When I picked up Adam Kirsch’s new biography of Benjamin Disraeli, I didn’t think it would have much relevance to Jewish life in the early 21st century. I read it because I knew next to nothing about England’s first and only Jewish-born prime minister, and because Kirsch is perhaps the sharpest and liveliest critic in Jewish letters. Besides, like all the volumes in Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, Benjamin Disraeli is both concise and compact.
And yet the drama of Disraeli’s public and private life — the excruciating negotiation between his Jewish “race” and his English nationality — suddenly seems a hot topic again. Not that anyone here or in England is demanding that lawmakers swear on oath to “the true faith of a Christian.” Jews are disproportionately represented in Congress, and few establishment or media figures would traffic in the gross ethnic stereotypes his rivals would regularly fling at Disraeli.
Still, the “Jewish question” hasn’t stopped being asked, even if the phrasing might be different. In the Victorian age, Disraeli’s enemies would grumble about his “Asiatic principles” and openly suggest that no Jew could truly become an Englishman. Winston Churchill would write of Disraeli, “He never became wholly assimilated to English ways of life.” This about a man who was born in London, was baptized in the Church of England, served in Parliament for close to 50 years, twice served as prime minister, was named the first Earl of Beaconsfield, and who would enjoy a deeply intimate (albeit chaste) relationship with the widowed Queen Victoria.
As a statesman and popular novelist (imagine a cross between Gore Vidal and the late Sen. Robert Byrd), Disraeli persistently defined, refined, and reimagined the relationship between his Judaism and his country. “Knowing that he could never ‘pass’ as an ordinary Christian,” writes Kirsch, “Disraeli evolved a complex public image that allowed him to remain a Jew, even while enjoying the legal rights of a member of the Church of England.” In the age-old debate over whether Judaism is a race, a religion, a nationality, or a dessert topping, Disraeli went with race.
Today’s “Jewish question” is not about race or nationality but about loyalty and identity. By loyalty, of course, I mean “dual loyalty.” Not since Jonathan Pollard’s arrest have I seen so many “mainstream” thinkers demand that American Jews “choose” between America and Israel. Leftists, taking an old page from Pat Buchanan, accuse the Jews of controlling America’s Mideast policy and taking their marching orders from Jerusalem. (It doesn’t help matters when pro-Israel hawks accuse Jewish liberals of selling out Israel.)
The American Council of Judaism, that faded remnant of Reform Judaism’s long-gone anti-Zionist wing, made a comeback appearance last week thanks to a New York Times story. Author Samuel Freedman suggested that “the arguments that the council has consistently levied against Zionism and Israel have shot back into prominence over the last decade.” Brandeis prof Jonathan Sarna described those arguments as “dual loyalty, nationalism being evil,” and “the point that Zionism is no panacea” for the problems of Jewish life in the Diaspora. In other words, the Jewish question.
Unlike many of Israel’s current critics, ACJ doesn’t challenge Israel’s legitimacy — in fact, they support Israel “as a refuge for many Jews who have suffered persecution and oppression in other places.” The chief concern for the ACJ is asserting that “as American Jews, we believe that our nationality is American…. We believe we can be Jews and Americans.” Presumably, American-Jewish support for Israel undermines that proposition.
But ACJ is asking the wrong Jewish question. No matter what Israel’s critics say, Jews don’t really need to choose between America and Israel, or between their Jewishness and their nationality. This isn’t Victorian England, or McCarthy’s America.
But they do have to choose. Today’s Jewish alienation with Israel has little to do with outside forces, and everything to do with personal decisions. It’s a matter of identity. Peter Beinart made waves by suggesting young Jews are turned off of Zionism by Israel’s hawkish politics and the Jewish establishment’s growing conservatism.
But I’m more convinced by those who link declining interest in Israel with declining interest in Judaism. In their 2007 study showing a “growing distancing” from Israel among the young non-Orthodox, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman suggest the culprit isn’t Israeli policies but — wait for it —intermarriage. “Intermarriage reflects and promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part,” Cohen wrote in response to Beinart.
It’s an uncomfortable finding, and Cohen has taken shots from rabbis, activists, and families who insist strong Jewish identities persist within intermarriage. But the finding is consistent with the voluntary nature of contemporary Jewish belonging. In Disraeli’s day, a Jew could join the church and still never be considered anything but a “foreigner.” Today, one can change one’s religious identity and affiliations as easily as a partner or a hairstyle, with few repercussions.
Today’s Jewish question is not how to be a Jew and an American, but how and whether to be a Jew.