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The Jewish poet and the Jewish prime minister

Given the concerns of today’s Jewish world, it is worth pondering the messages and paradoxes of Emma Lazarus’s first published essay on a Jewish subject, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?”


The following articles are from Havruta, Vol. 1, No. 1.
The American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is best known for her sonnet "The New Colossus," engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.

She was a well-born New York Sephardic Jew, conscious and proud of her pedigree and privilege, a woman of two conflicting worlds. As portrayed in Esther Schor’s fascinating, nuanced biography Emma Lazarus (New York, 2006), she was an active participant in non-Jewish high society and literary life. In 1868, at the home of the Boston financier Samuel Gray Ward, she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became her poetic mentor, chiefly by mail. Lazarus came to revere Emerson to the point of worship, but their relationship ended in mutual frustration.


Emma LazarusIn 1882, the year Emerson died, Lazarus became involved with Jewish issues. Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II  in 1881, thousands of impoverished Jewish immigrants began to flood into the United States, and Lazarus was deeply concerned with their plight. She volunteered her time and her pen to their cause, visiting and comforting them, while advocating for them in letters, articles and essays.


Some prominent American Jews, relative newcomers themselves, were active on behalf of the immigrants, because they worried that these "uncultivated" Jews from the East might reflect poorly on all Jews and increase anti-Semitism. But it was not status anxiety that motivated Lazarus, it was heartfelt noblesse oblige salted with the tears of her own, ambivalent, Jewish nostalgia.

As she wrote in 1883, and subsequent generations of American schoolchildren memorized: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” To us, these words from “The New Colossus” may seem offensive and culturally unacceptable, but in Emma Lazarus’s day they signified noble intentions.
Given the concerns of today’s Jewish world, it is likewise worth pondering the messages and paradoxes of Lazarus’s first published essay on a Jewish subject, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?”
The article, excerpted below, appeared in the influential Century magazine in April 1882, one year after the death of its subject, the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Lazarus offered her opinions in response to the prominent Danish scholar and critic Georg Brandes (born Morris Cohen), who had argued that Disraeli was not truly representative of the “Semitic race”, since “the Jewish mind has revealed itself in far more affluent and nobler forms than in Disraeli’s comparatively limited mental range.”
Lazarus’s essay on Disraeli – who was baptized in 1817, at age thirteen, but always affirmed his Jewish roots – takes for granted his membership in the Jewish people. Indeed, Disraeli for Lazarus was not only a Jew, but a representative Jew. Writing in the voice of the editorial “we,” she did not explicitly “come out” in this piece as a “Jewess,” but her identification and her sympathies are quite plain. Contemporary readers may be uncomfortable with her matter-of-fact adoption of the Shylock stereotype, but the piece as a whole constitutes a sharp repudiation of anti-Semitism and a proud assertion of Jewish strength and adaptability.  
As it happened, in that same April 1882 issue of the Century, another article, penned by a Russian journalist, defended the pogroms in Russia by accusing the Jews – “loathsome parasites” – of operating as a state within a state and exploiting their gentile neighbors.
Lazarus responded with two further Century essays in which she passionately and eloquently argued against anti-Semitism.
“The Jewish problem “is as old as history and assumes in each age a new form,” she wrote. “All the magnanimity, patience, charity, and humanity, which the Jews have manifested in return for centuries of persecution, have been thus far inadequate to eradicate the profound antipathy engendered by fanaticism and ready to break out in one or another shape at any moment of popular excitement.”
The ultimate solution, for Lazarus, was a Jewish homeland in Palestine, an idea she soon began to advance in the pages of the weekly journal The American Hebrew.
Only after her premature death did Zionism become a viable political movement, and Jews were eventually able, in a setting of national sovereignty, to exercise what Lazarus called "their long-starved appetite for power." Today, as the complex reality of the 60-year-old Jewish state gives rise to both enormous pride and considerable self-criticism, it is well worth revisiting Emma Lazarus’s shrewd meditation on Disraeli, the representative Jew.  
By Emma Lazarus
In order that a single man shall represent a people, it is certainly unnecessary that he shall embrace, in the most perfect degree, the whole gamut of qualities ever possessed by the united members of his race. In other words, taking Spinoza and Shylock as the opposite poles of the Hebraic character, it is not requisite that the representative Jew shall be, at the same time, Spinoza and Shylock. All that is required is that he shall furnish us with an epitome of the race-features common to both, and give us an example, on however limited a scale, of the master quality of each. Now, this is precisely what we think Benjamin Disraeli has done . . .
Benjamin DisraeliDisraeli possessed in an eminent degree the capacity which seems to us the most characteristic feature of the Jew, whether considered as a race or an individual, and one which has been developed to perfection by ages of persecution. We refer to the faculty which enables this people, not only to perceive and make the most of every advantage of their situation and temperament, but also, with marvelous adroitness, to transform their very disabilities into new instruments of power . . .
Only an outward “sufferance is the badge of their tribe.” The patient humility which accepted blows and contumely in silence was not the inertia of a broken will, but the calculating self-control of a nature imbued with persistent and unconquerable energy. In the long run, it was sure to endow them with the immense superiority that the self-contained man has over the man of unbridled temper. No other Jewish trait is more conspicuously exemplified than this in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. It was this which supported him through his repeated defeats before securing a seat in Parliament, and again through the disgraceful exhibition of Parliamentary brutality which attended his maiden-speech. No tempest of ridicule could shake his imperturbable calm. Not that he was lacking in sensitiveness, in pride, in the justifiable indignation of an insulted gentleman, but simply that he was used to it – that he had inherited and cultivated the simulated patience to submit to it without flinching, while straining every nerve and directing every energy to the aim of retaliation and revenge . . .
A man of less audacity and tact would have endeavored to suppress, or at least to keep in the background, those facts relating to his origin and creed which were most at variance with the prejudices of his fellow countrymen. Not so Disraeli. His object was not to conciliate, but to dazzle; no difficulties could daunt him, but he was lynx-eyed to discern the line that separates the arduous from the impossible. No Englishman would ever forget he was a Jew; therefore, he himself would be the first and the loudest to proclaim it, and instead of apologizing for it, he exerted all his powers of rhetoric and persuasion to make it appear a natural prerogative of rank and honor. He did not knock servilely at the doors of the English aristocracy; he conquered them with their own weapons; he met arrogance with arrogance, the pride of descent based upon a few centuries of distinction, with the pride of descent supported by hundreds of centuries of intellectual supremacy and even of divine anointment. As a communicant of the Anglican Church he did not deny Christianity’s claim to all the glory of civilization, but he went a step farther back and declared this very Christianity to be the outcome, the apotheosis, of Judaism. In the attitude which he assumed, politically, socially, and aesthetically, toward his race, we do not know which to admire more—the daring originality of his position, or the pluck and consistency with which he maintained it . . .
He belonged, by birth, to the branch of modem Jews known as the Sephardim, concerning whom an English writer has remarked:  
“Of the two large bodies of European Jews, the Ashkenazim, from Germany and Poland, and the Sephardim, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, it is well known that during the Middle Ages the latter were the more eminent in wealth, literature, and importance. The general histories of modem Jews have treated of them as one people per se, without adequate consideration of how differently must have been modified the Judaism of Granada in the twelfth century, or of Castile in the fourteenth century, from that of the same period amid the ferocity and unlettered ignorance of Muscovy and Poland.”
There can be no doubt that a spark of fiery Castilian pride was transmitted, unstifled by intervening ages of oppression, to the spirit of Benjamin Disraeli. He knew himself to be the descendant, not of pariahs and pawnbrokers, but of princes, prophets, statesmen, poets, and philosophers, and in his veins was kindled that enthusiasm of faith in the genius and high vocation of his own people which strikes outsiders as an anomaly in a member of an habitually despised race . . .
And yet the fact remains that Disraeli was not a first-class man; his qualities were not those of the world’s heroes; he possessed talent, rather than genius; he was a sagacious politician aiming at self-aggrandizement, not a wise statesman building his monument in enduring acts of public service; and the study of his career is calculated to dazzle, to entertain, even to amuse, rather than to elevate, to stimulate, or to ennoble. But do all these derogatory facts preclude him from being considered a representative Jew? On the contrary, we think they tend to confirm his title. First-class men in all races are sufficiently rare, and they have not been absent from the annals of Judaism: Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, the prophets, Spinoza, bear glorious testimony to their existence. But centuries of persecution and the enforced narrowness of their sphere of action have, nevertheless, developed among the Jews a typical national character other than that of the above-named scions of the race. Adroitness, dexterity, tact, industry, perseverance, ambition, brilliancy, and imagination—these may be enumerated as their distinguishing qualities.
Where shall we look for the great modern Jews? At the head of the revolutions, the politics, the finance, the journalism of Europe, or among actors, musical virtuosi and composers, wherever they can find a field for their practical ability, their long-starved appetite for power, their love of liberty, and their manifold talents. They are on the surface in every city of Europe and America where they have gathered in any considerable numbers . . .
The next hundred years will, in our opinion, be the test of their vitality as a people; the phase of toleration upon which they are only now entering will prove whether or not they are capable of growth. In the meantime, the narrowness, the arrogance, the aristocratic pride, the passion for revenge, the restless ambition, the vanity and the love of pomp of Benjamin Disraeli, no less than his suppleness of intellect, his moral courage, his dazzling talents, and his triumphant energy, proclaim him, to our thinking, a representative Jew.
The entire article, “Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?”, is from The Century, Volume 23, Issue 6, (April 1882)

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