- Benjamin Disraeli
Adam Kirsch's biography, Benjamin Disraeli, is a recent installment of the notable "Nextbook" collaboration with Schocken Press, a respected and frequently cutting-edge publisher in Jewish Studies. An attractively produced, trim volume, it richly deserves a wide readership. In many respects Kirsch's biography is a superb contribution, providing an insightful and accessible interpretation of the Jewish dimensions of Disraeli—who continues to inspire immense interest. In addition to a pithy survey of Disraeli's political career, Kirsch renders a unique and valuable service in providing a synopsis of Disraeli's staggering literary output, most of which is unread (and undervalued) by the current generation of scholars and students.
Contarini Fleming (1832), according to Kirsch, "is not a great novel, [but] it is a vitally important document of Disraeli's mind" (p. 79), even more so than his veiled autobiography, Vivian Grey (1826) (pp. 30, 48–51). Regarding The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), "it is Disraeli's distinction between Jewish belief and Jewish solidarity, and his insistence that it is possible to have the latter without the former, that makes Alroy a significant proto-Zionist text" (p. 89). "Indirectly in Contarini Fleming and explicitly in Alroy, Disraeli reclaimed the imaginative freedom to define Jewishness, and himself as a Jew, on his own terms. In this sense, it was necessary for Disraeli to become a novelist before [End Page 178] he could be a statesman, and his career as a statesman was a continuation of the work of self-invention that he began as a novelist" (p. 78).
Despite its merits and erudition, academics should be aware that this is not a scholarly book. There are no footnotes, sometimes making it difficult to follow up on Kirsch's points. He does, however, attach a small section at the end "For Further Reading." Here Kirsch acknowledges his indebtedness to the six-volume biography of Disraeli commenced by William Flavelle Moneypenny and finished by George Earle Buckle (published between 1910 and 1920), and Robert Blake's Disraeli (1966). Although he cites Todd Endelman's textbook on Anglo-Jewry as major source for background, Kirsch seems unaware of the anthology Endelman co-edited with Tony Kushner, Disraeli's Jewishness (2002), which complements his own study. Indeed, Kirsch's thesis is precisely a guiding thread of Endelman and Kushner: that "Disraeli's Jewishness was both the greatest obstacle to his ambition and its greatest engine" (Kirsch, p. xxiii).
Perhaps more problematic than his ignorance or omission of the most relevant scholarly work is Kirsch's statement that "Hannah Arendt devoted a largely hostile section of The Origins of Totalitarianism to [Disraeli's] Jewish mythmaking . . ." (p. 246). Those familiar with Arendt's work might find this disingenuous. A major thrust of Kirsch's interpretation is that Disraeli "had to turn his Jewishness from a handicap into a mystique. He had to convince the world, and himself, that the Jews were a noble race, with a glorious past and a great future. He even had to turn anti-Semitic myths to his own account—to make people believe, if he was a wizard and conjurer, he would at least use his powers for England. As a result, Disraeli became one of the nineteenth century's chief points of reference for thinking about Jews and Judaism. Jews and anti-Semites alike looked to Disraeli in constructing their own images of Jewish power" (pp. xxii–xxiii). Toward the conclusion, Kirsch avers: "Disraeli's imagination of Jewishness did what he needed it to do" (p. 241). This is indeed a compelling argument—but essentially that of Hannah Arendt in "The Potent Wizard," ten dense pages from which Kirsch professes to distance himself. "With a few slight changes," Kirsch asserts, "you could easily turn the Sidonia scenes in [Disraeli's novels] Coningsby and Tancred into an anti-Semitic tract to rival The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And, as a matter of fact, the most vicious anti-Semites of the late nineteenth century all reprised Disraeli's ideas, sometimes giving him explicit credit" (p. 132). In light...