Nadia Valman. “Manly Jews: Disraeli, Jewishness and
Gender.” Disraeli’s Jewishness. Eds. Todd M.
Endelman and Tony Kushner. London and Portland, Or.: Vallentine
Mitchell, 2002. 72-75.
- A RELIGION OF CONQUEST?
Disraeli had attempted to find a usable past for
himself several years before his election to Parliament in
The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), an epic tale
of tragic heroism. The legend of Jewish liberation fighters
on which Alroy is based offers an unconventionally
tough image of mediaeval Jews, but the novel is nevertheless
ambivalent about the possibility of Jewish national autonomy
it raises. Alroy is set in twelfth-century Hamadan,
where the Jews, dispossessed of national sovereignty, live
as a tributary people under Seljuk rule. Alroy, descendant
of the house of David, the messianic line, and heir to the
title of ‘Prince of the Captivity’, is a Hebrew
Hamlet, galled at the weakness of the Jews and his own
inability to take action against the humiliation of diaspora
existence. Inspired by the kabbalist Jabaster, he embarks on
a journey to Jerusalem, whose ruins are ‘like the last
gladiator in an amphitheatre of desolation.’1 But Alroy experiences a vision of a
transfigured Jerusalem and a godlike figure, which he
believes to be a confirmation of his own mystical election
as messiah. He unites the ‘singular and scattered
people’ of the diaspora into a nation and leads them
to liberation, conquest and empire.2 As the new ‘master of the
East,’ he turns the Turks from rulers into ruled but
only to become their tyrant in his turn.3
- Although Alroy is at one level a fable of the folly
of romantic individualism—the hero finally realises
that ‘he who places implicit confidence in his genius,
will find himself some day utterly defeated and
deserted’—it is also a complex discussion of
relationships between race, religion and national identity
which anticipates in interesting ways Disraeli's later
writing.4 Published in the year in which the
first major debates about Jewish emancipation and the limits
of the Protestant state were dividing the British
Parliament, Disraeli's novel uses the story of Jewish
national liberation to consider universalist and
particularist definitions of the nation. Disraeli satirises
the old rabbis in Jerusalem, ‘the forlorn remnant of
Israel, captives in their own city’ but bound by
religious pedantry to perpetuate their own
disenfranchisement.5 In contrast, the text's poetic diction
valorises the romantic nationalism which inspires Alroy as
he looks upon a ruined city of the East:
silent: alone the Hebrew Prince stood amid the regal
creation of the Macedonian captains. Empires and
dynasties flourish and pass away; the proud metropolis
becomes a solitude, the conquering kingdom even a
desert; but Israel still remains, still a descendant of
the most ancient kings breathed amid these royal ruins,
and still the eternal sun could never rise without
gilding the towers of living Jerusalem. A word, a deed,
a single day, a single man, and we might be a
nation.6 Shifting in and out of
past and present, evoking the present thoughts of the hero
and an unspecific, eternal present, the ‘we’ of
Alroy's people and the ‘we’ of Alroy's
readers, the narrative identifies the reader with the
project of national liberation and suggests the dynamic
power of the nation embodied in a charismatic hero.
- However, in the course of the novel Alroy comes to temper
this mystical nostalgia with a modernising politics and to
shift his rootedness in place and past towards a concept of
the nation expanding indefinitely in time and territory.
Eventually Jabaster's vision of a particularist national
existence based on a fixed history and religious affiliation
is rejected by Alroy: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem—ever
harping on Jerusalem. With all his lore, he is a
narrow-minded zealot, whose dreaming memory would fondly
make a future like the past.’7 Instead he favours an imperial,
inclusive and expansionist notion of the nation, embracing
both Jews and non-Jews. Alroy’s inclusive conception
of Judaism appropriates Christianity’s traditional
claim to universalism (as Disraeli himself was to do in a
later parliamentary debate). Moreover, this universalism is
the source of Alroy's military success. In his view the only
way of attaining permanent political empowerment is to
renounce the narrow religious definition of Judaism for a
national and tolerant one:
Universal empire must
not be founded on sectarian prejudices and exclusive
rights. Jabaster would massacre the Moslemin like Amalek
[the archetypal enemy of the Jews]; the Moslemin, the
vast majority, and most valuable portion, of my
subjects. He would depopulate my empire, that it might
not be said that Ishmael shared the heritage of Israel.
Fanatic! . . . We must conciliate. Something must be
done to bind the conquered to our conquering
fortunes.8 Here, Alroy is seeking
to redefine the Jews as a nation in precisely the terms that
Disraeli employs to discuss the future of England in the
political trilogy of the 1840s, where he suggests that
racial, social and religious divisions can be transcended in
the name of a perceived common political ideal. Indeed the
novel shows this to be a successful strategy: in the Jewish
army ‘the greater part were Hebrews, but many Arabs,
wearied of the Turkish yoke, and many gallant adventurers
from the Caspian, easily converted from a vague idolatry to
a religion of conquest, swelled the ranks of the army of the
“Lord of Hosts”’.9
- Yet in Alroy, in contrast to the later trilogy, this
universalist nationalism, or imperialism, is unsustainable.
As Alroy’s tolerance increasingly earns him the
resentment of his generals, the novel’s movement
towards tragedy is underscored by pessimism about the
possibility of a permanent Jewish national existence.
Jabaster warns: ‘We must exist alone. To preserve that
loneliness, is the great end and essence of our law . . .
Sire, you may be King of Bagdad, but you cannot, at the same
time, be a Jew.’10 In making the Jews conquerors, Alroy
has universalised Judaism and destroyed the particularist
motivation of many of his fighters. Loss of military unity
is a reflection of Alroy’s own loss of masculine
identity in his luxurious marriage to the Muslim princess
Schirene. Alroy's tolerance, his failure to preserve Jewish
‘loneliness,’ is associated with his
feminisation: ‘Egypt and Syria, even farthest Ind,
send forth their messengers to greet Alroy, the great, the
proud, the invincible. And where is he? In a soft Paradise
of girls and eunuchs, crowned with flowers, listening to
melting lays, and the wild trilling of the amorous
lute.’11 Jews, it seems, cannot be conquerors.
- Schirene’s eventual betrayal of Alroy is a final
confirmation of the novel's mistrust of miscegenation.
Indeed, it is only by reasserting his Jewish identity in
martyrdom at the end of the novel that Alroy regains his
heroic stature, reaffirming that ‘. . . my people
stand apart from other nations, and ever will despite of
suffering.’12 In this final rejection of luxury for
physical pain, Alroy reverses the identification with
Schirene and re-establishes his masculine and Jewish
‘loneliness.’ Yet it is only within
christological terms that Disraeli is able to figure
Alroy’s fall as triumphant. As the novel moves into
its final phase, in which Alroy is captured and humiliated,
the style shifts, using shorter, simpler sentences and
explicit references to the life of Jesus:
A tear stole
down his cheek; the bitter drop stole to his parched
lips, he asked the nearest horseman for water. The guard
gave him a wetted sponge, with which, with difficulty,
he contrived to wipe his lips, and then he let it fall
to the ground. The Karasmian struck him. This dramatic use of
intertext suggests that Disraeli, in searching for a
narrative within whose terms Jewish suffering can be
refigured as heroic, finds only the Christian Passion.
They arrived at the river.
The prisoner was taken from the camel and placed in a
covered boat. After some hours, they stopped and
disembarked at a small village. Alroy was placed upon a
donkey with his back to its head. His clothes were
soiled and tattered. The children pelted him with mud.
An old woman, with a fanatic curse, placed a crown of
paper on his brow. With difficulty his brutal guards
prevented their victim from being torn to pieces. And in
such fashion, towards noon of the fourteenth day, David
Alroy again entered Bagdad.13
- If the novel is unable to conceive of Jewish toughness
except in christological terms, it is also unable to
maintain a notion of Jewish authenticity except in domestic
terms. Only Alroy’s sister Miriam, a figure of
domestic but not erotic love, succeeds in sustaining a
Jewish identity uncompromised by ambition or bigotry. Unlike
other definitions of Jewishness in the text, hers requires
no political expression. National liberation means nothing
to her: ‘For Miriam, exalted station had brought
neither cares nor crimes. It had, as it were, only rendered
her charity universal, and her benevolence
omnipotent.’14 In this text Disraeli represents
feminine virtue as transcendent, independent of political
status, unaffected by either oppression or autonomy.
Disraeli’s eulogistic language (the novel was
dedicated to his own sister) suggests that it is Miriam who
alone maintains an authentic Jewish identity. The contrast
with the corruption of Alroy is striking. The feminised,
domesticated definition of Jewishness, which the
Anglo-Jewish writer Grace Aguilar was to exploit so
successfully during the 1840s, is here presented as a
pragmatic and more enduring alternative to the romantic,
militant and ultimately tragic political nationalism of
Alroy.15 Meanwhile, Disraeli's own writings of
the 1840s show a crucial reworking of Alroy's
concerns with the relationships between Jewishness,
masculinity and national identity.
1 Benjamin Disraeli, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (London, 1833), Bk 1, p. 195.
2 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 41.
3 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 66.
4 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 34.
5 Ibid., Bk 1, p. 213.
6 Ibid., Bk 1, pp. 110-11.
7 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 61.
8 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 100-1.
9 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 46-7.
10 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 140.
11 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 174-5.
12 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 92.
13 Ibid., Bk 3, pp. 24-5.
14 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 69.