"Mosaic Arabs": Jews and Gentlemen in Disraeli's Young England Trilogy

Article excerpt

Though converted to Christianity at an early age, Benjamin Disraeli, the popular novelist and prime minister under Queen Victoria, was outspokenly philosemitic. Fueled by contemporary ethnology and race theories, Disraeli argued that the Jews were a superior, "aristocratic" race destined to become the spiritual and intellectual guide for modern Europe. Enabling such claims was Disraeli's skillful manipulation of Orientalist discourse, whereby he routinely reversed its stereotypical privileging of West over East. Following the example of Thackeray's "Codlingsby," however, this essay argues that Disraeli's "strategy of reversals" ultimately failed because it did not adequately comprehend traditional Western associations and meanings of "aristocracy," a fundamental misunderstanding that, for Disraeli's political enemies and critics, exposed him yet again as foreigner, Oriental, and Jew.

"All is race; there is no other truth,"1 declares Sidonia to a gathering of Young England aristocrats in a well-known passage from Disraeli's Tancred, or The New Crusade (1847). The idea that race embodies the central truths of human existence because, as Sidonia suggests, it "includes all others"2 was hardly original or unique to Disraeli. Indeed, only a few years after the publication of Tancred, the British anatomist Dr. Robert Knox would echo Disraeli's "All is race" in his pseudo-scientific The Races of Men (1850), where he claimed that "race or hereditary descent is everything; it stamps the man."3 Such ethnological "truisms" were increasingly commonplace by the mid-nineteenth century, a testimony to the growing prominence of racial science in both public and professional spheres of Victorian discourse.4 So widespread and approved were these racial orthodoxies that, in the 1870 General Preface to his collected novels, Disraeli could nonchalantly refer to the "influence of race on human action" as the "universally recognized . . . key of history."5 Nevertheless, what distinguished Disraeli's racial beliefs from more conventional theories of race was their candid, often brazen assertion of Jewish superiority.

Converted to Christianity at the age of twelve - an event that permitted him legally to take his seat in Parliament upon his fifth attempt at office in 1837-Disraeli remained deeply committed to his Jewish origins and identity throughout his career. His novels, letters, and political writings consistently endorsed Jewish culture, while as leader of the Opposition his public support of Jewish Emancipation in 1847 openly contradicted the views of his own Tory party. In addition, against an increasingly Teutonic version of English history, Disraeli argued that Judaism formed the spiritual and intellectual basis for English laws, customs, and institutions, bringing civilization to the West and paving the way for its present wealth and prosperity.6 Thus Sidonia, the central Jewish character of the Young England trilogy and Disraeli's fictional alter ego, can tell the aspiring politician Coningsby that "at this moment, in spite of centuries . . . of degradation, the Jewish mind exercises a vast influence on the affairs of Europe; I speak not of their laws, which you still obey; of their literature, with which your minds are saturated; but of the living Hebrew intellect."7

Sidonia, who appears in both Coningsby (1844) and Tancred (1847), is generally regarded as Disraeli's most memorable literary creation. It was through Sidonia that Disraeli would forge his Hebraic identity and articulate his belief in the superiority of the Jews. Modeled partly on the Rothschilds and partly on Disraeli himself, Sidonia is an idealized, almost superhuman version of the entrepreneurial Jew: a highly cultivated, cosmopolitan banker who heads an international finance network that secretly funds and influences all the major countries of Europe. Like Disraeli, who, as leader of the short-lived but much remembered Young England party, acted as political mentor to an exclusive coterie of aspiring young aristocrats (among them, Lord John Manners and George Smythe), Sidonia assumes the role of Lord Coningsby's intellectual guide and surrogate father. …


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