Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), who served as Great Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, was a statesman, literary figure, and best-selling novelist. He was also a self declared “Tory Radical” who played a key role in the creation of Britain’s modern Conservative Party, including its policies of popular democracy and British imperialism, and whose ideas about power and empire remain prophetically relevant.
In his long public career, he encouraged the vast expansion of the British Empire and presided over historic changes in British political and social affairs, concentrating on social reform (codifying public health law, passing laws to prevent labor exploitation, recognizing trade unions, etc.).
Disraeli’s bris was held in the d’Israeli home on the special Kisseh shel Eliyahu brought from the Bevis Marks Synagogue, in which his grandfather had been a prominent and devout member. His father, Isaac D’Israeli, was later elected as the parnas of the synagogue but, unhappy with its Orthodox practices, he refused to serve and, in accordance with congregational rules, was fined forty pounds for declining the honor, which infuriated him. When Isaac’s father died a few months before Benjamin turned 13 – he had already commenced preparations for his bar mitzvah – Isaac resigned from the synagogue and took Benjamin to an Anglican church, where he was baptized.
Though Disraeli remained a practicing Anglican who often showed disdain for what he called “barbaric” Jewish religious practices and who maintained minimal contacts with Britain’s small Jewish community, he saw Jewishness as a matter of Hebrew nobility, clung to his Jewish identity, took fierce pride in his Jewish cultural heritage, and originated a concept of Jewishness to rival that of traditional British aristocratic thinking.
In response to an anti-Semitic comment made by Daniel O’Connell in the British parliament, he famously responded: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honorable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
Much criticism of Disraeli’s policies was expressed in anti-Semitic terms. William Gladstone, perhaps his greatest political foe, claimed that Disraeli was “holding British foreign policy hostage to his Jewish sympathies, and that he was more interested in relieving the anguish of Jews in Russia and Turkey than in any British interests.” Gladstone published a poem that began: “Oh dear, oh dear! What shall I do? They call me merry Ben the Jew, the leader of the Tory crew.”
Disraeli was often depicted in the newspapers with a big nose and curly black hair; called “Shylock” and “abominable Jew;” and portrayed as ritually murdering the infant Britannia. People attending his public speeches would stick slices of ham and bacon on a stick and wave them in his face.
Disraeli was also a Zionist who, in several of his later books, expressed his strong desire to see the return of the Jews to their land, including Jerusalem. The influence of his books on Christian England helped British statesmen formulate their desire for control over Eretz Yisrael and, along with his famous neighbor on Park Lane, Moses Montefiore, he actively advocated for Jewish Palestine. (Interestingly, there seems to be no record of Disraeli ever communicating or corresponding with Montefiore).
Some commentators maintain that when Disraeli pushed England’s entry into the Middle East through its taking control of the Suez Canal (financed, in part, by the Rothschilds), he was motivated by the expectation that the British would ultimately assist the Jews to reestablish a homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
In an intriguing November 9, 1862 correspondence written on his Hughenden Manor letterhead in the midst of the American Civil War, an excerpt of which is exhibited here, Disraeli, marking the letter “secret,” writes to Lord Baron Lyndhurst:
Yesterday there arrived here a communication from a quarter from which I hear rarely and which rarely speaks, but to regulate my conduct for my advantage…. In a few days the Emperor [Napoleon III] means to propose to [British Prime Minister] Palmerston…that England, France, and Russia recommend an Armistice of six months to the Americans, during which time the ports shall be open. It is impossible the North will accept it; and probably not our government. All connection between them and the Emperor is over, and nothing is heard but complaints of their egotism, old fashioned policy, as about Turkey, etc. France and England are at this moment as asunder as Italy, America, and the East…
John Singleton Copley, aka Lord Lyndhurst (1772-1863), served as Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. His Jewish wife, Georgiana Goldsmith, may have influenced him to support the Jewish Emancipation of 1858, when the law that had restricted the Parliamentary oath of office to Christians was changed, leading to the admission of Jews into parliament.
Though Great Britain was officially neutral throughout the American Civil War, the British elites favored the Confederacy. Gladstone himself, who maintained what has been characterized as
“an insincere neutrality,” was actually pro-South, most likely due to the widespread unemployment in Britain arising out of the Union blockade on British cotton mills. Unlike Gladstone, however, Disraeli maintained true neutrality during the Civil War and, though he expected the South to prevail, argued against English interference in the war.
The Confederate strategy for independence was largely based on the anticipation of military intervention by Britain and France, but Lincoln made clear to the British that any move toward official recognition of the Confederacy would be deemed an unfriendly act against the United States. In the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln was warned by his envoy that the Europeans, fearing the war could continue indefinitely, might soon offer to mediate between North and South. In particular, the British nobility grew increasingly concerned about the war preventing England from acquiring the cotton needed to run its factories.
Though both the Union and the Confederacy brought incredible pressure to push France to take sides during the Civil War, it remained officially neutral. However, as in Britain, several major French industries – and Emperor Napoleon III himself – had economic interests or territorial ambitions which favored dealings with the Confederacy. The Union blockade had also cut off most cotton supplies to French textile mills, causing the famine du coton (“cotton famine”), as mills in Alsace and Normandy, which saw prices of cotton double by 1862, were forced to lay off many workers, leading many French industrialists and politicians to support a quick Southern victory. However, France was reluctant to intervene without British collaboration, which explains Napoleon’s motive to push for a joint effort for an Armistice.
As Disraeli writes in our letter, he app
arently learned of a secret plan being proposed by Napoleon whereby England, France, and Russia would all seek to facilitate an opening of CSA ports, but he doubted Britain would go along and expressed certainty that Lincoln would reject it because such an armistice would constitute a de facto recognition of the Confederacy.
However, the plan became public when, on November 15, 1862 (a week after Disraeli penned the letter), Napoleon published a letter proposing that Britain and Russia join France as joint mediators in the American conflict, citing three reasons for the action: the suffering of the American people; the harmful economic impact of the war on Europe (specifically the cotton crisis); and the unlikelihood that the warring parties could resolve their dispute on their own.