family tree was much older than that of the English aristocrats. Hanna Arendt, an eminent German political theorist, philosopher and journalist of Jewish origin, claimed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that Disraeli invented the myth of Jewish racial superiority to compensate for his own sense of inferiority as a Jewish outsider (Endelman 1996: 22). Similarly, Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born British social and political theorist and historian of ideas, contended that Disraeli overcame his handicap due to the fact that he was born a Jew by making it an advantage, because presenting himself as 'a member of an elite', a descendant of 'an ancient race', he increased his value, thanks to which he considered himself to be equal to aristocrats (334). The myth of racial superiority, which Disraeli never publicly proclaimed as a politician, but only included in his political novels, was used in a reversed sense by Hitler and the Nazis against Jews.
The Question of ‘Race’ in Victorian England
Victorian England understood the term race so differently than we do in the twenty-first century, that it appears in relation to nationalities or ethnic groups that today one might find surprising. The word was often ambiguous and could be used to designate a special group of people through their biological features, particular attributes, or alleged superiority or inferiority. Today skin color functions as the predominant factor in defining a race, but that was not the case in the nineteenth century. When Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of the “supreme Caucasian mind” he included all those who spoke Indo-European languages — that is, descendants of speakers of Sanskrit in ancient India. At other times Tennyson uses race to mean family and descendants. In contrast to these expansive uses of the term, writers, politicians, and cartoonists often divided Europeans into separate races. The Irish, for example, were often classified — and depicted — as an entirely different race than the English. In the mid-Victorian period, new racial categories based on the colour of skin appeared. Robert Knox (1791-1862), a Scottish physician and ethnologist, in his work The Races of Men: A Fragment (1850), expressed the view commonly shared by his contemporaries that the Anglo-Saxons were inherently a better race than others. Disraeli, who probably knew and shared Knox’s views, asserted: ‘Race is everything: literature, science, art, in a word, civilization, depend on it’(7). What is more, just three years before the publication of Knox’s book, Disraeli wrote in Tancred: ‘All is race; there is no other truth’ (Chap XX). Disraeli elevated Jews, like Anglo-Saxons, to the highest rungs of the racial ladder. Knox disagreed, for he did not include Jews in the so-called Caucasian race.
- Race and Class Overview: Parallels in Racism and Class Prejudice
- Race in Victorian Thought and Science
- Victorian Racism
- Phrenology and Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain
- A Review of Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians (2011) by Diane Greco Josefowicz
Arendt Hannah, 'Antisemitism': Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York and London 1979.
Berlin, Isaiah.'Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity', in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, 317-360.
Borgstede, Simone Beate. 'All is Race': Benjamin Disraeli on Race, Nation and Empire. Lit Verlag, Wien, Berlin 2011.
Cesarani, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. New Haven and London: Yaled University Press, 2016.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Coningsby. Project Gutenberg.
__. Tancred or the New Crusade. Project Gutenberg.
Endelman, Todd M. ‘Benjamin Disraeli and the Myth of Sephardi Superiority', in Jewish History.Vol. 10, No 2, Fall 1996, 21-35.
Endelman, Todd M., Antony Robin and Tony Kushner, eds. Disraeli’s Jewishness. London and Portland: Valentine Mitchell, 1902.
Glassman, Bernard. Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory. Lanham, MD, New York, and Oxford: University Press of America, 1903.
Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, Vol. XCV. London 1848.
Illustrated London News, The. ‘Sketches in Parliament’, 33 (July 1858).
Knox, Robert. The Races of Men: A Fragment. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1850.
Lewenthal Michael, Richard Goldstein, Jews in Britain. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
Last modified 31 May 2020