Part of the Jewish Encounter series
A dandy, a best-selling novelist, and a man of political and sexual intrigue, Benjamin Disraeli was one of the most captivating figures of the nineteenth century. His flirtation with proto-Zionism, his ideas about power and empire, and his fantasies about the Middle East remain prophetically relevant today. How a man who was born a Jew--and who remained in the eyes of his countrymen a member of a despised minority--managed to become prime minister of England seems even today nothing short of miraculous.
In this compelling biography, renowned poet and critic Adam Kirsch looks at Disraeli as a novelist as well as a statesman, recognizing that the outsider Jew who became one of the world's most powerful men was his own greatest character. Though baptized by his father at the age of twelve, Disraeli was seen--and saw himself--as a Jew. But her created an idea of Jewishness to rival the British notion of aristocracy.
Disraeli was a figure of fascinating contradictions: an archconservative who benefited from England's liberal attitudes, a baptized Christian who saw Jewishness as a matter of racial superiority, a perennial outsider who dreamed of glory for England, which, in the words of one contemporary, became for Disraeli "the Israel of his imagination."
Although he was a practicing Christian, baptized into the Church of England at age 12, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's (1804 1881) Jewishness was a central fact about him. Drawing on previous biographies, histories of English Jewry and Disraeli's autobiographical novels and other writings, poet and New York Sun book critic Kirsch (Invasions) interprets Disraeli's life as emblematic of "both the possibilities of emancipation for European Jewry, and its subtle impossibilities." Kirsch sheds welcome light on Disraeli's father's ambivalence toward Judaism and his decision to baptize his children; the crude Jew-baiting Disraeli encountered at school and, later, in politics; his imagining Palestine as the site of Jewish national sovereignty; his ascent in the Conservative party, which, Kirsch says, was paradoxically a testament to English liberalism; and the half-century rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone that defined Victorian politics. Two of Disraeli's greatest political achievements, recounted here, are the passage of a bill that broadly expanded voting rights and the purchase, with a loan from his Rothschild friends, of a share in the Suez Canal Company for the British government. This is a lively, inquiring biography that reveals the prideful, exceptional man behind the famous politician.