In 1868, Benjamin D’Israeli became Prime Minister of England and repeated that performance when, in 1874, he was elected a second time to the highest office in Britain. He was born on December 21, 1804 to an Italian Jewish family who had moved to Venice after the Inquisition had driven them from the Iberian Peninsula. His father, Isaac, was a well known English author and a successful businessman.
At the age of 22, Benjamin began a literary career with a novel entitled “Vivian Grey”.
Thereafter he published numerous other works. “The Voyage of Captain Popanilla” and “The Young Duke” followed in rapid succession. In only three years, i.e. from 1830 - 1833, D’Israeli wrote “Contarini Fleming”, “The Wondrous Tale of Alroy,” “The Rise of Iskander”, and “Ikion in Heaven”. His literary efforts continued and he published another ten books before he died on April 19, 1881 at the age of seventy-six.
Had D’Israeli followed only one profession, i.e. that of a writer, he would no doubt be remembered today, at least by those interested in British literature.
However, D’Israeli is best known today as a great success as British Prime Minister and as the first Jew to ever hold that office.
Because Benjamin had been
formally “converted” to Anglican Christianity when he was twelve, he was
admitted to the House of Commons when elected in 1837. At that time no Jew could
serve in the English Parliament because an oath to the Christian deity was
mandatory on all elected officials. In 1837 he also published “Venetia” and
“Henrietta Temple”, two novels hardly read today.
During these campaigns he competed with an upper class man who prided himself on the long British ancestry he enjoyed. He described D’Israeli as a foreigner without any distinction. To this Benjamin D’Israeli answered that his own ancestry was far older and much more distinguished than the British gentleman because he, D’Israeli, was the descendant of the first Israel, Jacob. This may or may not be the case, but it is certain that D’Israeli viewed his ancestry with pride and that he was admired for that. He won the election.
In 1839 D’Israeli married the widow of one of his colleagues in the House of Commons. She was very wealthy and carried the title of Lady Beaconsfield. Thirteen years later, D’Israeli was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, which we would call Secretary of the Treasury. During the several succeeding decades, D’Israeli served repeatedly at the treasury but was also elected leader of the House of Commons. In that position he proposed a good deal of legislation favoring the poor. He also extended the franchise to many who had never been allowed to vote before. Having become prominent as a Member of Parliament, he succeeded Lord Derby as Prime Minister in 1868.
Defeated in the next election, he became Prime Minister again in 1874 when his party won the majority in the Parliament.
Two years later, in 1876, Queen Victoria granted D’Israeli the title of Lord Beaconsfield. He continued as prime minister, although he now became a member of the House of Lords. He remained as Prime Minister until 1880, when he retired from politics. He died one year later.
During his years as prime minister, Queen Victoria ruled over an ever expanding British Empire. She was born in 1819 and became queen at the age of 18 in 1837. In 1867 Benjamin D’Israeli made her Empress of India after he succeeded in incorporating that entire sub-continent into the British Empire.
D’Israeli was the only Jew ever to be Prime Minister of England. He was technically a Christian because his father permitted one of his Christian friends to take Benjamin to the Anglican church when he was twelve years old and had him baptized there. The father and his friend, a man named Rogers, were agnostics who made Benjamin an “official” Christian only because they wanted him to have a career not open to Jews. Of course, he was always seen as a Jew and regarded himself as a Jew. It ought to be understood that “pro-forma” baptisms of ambitious Jews were common all over Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.
Now there is a possibility that an unconverted, practicing Jew may become the next Prime Minister of England. His name is Michael Howard. The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants whose name was Hecht before coming to Britain, he was born in England.
Alone the fact that he is now the leader of the Conservative Party indicates a tremendous change in English ethnic politics over the past 50 years. In fact, it wasn’t until the ‘50’s that any Jews were elected to parliament on the Conservative ticket.
Let us hope that Michael Howard and his party win the next election. The Conservatives have always been more favorable to Israel and the rights of the Jewish people than the British liberals, whose favorite indoor sport is Israel bashing.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents: A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).