Book explores the Jewish side of Benjamin Disraeli

The Victorian Era of the 19th century often captivates our imaginations, with its huge global empire on which the sun never set, an era of enormous change as the Industrial Revolution spread from England throughout the Continent and overseas.

But most outsized of all were the talents and personalities of this complex historical terrain, which ran from the 1830s to the early 20th century: the queen who ruled for 64 years, the scientific genius of Darwin, the literary prolificacy of Dickens and Wilde and the huge political figures who moved England toward greater democracy, such as Benjamin Disraeli.

Disraeli was a significant political participant in Parliament for more than 40 years, including his election by the Conservative Party as prime minister in 1868 and again in 1874. More noteworthy is the fact that Disraeli is the only Jew who ever served in that high office. The significance of Disraeli’s Jewish background and ascent to the pinnacle of British society in the class-conscious milieu of Victorian life is the subject of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new book by Adam Kirsch.

Nineteenth-century British and Parliamentary politics has been extensively chronicled, and this is not the first study of Disraeli’s political achievements. But Kirsch’s book is unique in that it places a strong emphasis on Disraeli’s Judaism.

The book is distinctive among biographies of Benjamin Disraeli in its minute exploration of the complex linkages between his literary and political careers. The author succeeds on several levels: as biography, sharing a sympathetic narration of Disraeli’s richly textured life, and as a literary creation, drawing in the reader to the fascinating Victorian world in which Disraeli achieved so much.

Disraeli actually began his career as a writer of popular novels, and emerged in the Victorian firmament as an author years before public politics. But it was his deep convictions as a Jew that he relied upon to construct new images of power and achievement for England’s Jewish population, which numbered perhaps 15,000 in a nation of 12 million.

Disraeli became the preeminent example of what Hannah Arendt was later to call the phenomenon of “exception Jews,” assimilated Jews who imposed themselves on Europe through the force of their genius, but who were never totally accepted. His Jewishness was, as the author says, “the greatest obstacle to his ambition and its greatest engine.”

Despite making progress, Jews still had a long way to go to attain social quality. Winston Churchill remarked that Disraeli remained, in a profound sense, an “outsider.” But Disraeli, who became a force to be reckoned with in the leadership of the Tories (Conservatives), worked hard to disabuse his British compatriots of their anti-Semitism, citing his own life story as “the blank page between Judaism and Christianity.”

Perhaps sensing his limitations, and despite the lack of a Jewish upbringing, Disraeli wrote about returning to a homeland decades before most commentators, a fact that is not typically included in other depictions of the statesman’s life.

A notable irony of Disraeli’s life is that a visionary who dreamed of emancipation for his own race (as he called being Jewish) could have such difficulty allowing progress for others, including fellow Englishmen.

Disraeli was an avowed opponent of most social legislation, and spoke against national liberation and democratic movements throughout Europe. He rationalized the huge disparities of wealth, callous neglect of the poor and Philistine materialism which were hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution and British Victorian society.

This contradiction in his character and personality is just one of many fascinating points made by Kirsch, and makes Benjamin Disraeli one of the most provocative political figures of the 19th century.

“Benjamin Disraeli” is a book that students of Jewish and British history will find attractive, and one that nicely reflects the complexity and significance of Disraeli’s contributions to the modern British political system.

“Benjamin Disraeli” by Adam Kirsch (258 pages, Nextbook/Schocken, $21)

Adam Kirsch will speak at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 2 during Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Information: