Since my arrival at Bevis Marks Synagogue I’ve felt conflicted about Benjamin Disraeli’s place within the S&P narrative. Disraeli was born a Jew in 1804, was a member of Bevis Marks, and is sometimes considered the ‘first Jewish Prime Minister.’ He served in that post in 1868 and again from 1874-80. His improbable rise to the highest political position in UK government at a time when Britain was the most powerful country on earth is a remarkable achievement. However, that belies the complete story which is that Disraeli’s family were converts to Christianity. The Disraelis proactively disavowed identification with the Jewish world. I therefore wonder, should we really be touting our community’s connection to Disraeli?
I pondered this question as I visited Benjamin Disraeli’s beloved home, Hughenden Manor, just outside of High Wycombe. The visit came on the heels of my reading David Cesarani’s posthumous work exploring Disraeli’s relationship to Jews and to his Jewish roots. Hughenden Manor is a beautiful, stately home. It contains several portraits of Benjamin’s father Isaac, and his grandfather Benjamin, all of whom were born professing Jews. Hughenden is managed by one of Britain’s best institutions, the National Trust, and it is currently decorated with Christmas trees and lights. Seeing Disraeli’s home that way further reinforced the reality of Disraeli’s contrasting identities.
The Disraeli family’s break with Judaism was partly motivated by an acrimonious spat that took place at Bevis Marks Synagogue. Benjamin’s father, Isaac, was invited to become a parnas (warden) of the synagogue. At that time it was a rotating position, and those that declined to stand were obligated to pay a fine. Isaac balked at the offer to serve. Furthermore, he assumed that the leadership knew he would refuse. He therefore considered their original appointment to be nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to extract material support from him.
Isaac wasn’t involved at the synagogue despite his membership there. In fact, he lived in London’s West End, and he rarely made an appearance at the venerable congregation located in London’s East End. His longstanding lack of participation may help explain the ease with which Isaac not only relinquished his membership, but that only six months later he also baptised his children into the Church of England. Benjamin was 12 years old.
Benjamin’s baptism set the stage for the possibility of his improbable rise to power. It also formed the basis of a derisive narrative that considered Disraeli to be an unprincipled, if effective, politician. Disraeli, however, is credited with instituting many important social and political reforms. He also maintained an extremely close relationship with Queen Victoria.
So why is Disraeli remembered as a Jewish Prime Minster? According to Cesarani, mostly thanks to the anti-Semites that opposed him and his policies. Disraeli was attacked as a foreigner (though he was born in London), and his policies were ridiculed as ‘oriental.’ It seems that once Disraeli was lambasted for being a Jew, Jews began to identify with him and his ‘Jewish’ policies. This identification was probably reinforced by Disraeli’s friendship with the Rothschild family. They were former Liberal supporters that increasingly gravitated toward Disraeli as Liberal’s anti-Semitic rhetoric against him grew.
The other issue that placed Disraeli in the ‘Jewish’ sphere was his support for a bill to remove the requirement that MPs swear a Christian oath of allegiance. The bill was generally apposed by Disraeli’s co-conservatives. This Christian requirement prevented Jews from assuming elected office. It remained the final stumbling block to their full enfranchisement in England. Cesarani questions whether Disraeli did enough to support the bill, or if he really cared about the issue at all. However, the fact remains that Disraeli is on record as supporting the measure, and after years it finally passed in 1858.
Cesarani believes that fundamentally Disraeli felt little connection to contemporary Jews and their plight. While several of Disraeli’s novels include Jewish themes, Cesarani suggests the possibility that Disraeli was more interested with the notion of Jewish race, than with actual Jews or Judaism. In fact, during most of Disraeli’s life, he and the Anglo Jewish community had scant to do with each other. Despite this, Disraeli included a castle on his crest, a nod to his grandmother’s Castilian Jewish ancestry.
Should Disraeli be considered the first Jewish Prime Minster? I guess that depends on how you definite Jewishness and Jewish identity. Halakhicly, once a Jew, always a Jew. However, Cesarani argues that while Disraeli surely wasn’t anti-semitic, he should be seen more as indifferent than philo-Semitic.
What is important to me, though, is what Disraeli tells us about Anglo-Jewry. In an effort to participate in British society, Jews took one of three avenues. Some converted, some relaxed their fealty to Jewish practice (like Shabbat), while others acculturated but retained full adherence to Jewish observance. Without a doubt, the story of Disraeli is one of the important stories of Anglo-Jewry. It speaks to how Jews (and other minority groups) have tried to negotiate their place in British society. Whether Disraeli’s questionable connection to Judaism should be ‘celebrated,’ I strongly doubt. However, his story is an important story to tell, for Jews and Britons alike.
Cesarani, David. “Disraeli: The Novel Politician.” Yale University Press, 2016