Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield

(1804–81)
   Statesman and author. Benjamin Disraeli was the most exotic figure ever to reach the summit of British politics. A debt-ridden young Jew of the Anglican faith, regarded as a combination of literary poseur, social climber and political opportunist, he became leader of the Tory party and prime minister. That remarkable rise indicated a rare courage, intelligence and parliamentary skill; it also indicated that beneath its orderly surface Victorian England was a society in transition undergoing radical change.
   Disraeli was of Italian Jewish descent. His grandfather Benjamin d’Israeli came to London as a youth from the Jewish colony in Sento, Ferara. His son Isaac (1766–1848) married Maria Basevi, of an old Anglo-Jewish family. Comfortably off, he turned his back on business and devoted himself to literary pursuits. Most of his time was spent in his library at his writing desk. His main work was Curiosities of Literature, which appeared in six volumes between 1791 and 1834. He received an honorary doctorate at Oxford for a book on the life and reign of Charles I.
   In 1813 Isaac D’Israeli quarrelled with the Bevis Marks Sephardi synagogue. In 1817 he resigned as a member of the congregation, and was persuaded that his daughter and three sons would have a better prospect of advancement in life if they were baptized as Anglicans. Benjamin, the eldest of the boys, was then thirteen years of age. This act may well have determined his whole future career since professing Jews were excluded from Parliament until 1858. In that year Lionel de ROTHSCHILD was finally admitted, with the active encouragement and public support of Disraeli, although he was of the opposing party. Following his early financial failure and the collapse of an attempt to publish a daily newspaper, Disraeli embarked on writing a number of novels on English society and historical themes. Vivian Grey (1826) is a thinly disguised attempt to pillory some of those with whom he had been involved in his previous business ventures. Alroy (1833), written after an extensive tour of the Near East including Palestine, is set in the 12 century; its messianic Jewish hero, David ALROY, fails to create a Jewish empire.
   In 1839 he married a wealthy widow, Mrs Wyndham Lewis, twelve years his senior, and not particularly intelligent. The match considerably enhanced his social position and provided him with financial security. Disraeli himself did not deny that he had been influenced by ulterior motives yet, perhaps to his own surprise, the marriage turned out to be a happy and stable one.
   After several attempts to enter Parliament, Disraeli was finally elected as Conservative member for Maidstone, Kent, in 1837. His challenging, eloquent and carefully prepared maiden speech on the Irish problem was a fiasco; it was drowned out by jeers and laughter, contrary to the indulgence normally afforded in the House to a new member. At the time it was a cruel blow to Disraeli’s brittle ego, but his ability soon gained attention. He started to evolve Tory concepts of society which have had a lasting influence on the party to the present day. He was hostile to the growing urban middle class then being shaped by the industrial revolution, and that found its political home in the Whig (Liberal) Party. He defended the monarchy, the aristocracy and the church as traditional institutions that ensured stability; and his writings and speeches were tinged with nostalgia for a mythical golden age harking back to a simpler period. At the same time, he reflected a genuine concern for the underprivileged - the tenant farmers and the factory workers. He sought to transform the Tory party into a vehicle for gradual social reform, and a movement that could embrace all strata of society. Disraeli’s theory of Toryism was expounded in Coningsby (1844), the first of a series of political novels written after his failure to be appointed to a cabinet post when the Conservatives came to power in 1841. His ideas attracted a number of youthful Tories who looked to Disraeli for leadership. Together they formed the Young England movement.
   In Sybil, a novel published in 1845, he warned against the conflict between capital and labour, and denounced the horror of the factory system and the division of the country into two nations - rich and poor. The hero of yet another novel written in this period, Tancred (1847), a young aristocrat, seeks to reestablish the harmony of English society. By this time Disraeli was in more or less open revolt against his own government and the prime minister, Robert Peel. The final break came over the issue of repealing the Corn Laws - an instrument that protected the farmers, whom Disraeli regarded as the backbone of England. The issue of repeal caused a serious split within the party, and was responsible for the downfall of the Peel government in June of 1846. Disraeli emerged as one of the acknowledged leaders of the protectionist faction. When the Tory party was returned to power in 1852, Disraeli became chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House. His first budget - in which he was forced to announce his party’s abandonment of protectionism - led to the downfall of the Derby government.
   In 1867, with the Tories back in power, Disraeli piloted an electoral reform bill through the Commons that was to mean a doubling of the existing number of voters. The prime minister called it a ‘leap in the dark’ but for Disraeli it went far toward ‘realizing the dream of my life and re-establishing Toryism on a national foundation’. Derby retired from politics in 1868 and Disraeli succeeded him as prime minister. Ironically he was defeated in an election held in that same year and based on the new suffrage law. Six years later he became prime minister again after a decisive Conservative victory in the elections of 1874. In 1875 his administration embarked on a massive programme of social reform, and Disraeli was able to show at last that ‘Tory democracy’ was not a mere slogan.
   Important though Disraeli’s domestic programme was, it took second place in the public eye to his imperial and foreign policy. He felt strongly that British prestige and power abroad had declined under previous administrations - Gladstone’s in particular - and set out to reverse the process. For Disraeli India was the heart of the empire. In 1875, he was able to acquire for Britain control over the French-built Suez Canal, the vital access route to the east. He heard that the khedive of Egypt was compelled by debts to dispose of his shares in the canal. Disraeli promptly borrowed four million pounds sterling from the Rothschild bank in London, bought the shares on behalf of the government and then sought parliamentary approval of his audacious coup. (Eighty years later this British interest was lost when NASSER nationalized the canal and another Conservative prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden, ended his political career in an abortive Anglo-French military expedition to regain it.) The year after the Suez Canal purchase, Disraeli carried out another imaginative act, by having Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India, to her great satisfaction. Disraeli’s ties with his sovereign were close and sympathetic, though it is hard to imagine two people less similar. In the same year, 1876, he was created a peer with the title of Earl of Beaconsfield, and left the House of Commons. From 1876 to 1878 Disraeli was preoccupied with a major issue of foreign policy, the Eastern Question. The conflict between Russia and Turkey, which had lain dormant since the Crimean War, was abruptly reopened by a revolt among the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Russia declared war on Turkey in April 1877 and its troops reached the gates of Constantinople early the next year. Disraeli favoured an aggressive policy designed to check Russian access to the Mediterranean and to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a barrier. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 he worked with Bismarck to prevent the Russians from gaining political dividends from their military victory. The cruel repression by the Turks of certain of their minorities was exploited against Disraeli by his political adversary, Gladstone.
   Disraeli seemed to feel no contradiction between his nominal adherence to the Anglican faith and his pride in being of the Jewish race. Several of his best- known novels have Jewish characters and themes - including Alroy, Coningsby and Tancred. He constantly stressed that Christianity was an off-shoot of Judaism and that the laws and institutions of Western society were based on the moral values derived from his Hebrew ancestors. In Alroy and in Tancred, he expressed Jewish aspirations for the restoration of national independence in their ancient homeland.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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