Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory, by Bernard Glassman

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Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2002. 240 pp. $45.00.

Bernard Glassman's contribution to the Studies in Judaism series for the University Press of America offers an interesting account of the "fabrication" of Disraeli's persona both by Disraeli himself and by the mainly British public. Glassman's study is most interesting in showing how different segments of that public -- conservative and liberal, Christian and Jewish -- responded to the various crises and triumphs in the career of the "great outsider." This is especially true in relation to Glassman's analysis of the Jewish press -- The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish World -- as a key to how Anglo-Jewry responded to Disraeli, whose own attitudes toward Jews and Judaism were, to say the least, complicated.

Baptized in 1817, Disraeli was an apparently faithful Anglican throughout his career. Yet in both his novels and his politics, he espoused a version of romantic nationalism and, indeed, proto-Zionism that elevated the Jewish "race" to the pinnacle of the human hierarchy. As "the mysterious and powerful" Jewish "superman" Sidonia tells Tancred in the third of Disraeli's "Young England" trilogy, "All is race, there is no other truth" (quoted in Glassman, p. 56). Glassman notes:

Sidonia...serves as Disraeli's mouthpiece to express his opinions concerning the international power and the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. Disraeli uses [Sidonia]...to fight racism with racism and to practice a kind of reverse discrimination. (p. 51)

Sidonia teaches that everything important in history springs from the Orient, and in particular from the "genius" of the "semitic race" (a category broader than just the Jews, of course, but with the Jews in the vanguard), which has been the source of the world's greatest religions. (Disraeli viewed Christianity as the culmination of Judaism; what he thought of Islam is less clear.)

Disraeli's treatment of race as the primary force in history and culture seems dangerously simplistic and contradictory today. But he had plenty of support from the natural history and "scientific racism" of his age. Matthew Arnold, after all, thought of "Hebraism" and "Hellenism" as racial categories with cultural outcomes. In any event, Disraeli's positive racism gave him a way to combat the antisemitism that he encountered throughout his career, while also allowing him to maintain a sort of generalized if secular loyalty to Jews and Judaism. Yet he did little else to cultivate relations with Anglo-Jewry, and he refused to take a stance in the parliamentary debates about Jewish emancipation in 1841 and 1845. …