Disraeli the Jew
Essays by Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus
Introduction by Michael Selzer
Selzer & Selzer, 1993, 73 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 10, 2012
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was one of the most remarkable public figure of Victorian England. He was an enormously successful prime minister and statesman, and one of the creators of the modern English Conservative party. He was the only Jew who served as an English prime minister. Being many-sided, he was also the most widely-read novelists of his day. His novel David Alroy is probably the first Jewish historical novel ever published.
Benjamin’s father Isaac was embarrassed about being a Jew, and when Isaac’s father died when Benjamin reached his bar mitzvah age of 13, Isaac converted himself and his family to Christianity. However, as in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, the English wouldn’t let Isaac or Benjamin forget their Jewish origin. Masses of people, including politicians, considered Benjamin Disraeli a Jew and called him a Jew behind his back and in print.
But while Isaac was ashamed of his birthright, Benjamin gloried in it and flaunted it in the face of anti-Semites. While extolled Christianity’s history, the glory that it took from Judaism. While your ancestors wallowed in the mud in dark forests, he would say, mine spoke with God and were the sweet singers of Israel. He never wearied in recalling that "Christianity was founded by the Jews."
The two essays in this volume were composed about a hundred years ago. One is by the famed US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo; the second by the equally famous Emma Lazarus whose poem is at the base of the Statute of Liberty; both Jews. They focus on Disraeli’s life as a Jew. The much more recent introductory essay by Michael Selzer is a superb and perceptive analysis of Cardozo’s and Lazarus’ understanding of the great statement and Judaism generally. Selzer shows how both are wrong. Writing close to a hundred years ago, they were unable to see any great contributions made by recent Jewish immigrants to the US. However, Selzer shows how Disraeli was right to be proud of Jews who today are overrepresented in virtually all scientific and humanistic fields.