Monday, August 12, 2013

An 1831 Birthright Trip

From a 1982 review on a book on D'Israeli, the 'Jew d'esprit':-

In one important respect the route of his travels in the Levant had differed from Byron’s. He and Clay, though not Meredith, had entered the Holy Land and made the ascent to Jerusalem; they had spent the months from January to March 1831 on this section of their journey. No less than four of Disraeli’s novels, Contarini Fleming, Alroy, Tancred and Lothair, were to bear the marks of this experience. One of them, Alroy, is probably the worst he ever wrote (which is saying something); the others, in different ways and in different degrees, are not much good either. English literature can hardly be said, therefore, to have gained greatly from the experience. And Disraeli himself? Lord Blake suggests that his travels in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire inclined him, when he was in office many years later, to take a more favourable attitude to Turkish power than was common among Englishmen of his time. However, the author is more interested in tracing the effects of the visit to the Holy Land on Disraeli’s view of his own position as a Jew converted to Christianity and an aspirant man-of-letters and politician. Did it make some sort of (premature) Zionist out of him? Did it enable him to develop that conviction of his belonging to a grand ‘Arabian’ or ‘Asian’ aristocracy which was to be a source of strength to him in his dealings with the English grandees among whom he made his career? Did it encourage him to conjure out of some recess of his mind the notion of ‘theocratic equality’?

...The answer to all these questions must be a qualified yes: qualified not only because they are difficult questions, but also because everything Disraeli said or did is subject to qualification by something else he may have done or said at some other time. Consider, for instance, the idea of Disraeli as a kind of Zionist-before-Zionism. Surely, one thinks, his novel Alroy, which is about a Medieval Jewish leader who wishes to redeem the Jews from captivity and bring them back to Zion – a novel which Disraeli himself spoke of as an expression of his ‘ideal ambition’ – should provide us with irrefutable, positive evidence on that score. Well, it does not. We are not long into the novel before we find that the eponymous hero is bored with the Jews and Zion and what they have to offer him. ‘Shall this quick blaze of empire,’ he asks in characteristic vein, ‘sink to a glimmering and a twilight sway over some petty province? ... I have no mandate*  to yield my glorious empire for my meanest province.’ True, Alroy is chastised in the novel for these Tamburlane-like vauntings: but we have only to recall his creator’s attitude to the British Empire and its Queen to know that he would never have exchanged the position he eventually achieved, or even the prospect of gaining it, in order to become what his Alroy scornfully describes as ‘the decent patriarch of a pastoral horde’.

It is a noteworthy fact that though Disraeli refers bitterly in several of his novels, and elsewhere, to the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of Christians and Moslems, he can never really bring himself to portray a suffering or disadvantaged Jew. (It is doubtful, according to Lord Blake, whether during his stay in Jerusalem he even visited the Jewish quarter of the city, where he would have been unable to avoid seeing plenty of disadvantaged members of his race.) Instead, virtually all the Jewish characters in his novels are rich, haughty, powerful, beautiful, wise, and (perhaps most implausible of all) wholeheartedly admired by the people among whom they live...

Here and elsewhere Disraeli was using his peculiar notions about the Jews and their role in history as a mode of self-advancement; or, to put the same point in another but equally meaningful way, his self-advancement demanded that something special and striking be made of his Jewish origins and appearance...myths, which purported to describe and explain what had actually happened in the world, or was going to happen in it, were by far the most important fictions he ever invented; and he did not merely act on them, as he had asked of himself in his diary. He did more. He believed in them.

*  The precursor to the British Mandate for Palestine?


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