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Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory.

Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory, by Bernard Glassman. 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. When he finally sided with "the emancipationist cause" in 1847, he did so on religious grounds that were controversial to both Christians and Jews (pp. 60-69). Treating Judaism as the basis of Christianity and Jews as "half-Christians" pleased neither group (p. 63). At least Disraeli did not continue to dodge the issue.

However that may be, throughout his career Disraeli often took paradoxical stances that puzzled all segments of the public. Yet he managed to climb the "greasy pole of politics," to become Prime Minister, and to re-crown Queen Victoria as Empress of Great Britain. "In the imagination of the Jews of Britain," writes Glassman, "Disraeli's political triumphs were reminiscent of the biblical saga of Joseph where the foreign hero overcame adversity to rise to be second in command of a great power" (p. 80). After his death in 1881, while conservative and liberal Christians continued to question "the nature of Disraeli's 'otherness' or denigrated his achievements, their Jewish counterparts were extremely laudatory in their memorial tributes" (p. 118). Glassman calls this "bringing Disraeli into the Jewish fold" (p. 118), where he has remained as a wonderfully puzzling, paradoxical culture hero every since. As Glassman notes, "The deliberate use and abuse of Disraeli's real and imaginary legacy to support a wide variety of often contradictory causes began within hours of his death" (p. 147). Even Disraeli's positive racism or semitism continued to be an influence, for better or worse, well into the twentieth century and the era of fascism and Nazism. Glassman closes his study with an examination of how Disraeli's ideas and career were used and abused especially in pre-World War II antisemitism, a distressing topic. But Glassman's demonstration of how Anglo-Jewry in particular turned Disraeli into a culture hero is heartening and is the most valuable aspect of his interesting reconstruction of the Disraeli "myth" or image. Glassman might have provided a clearer sense of the circulation and influence of such journals as The Jewish Chronicle, and his reference to "mnemohistory" at the start of his study (p. ix) is a bit jargonish and unnecessary, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise solid contribution to Disraeli studies.

Patrick Brantlinger

Department of English

Indiana University
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Author:Brantlinger, Patrick
Publication:Shofar
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:786
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