This year’s Tisha B’Ab marks 200 years since Benjamin Disraeli converted to Christianity. On 31 July 1817, Isaac Disraeli brought his son Benjamin to the baptismal font. Following a feud with his synagogue, Bevis Marks, and the death of his father Benjamin, Isaac rescinded his synagogue membership. Then, at the prompting of his friend Sharon Turner, Isaac formally severed his children’s ties to Judaism. (I wrote more about Disraeli when I visited his home at Hughenden Manor last year – read here.)
Benjamin went on to become Prime Minister of Great Britain, serving in 1868, and then again from 1874-1880. Had he not become a Christian he would never have been able to enter politics back in the 1830s. Jews in England couldn’t take parliament’s Christian oath of office until an amended version was approved in 1858.
Still, Disraeli never escaped his Judaism. Throughout his career, and particularly during his time as Prime Minister, he was often accused of being ‘foreign’ or ‘oriental’ in his views and allegiances. That all notwithstanding his particularly close relationship with Queen Victoria. Nor did Disraeli shrink from his accusers. He even highlighted his Jewish heritage, writing many Jewish characters into his novels. In 1835, he responded to an anti-semitic attack by declaring, “Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
Disraeli did all this though, in the name of race, once declaring “race is all.’ To Disraeli Jewishness was a racial classification, not a religious one. With the rise of racial science, Anti-Semites, the Nazis included, quoted Disraeli, claiming that Jews are forever racially different. In 1941 Hitler even said in a speech “The British Jew, Lord Disraeli, once said that the racial’ problem was the key to world history. We National Socialists have grown up with that idea.”
The horrific outcome of Disraeli’s need to develop the notion of Jewish race makes his baptism all the more poignant on its anniversary this Tisha B’Ab. The ninth of Ab is the day when Jews the world over mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but more broadly the ensuing exile and suffering in the Diaspora. In the name of ‘race’ untold horror was brought upon European Jewry.
Disraeli was of course wrong when he wrote that Jews were a race. Not only are there Jews of different races and colours across the world (think of the Jews of Yemen, India, North Africa, Spain, and Eastern Europe), Jews also welcome converts. Disraeli’s own struggle with his Jewish heritage led him to develop this notion of Jewish race, trying to identify Jewishness as separate from Judaism.
Indeed, in that regard Disraeli wasn’t altogether wrong, because Judaism isn’t a religion in the usual sense of the word either. It is tied to a land, a language, and to laws that aren’t only ritual or ‘religious.’ Judaism then isn’t an ethnicity or a religion exclusively, rather it is a national identity. The Nation of Israel (‘Am Yisrael’) originated in the Land of Israel, and since the destruction of the Temple it has essentially operated as a government in exile. Jews continue to follow their laws, hoping for the day when they may follow them again in fulfilment of their own national aspirations. Judaism though, permits dual citizenship, as long as the adopted allegiance doesn’t contradict the Jewish one. Of course, anyone can also apply for Jewish ‘citizenship,’ assuming they accept a new national identity, commit to being good citizens, and celebrate the national holidays. That, despite the fact that not every Jewish citizen is a model citizen!
The confusion surrounding the definition of Judaism, Disraeli’s confusion included, is a result of the national exile which Jews mourn on Tisha B’Ab. With the Jewish nation scattered, Jew are forced to ask, ‘who are we?’ And yet, on the 9th of Ab, Jews do not only lament. Through their tears, and their reflections on Jewish suffering across world history, Jews collectively reaffirm the notion that they are a people. Tisha B’Ab is not limited to one geographic or ethnic Jewish calamity. The ninth of Ab is a manifestation of Jewish nationhood for all Jews – no matter where a Jew lives, or how they came to be a Jew. On Tisha B’Av we recall that Jews are a Nation. Indeed, as Disraeli learned, even when a Jew might deny it, a Jew is never permitted to forget it. Am Yisrael Hai!