Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

April 29, 2016

Let institutions educate, but don’t suffocate them

by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

“Real education enhances the dignity of a human being and increases his or her self-respect. If only the real sense of education could be realized by each individual and carried forward in every field of human activity, the world will be so much a better place to live in.”– A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

A recurring theme in this column is the importance of institutions in building the nation: in particular those preserved and established by the Federal Constitution and other laws.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz and Associates

But nation-building can also rest in institutions that are not established by statesmen, constitutionalists or hacks seeking a narrow political objective: in particular, those created by educators.

Over the past week, I have been reminded of this in powerful terms visiting schools and universities in the United Kingdom that — despite their academic accolades, graduate employment statistics or state-of-the-art facilities — still speak proudly and passionately about their histories and traditions. On their students they impart not only knowledge, but an institutional heritage too.

At the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, where my father was last week conferred an Honorary Fellowship, it was clear how proud they are of their founding in 1505, and their central role in the development on the profession itself. A story to which they have devoted a large (and sometimes macabre) museum.

At Aberystwyth University, where my father was an undergraduate and was made an Honorary Fellow in 2014, they spoke beamingly of how the university pioneered certain disciplines and enthusiastically shared their plans to renovate their Old College building.

At the University of South Wales, where my father received an Honorary Doctorate in Law in 2013, a connection was made between the latest facilities in the aerospace engineering faculty and the origins of the two establishments that merged to form the current university — a mechanics institute founded in 1841, and a school serving the coal mining industry founded in 1913.

These visits were short, but still their peculiarities shone through. When talking to Malaysian students at the three universities, their focus was no doubt on how the knowledge and skills acquired will contribute to their goals in support of their families, employers or country (there were many government scholars), but still they were aware that they have become ambassadors for their universities and not just ambassadors for Malaysia while there.

More so than universities, in terms of instilling a unique identity and character building, are secondary schools, especially boarding schools. At my old school, Marlborough College, on the way back to London, a brief walk around campus reminded me of the hours I spent reading history books, imagining glacial formation, getting my head round quadratic equations and practising Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, and also an entire vocabulary of school-specific terms that I haven’t had to use since 2000.

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name. — Picture by  Malay Mail

St John’s Institution is once again known by its old name.

The Penang Free School (Founded in 1816) will celebrate its 200th Anniversary on October 21, 2016–Fortis Atque Fidelis. The name is back too. UMNO Politicians, known to mess everything up, tried to call it Sekolah Menengah Penang Free.

I realise now how crucial this was in fostering a deep camaraderie. Some critics condemn such institutions as elitist and exclusionary, and their reaction is to favour uniformity: to remove the things that make specific establishments unique: to make most people get the “same” treatment.

This ultimately results in a centralising tendency in which bureaucrats, rather than principals and teachers, make many of the decisions that directly impact on the student experience. Thus, instead of having educational institutions that are inspired by their own ethos and history, we have schools and universities that have to operate within over-prescribed limits.

We have already seen the effects of this, from the reduction in diversity between schools and the reduction of diversity within them. That is why so many who were educated at English national-type schools want them to return, because they attracted Malaysians of all races.

Most tragic is the loss of institutional memory in our historic schools, where simply the passage of time, the relocation of campuses or name changes have been used to erase aspects now deemed undesirable.

There does seem to be some resistance:  St John’s Institution just won the right to revert to its original name after a campaign from its alumni. Even this needed to be cleared by the ministry, though.

Earlier this month, I was at Tuanku Muhammad School in Kuala Pilah (which my father attended in the 1950s) to witness the unveiling of its centenary landmark, and there too I saw different generations reminisce about the classrooms they were taught in, the food they ate, the corridors they walked.

But recently, in much newer schools too I have seen how innovative principals have used what they can to endow some unique characteristics for their pupils, from the names of their houses, or even the murals on the walls. I hope that such phenomena will be seen as beneficial by our politicians and bureaucrats.

Great educational institutions may have their idiosyncrasies. And in being so, they prepare young people for real life: to endow the idea that as workers and citizens, it’s the shared experiences that create unspoken bonds, that everyone is bound by the rules, and that traditions matter.

* Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.



Why I write

April 25, 2016

COMMENT: Men and women of my generation like Kassim Ahmad, A Kadir Jasin, Zainuddin Maidin, Abdullah ‘Kok Lanas’ Ahmad, Yahaya Ismail (Pak Ya), Dr. M. Bakri Musa,  S. Thayaparan, Mariam Mokthar, Zainah Anwar, Dean Johns, John Berthelsen, Terence Netto, the Late Bernard “Zorro” Khoo, Hishamuddin Rais, Haris Ibrahim, Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, and Kee Thuan Chye, to name a few, find great pleasure in writing to share their views, thoughts, and ideas.

What they all have in common is the courage of their convictions. Others, mainly politicians in power, like to talk and do so profusely, often blowing hot air and accomplishing zilt.

It is tough to write, and tougher to do it well; it requires the ability to think clearly and write succinctly , a good command of language, and the courage to be controversial. More importantly, it requires the writer take a stand on issues and bear the consequences of challenging conventional wisdom. Unlike talking (making sounds), one cannot retract what is written.

Kassim Ahmad (pic above), who I knew since 1960 when he was a young and good looking lecturer in the Malay Studies Department, The University of Malaya, Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur, is a prolific author and a public intellectual of my generation. I know him to be courageous, committed, willing to take the heat of controversy and unafraid of damnation. He has remained steadfast and true to his ideals and principles. For this reason, I feel I should share his article, Why I write, with all of us.

Now in his eighties, Pak Kassim, as I know him endearingly, still writes and reads a lot. I am a Kassim Ahmad fan because he is an intellectual pacesetter from my home state Kedah Darul Aman and my role model for his humility and frugal lifestyle.

I cannot but mention Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Although I may differ with  our 4th Prime Minister on politics, Kassim Ahmad and I, and our mutual friend in the US, Dr. M. Bakri Musa, agree that the Tun is unique because he is a writer and a talker in equal measure. The Tun, who is also from Kedah, is first among equals of our generation when it comes to writing, and excels in the art of talking with the guts to put his ideas into action.–Din Merican

Why I write

by Kassim Ahmad*

I developed a penchant for writing  when I was in secondary school. It was to create a world of my own, a world beyond and above reality, a utopia, so to speak, within the bounds of reason. It means a world that can be realized, a just world, in other words.

I write to please no man, although many men and women are, in fact, enthralled by my writings, and ask me to go on writing. I write to uphold the truth. I make no apologies for being a monotheist, in the footsteps of the true great masters, prophet-messengers of our One Creator, — a religion of submission, to wit, a mukmin, a believer in the existence of one lawful God.

I also make no apologies for believing in the divinely-protected Quran, a scripture given in Arabic to an Arab Prophet Muhammad. I say protected, because I know it is protected by a mathematically-awesome-imposible-to-imitate structure based on 19. (See Quran, 74: 30). It is what has come to be known as Code 19.

All prophet-messengers are without exception are submitters to God, monotheists and believers. The great names include Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus was one of the great monotheists of his time. When I stated that Jesus was not a Christian, but a  monotheist, a submitter and a believer, most Christians were up in arms against me. Let me repeat, I write to please no man; I write to the uphold the truth, although the truth is bitter. The doctrine of Trinity was promulgated by the Christian Church in the Council of Nicaea in 315 A.D., long after Jesus was dead.

One Christian reader asked why Jesus had no father; he must be the son of God, he argued. Another claimed that Christians felt the Trinity in the marrow of their bones. The current Pope Francis, a “peoples’ pope”, who when he visited the United States recently never talked about doctrine, but talked about the down-trodden and about inter-religious dialogue. The Pope knows better.

It is a truism that one should not discuss religion. “It is sensitive.” Again I say I write to please no man. I write to uphold the truth, although most people do not like the truth.

What the is the truth? asked Pilate, the Roman governor charged with judging Jesus, whom he found not guilty of rebellion. This is what I call “the Mother of All Questions”. Does the truth exist objectively? To Jesus it does, for he said, “The truth will set you free.”

To answer this question is to answer all questions. Why did God create this world? One answer among many goes, “God created the heavens and the other with truth.” (Quran, 22: 44) What does that mean? It means all orders of creations submit to the law of truth. It means God is the truth.

Some clever people might asks, “Can God contravene His own law of truth?” The answer is of course He can, but God  will not  act against Himself. That would mean two gods who would fight for dominion. That is impossible. As to the atheist, who says religion is the opium of the masses, challenge him to create one that will last beyond his lifetime.

*KASSIM AHMAD is a freelance writer. His website is www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com

May 7, 2016 Elections: Sarawak political machine will prop up Najib

April 24, 2016


May 7, 2016 Elections: Sarawak political machine will prop up Najib

by James Chin, University of Tasmania


On  May 7,  residents of Sarawak, the larger of the two Malaysian states located on Borneo island, will be going to the polls. Sarawak is the only one of Malaysia’s 13 states to hold its state and federal polls separately. This is the first election in Malaysia since the emergence of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) crisis engulfing Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Prime Minister Najib Razak at Malaysia's parliament in Kuala Lumpur on 26 January 2016. (Photo: AAP)

Many Malaysian and international pundits are using the results of the upcoming Sarawak polls to see if the 1MDB scandal will affect Malaysian voter behaviour. Najib has taken a personal interest in the polls, visiting Sarawak more than 50 times since he took power in 2009.

It is fairly obvious that he is looking for a big win in Sarawak to use as political capital and momentum for the next federal polls, due in 2018. Many international and Malaysian observers are speculating about how Najib’s political position may have been weakened by allegations that US$1.1 billion (or more) from the 1MBD fund ended up in his personal bank account. But they often overlook that a major part of Najib’s political strength has been his considerable ability to maintain a majority in parliament.

It is important to understand that Malaysia’s elections are free, but not fair by any standards. Gerrymandering, vote-buying, the use of government machinery for voter mobilisation and state control of the mainstream media are all part and parcel of the game. Far more seriously, the Election Commission of Malaysia is consistently accused of bias towards the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government.

But the key is the way parliamentary seats are divided. Essentially, there are three blocs of constituencies in the 222-seat Malaysian parliament. The first is the urban constituencies, almost all of which have an ethnic Chinese majority. Second are the semi-rural and rural constituencies in the Malayan Peninsula — by contrast, almost all are ethnic Malay majority seats. While Najib has been able to win about 60 to 70 per cent of the rural Malay vote, BN has consistently lost the Chinese urban vote.

The third, and most important, are the 57 seats in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo (collectively known as East Malaysia). The majority ethnicities in these two states are the native Kadazandusun in Sabah and the Dayak in Sarawak. For the past two decades, these two states have voted overwhelmingly for BN. In the 2013 general elections, BN won 47 of 57 East Malaysian seats. Sarawak alone contributed 25 BN MPs to the federal BN government.

Currently Najib has a 21-seat majority in the Malaysian parliament. In other words, without East Malaysia (or Sarawak alone), Najib’s government would have fallen in 2013. Sarawak’s main party, Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), is now the second largest BN component party after Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Is it any wonder that Najib has taken a personal interest in the upcoming Sarawak polls?

The good news for Najib is that he has nothing to worry about. As they say in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, ‘BN is sure win, lah!’ Sarawak is much like a foreign enclave in the Malaysian federation. Sarawakians do not really see themselves as part of Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’. Rather they see themselves as Sarawakian first and Malaysian second. The ethnic, religious and partisan cleavages that dominate politics in the Malayan Peninsula have comparatively little relevance in Sarawak. In fact, it is the only state where UMNO does not have a single branch.

Local issues predominate: things like the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s other shenanigans are non-issues outside the urban settlements. The most prominent political campaign in this state election is for a movement called ‘S4S’ or Sarawak for Sarawakians. S4S is pushing for the eventual secession of Sarawak from the Malaysian federation, claiming that Sarawak (and Sabah) have not benefited from being in the federation for the past half century.


On top of this, Adenan Satem, Sarawak’s new Chief Minister, can expect to benefit from a ‘honeymoon vote’. He took power in 2014 after the controversial former chief minister Taib Mahmud stepped down (or rather stepped up, since he became Governor of Sarawak) after more than three decades in the job.

Just to make sure, 11 new state constituencies were created for this coming state election, bringing the total to 82 state seats. The way the boundaries were drawn, it is impossible for BN to lose 10 of these 11 new seats.

The only group of Sarawakians that is expected to vote against BN is the urban Chinese. They have never forgiven Taib’s alleged kleptocracy. Being better educated, and with access to the internet and social media, the urban Chinese want to send a clear message to BN that while it is good that UMNO is not in Sarawak, nothing is politically forgotten until Taib and his proxy Adenam give up their stranglehold over Sarawak politics.

The upcoming Sarawak elections will likely amount to nothing but a big yawn. Chief Minister Adenan will get the all-important two-thirds majority in the state legislature and Najib will claim some credit for the results. Those who know Sarawak politics well will realise that this is pure nonsense — the results will be the same as usual regardless of how many times Najib has shown his face in Sarawak.

Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania

UMNO’s hegemony based on racism and religion

April 24, 2016

UMNO’s hegemony based on racism and religion is embodied in the Malaysian Constitution

by  Cmdr (rtd)  S. Thayaparan

“By linking something to race or religion, politicians distract Malaysians from the core issue while also garnering support from those whose identities depend heavily on their racial or religious identities – meaning most Malaysians.”– Brian Yap, ‘New Malaysian Essays 1’

Contrary to what constitutional law expert Abdul Aziz Bari claims, “those provisions” in the constitution relating to race and religion are neither “fair” nor “legitimate”.

UMNO, MCA, MIC, Gerakan and Bee End belong to the dustbin of History

Indeed, any provision that seeks to protect the political interests of any race is, by definition, anathema to any kind of national solidarity and “racist” in nature.

There is no moral or legitimate argument to be made, that the codification of special interests of a majoritarian race-based polity is somehow fair and that “unfairness” is merely a question of application.

Furthermore, contrary to what MCA’s Ti Lian Ker claims, the Federal Constitution is not “accentuating the inherent racism in Malaysia due to its provisions for race and religion” but rather “those” provisions are enabling the inherent racism of a political party determined to maintain political hegemony.

This is not to say that “racism” is not inherent in the non-Malay polity but rather in the political sphere it manifests in different ways. In addition, do not get me started on oppositional discourse.

Behind the running dog invectives thrown the MCA’s way is a deep-rooted sense of racial betrayal, which manifest in the public debates between former MCA strongman Chua Soi Lek and the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng about how Chinese Malaysians are at a crossroads (sic).

However, the MCA political operative did show some cojones when he said “we can consider amending or ratifying our constitution to free ourselves of racism” but of course, he qualified this with the most overused, disingenuous, servile and obnoxious Malaysian excuse of “come a day when we are there – a matured and democratic nation”.

First off, amending the constitution is not going to free “ourselves” of racism. Amending the constitution is merely going to remove mechanism that sanction race-based policies. More than just mere symbolism but rather concrete steps, that acknowledges the reality that all Malaysians should be treated equally regardless of race.

Secondly, the excuse that Malaysians are not mature is complete utter bull manure. The only people who are not mature are the useful idiots that the state employs to protests on the streets whenever any indication of egalitarianism is introduced into the public discourse, be it in matters of race, religion or politics.


The cabals who control those useful idiots are not immature. Theirs is a sustained ill-conceived agenda to maintain political hegemony through notions of racial superiority.

So Abdul Aziz Bari is right when he claims MCA’s collusion not only in the constitution – well, it’s a little more complicated than that – but also the furtherance of agendas that in the end proved more detrimental to the Malay community rather than the non-Malay communities, who somehow managed to thrive and prosper in this environment.

The myth of power sharing

Thriving and prospering on the most part is why the Barisan Nasional enjoyed majority support despite all the electoral legerdemain that has got worse over the long UMNO watch. In other words, the MCA’s sins of collusion for not speaking up when the reality is that the MCA enjoyed majority support from the community it claimed to represent.

Which is why a statement like “So MCA should have trained its gun on UMNO and not the constitution,” is a tad queer. Or maybe not. I suppose this goes back to the question of whether one views those provisions in the constitution as being “fair” or that the “legitimate” concerns could be classified according to ethnicity.

Which is also why the MCA’s nostalgia about bridge building “and interracial goodwill by virtue of our cooperation, understanding and compromises” is merely code for pragmatism, which in itself is a falsity because there is nothing pragmatic about electorally endorsing provisions that separates us along racial and religious lines.

As Mavis Puthucheary wrote, and who I quoted in an article a while back, articulated in ‘Malaysia’s Social Contract – Exposing the Myth Behind the Slogan’:

“In the first 10 years after Independence, the balance of power between the two main parties, UMNO and the MCA, was more or less equal. After 1969, however, the balance of power within the ruling coalition shifted significantly in favour of Umno and the political system itself became less democratic.

“Although both parties fared badly in the 1969 elections, UMNO leaders who had secured control of the government concentrated their efforts on regaining Malay support while still maintaining the power-sharing structure.

“With the introduction of the New Economic Policy and the extension of Malay privileges, especially in the fields of education and employment, UMNO regained its popularity among the Malays and consequently assumed a dominant position in the ruling coalition.”

So this myth that political parties were operating in accordance to some sort of long cherished belief of power sharing as a means of facilitating national unity, is just that – a myth.

UMNO Cultivated Idiots and Bigots

There was no halcyon period of interracial political goodwill but rather the cold comfort of a Malaysian polity engaging in so-called pragmatism because nobody really cared about the advancing forward as a nation but safeguarding the interests of their individual communities.

So Biro Tatanegara (BTN) chief Ibrahim Saad is fooling nobody when he gravely intones, “The problem (of racism) comes when there are elections, when certain quarters want to increase political power by exploiting sensitive issues”, because by “quarters” he means the Chinese community and by “sensitive issues”, he means those issues which maintain UMNO hegemony, issues which are enshrined in our constitution.

In other words, standing up to bigotry and racism becomes a racist act and questioning those very provisions or policies that divide us along racial and religious lines becomes a racial political agenda. This is funny because oppositional parties are bending over backwards and in doing so engaging in the kind of political behaviour that contributes to the system of oppression that has sustained UMNO all these years.

I have said it before, said it again and will always say it. Racial politics is a bitch and apparently an unforgiving one. But Thomas Sowell, who has since become a Republican shill, says it better: “Racism does not have a good track record. It’s been tried out for a long time and you’d think by now we’d want to put an end to it instead of putting it under new management.”

S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.–www.malaysiakini.com

Politicians, Bankers and Illicit Cash

April 24, 2016

Politicians, Bankers and Illicit Cash

by Dr. KS Jomo*


Unlike earlier Wikileaks’ exposes, the recent Panama Papers revelations were quite selective, targeted, edited and carefully managed. Most observers attribute this to the political agendas of its mainly American funders.

Nevertheless, the revelations have highlighted some problems associated with illicit financial flows, as well as tax evasion and avoidance, including the role of enabling governments, legislation, legal and accounting firms as well as shell companies.

The political tremors generated by the edited release of 11 million documents were swift. Nobody expected Iceland’s Prime Minister to resign in less than 48 hours, nor the British Prime Minister to publicly admit that he benefited from the hidden wealth earned from an opaque offshore company of his late father.

How low can you go?

In the 1960s, there was a popular dance called the ‘limbo rock’, with the winner leaning back as much as possible to get under the bar. Many of today’s financial centres are involved in a similar game to attract customers by offering low tax rates and banking secrecy. This has, in turn, forced many governments to lower direct taxes not only on income, but also on wealth.

From the early 1980s, this was dignified by US President Ronald Reagan’s embrace of Professor Arthur Laffer’s curve which claimed higher savings, investments and growth with less taxes.

With the decline of government revenue from direct taxes, especially income tax, many governments were forced to cut spending, often by reducing public services, raising user-fees and privatising state-owned enterprises. Beyond a point, there was little room left for further cuts. Hence, governments had to raise revenue, typically from indirect taxes. These were mainly on consumption, as trade taxes were discouraged to promote trade liberalisation.

Many countries have since adopted value-added taxation (VAT), long promoted in recent decades by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others as the superior form of taxation: after all, once the system is in place, raising rates is relatively easy.

Malaysia not progressive

A progressive tax system would seek to ensure that those with more ability to do so would pay proportionately more tax than those with less ability to do so. Instead, tax systems have become increasingly regressive, with the growing middle class bearing the main burden of taxes.

Meanwhile, tax competition among countries has not only reduced tax revenue, but also made direct taxation less progressive, while the growth of value-added tax (VAT) has made the overall impact of taxation more regressive as the rich pay proportionately less tax with all the loopholes available to them, both nationally and abroad.

Although there are many reasons for income inequality, hidden untaxed wealth has undoubtedly also increased wealth and income inequality at the national and international level.

As my late colleague, Professor Ismail Muhd Salleh showed, overall tax incidence in Malaysia has long been regressive, but has also become more regressive over time. Later work by Professor Wee Chong Hui confirmed that income inequality is not only worse after taxes, but has also become worse, especially since the mid-1980s.

Recent public resistance to the goods and services tax (GST) suggests that many have a gut feeling that all is not well, let alone fair.

Illegal capital outflows

According to Global Financial Integrity (GFI), Malaysia lost US$418.542 billion during 2004-2013, losing US$48.25 billion in 2013 alone.

The illegal capital outflows stem from tax evasion, crime, corruption and other illicit activities. Malaysia is fifth, among the top five countries for illegal capital flight, after China, Russia, Mexico and India, but tops the list, by far, on a per capita basis.

GFI’s December 2015 report found that developing and emerging economies had lost US$7.8 trillion in illicit financial flows over the decade, with illicit outflows increasing by an average of 6.5 percent yearly.

Over the decade, an average of 83.4 percent of illicit financial outflows were due to fraudulent trade mis-invoicing, involving intentional misreporting by transnational companies of the value, quantity or composition of goods on customs declaration forms and invoices, usually for tax evasion.

Blatant defence

Following the Panama revelations, most Western government leaders have pledged tougher action against tax evasion and avoidance, especially by those using developing country havens. In the face of declining aid flows to poor countries, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) chair, Erik Solheim, has suggested greater tax efforts instead.

But since they receive most of the funds in the tax havens in the world, the OECD has historically focused on very limited matters. Hence, these same governments have blocked efforts to give the United Nations (UN) a stronger mandate to advance international cooperation on taxation, culminating in the modest Addis Ababa Action Agenda declared at the third UN Financing for Development conference in July last year.

As major users of such facilities, many developing country leaders have been conspicuously silent in the face of recent revelations of what they have long enabled and practiced. After all, much of what is involved is publicly considered illicit, immoral, even ‘sinful’, even if it is not illegal. Very often, the rich currently pay less in taxes than most of their lowest paid employees.

But what is shocking in Malaysia is the blatant defence, even advocacy of tax avoidance, by leaders of a government which has been running major budgetary deficits for two decades. While the Malaysian public is being burdened with GST, incredibly, ministers are insisting that tax avoidance is fine.

Rather than blame the political opposition, scurrilous rumour-mongers or critical social media for the lack of public trust in the authorities, those concerned may wish to look in their mirrors first.

Dr. JOMO KS was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

April 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

by Norman Gelb


David Cesarani’s succinct new biography of preeminent Victorian statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Disraeli: The Novel Politician, challenges the commonly held view of Disraeli as having played a heroic role in Jewish history. Instead, Cesarani portrays Disraeli as a political opportunist “infused with a contempt for traditional Judaism,” whose literary writings “sketched the first draft of the Jewish world conspiracy theory” and made a “fundamental contribution to modern literary anti-Semitism.” Disraeli, who has erroneously been called Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, was baptized by his father into the Anglican Church when he was 12 years old. However, he never actually denied his Jewish heritage. Instead, he skillfully manufactured a myth of aristocratic Jewish origins that he would pragmatically exploit when convenient and completely ignore when not.

Disraeli: The Novel Politician is the late English historian’s final book. David Cesarani, who died of cancer last October at age 58, was considered the foremost British historian of the modern Jewish experience of his generation.

Countless historians before him have documented Disraeli’s rise to power and his importance as a politician. Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837, and in the 1850s and 1860s served first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Leader of the House of Commons. After a brief first term as prime minister in 1868, Disraeli regained office in 1874. A major player on the international stage, Disraeli was enormously popular at home for expanding and consolidating Britain’s position as a worldwide imperial power. He was credited with reuniting the divided Conservative Party and was instrumental in its development as a modern political force. He was the driving force behind legislation that improved social conditions for the most vulnerable populations in Britain, including new laws to regulate public health and others designed to prevent the exploitation of workers and improve the general public’s access to education. He was close personal friends with Queen Victoria, who made him the Earl of Beaconsfield and reportedly wept when he died.

Cesarani’s biography follows a newer trend of historians viewing Disraeli through a more critical lens. Until comparatively recently, with the exception of a few anti-Semites, scholars have fairly uniformly viewed Disraeli as an admirable and effective, if exotic, British statesman. But lately, the perception of him as a worthy public benefactor has come under fire.

British historian Robert Blake, who wrote a very comprehensive biography of Disraeli, conceded that the man’s political career was an impressive one but added that “there is no need to make it seem more extraordinary than it really was,” since other political figures deserved much of the credit for achievements attributed to Disraeli. Another recent biography of Disraeli, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, described his contribution to British politics as “vast, transformative and special” but also portrayed Disraeli as a manipulative man for whom politics was “always a game in which pieces were moved about to…outflank the enemy. It had no moral content.” And British historian John Vincent has called Disraeli “a politician of very few principles or beliefs… He spent much of his life scheming.” 

Cesarani, unlike previous biographers of Disraeli, spends relatively little time on his subject’s dynamic and often controversial political life. Instead, he devotes his attention to another key aspect of Disraeli’s persona: his vaunting of his supposedly aristocratic Jewish origins and the special distinction he claimed they conferred on him. But despite Disraeli at times making a calculated use of his Jewish background, Cesarani shows that in actuality Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism and to issues facing Britain’s Jews was a deeply troubled one.

Disraeli was the grandson of Jewish immigrants to Britain from Italy and was born in London to Jewish parents. Even though he converted to Christianity, attended church on a weekly basis and was an avowed champion of the Anglican Church, Disraeli faced anti-Semitism throughout his adult life, including claims that his prime motivation in politics was to “pursue an alien agenda” and advance “Hebrew” causes.

Disraeli’s conversion permitted him, upon election, to evade bans on non-Christians becoming members of Parliament. Disraeli knew when and how to invoke his Jewish origins. At times, he proudly boasted of his exalted “racial” Jewish birthright. When scornfully called a Jew by a fellow parliamentarian, he cuttingly replied that when his accuser’s ancestors “were savages on an unknown Island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.” And Cesarani notes that in his fictional writing, Disraeli sometimes played up “the glories of the Jewish race.”

Cesarani dismisses Disraeli’s public exaltations of his Jewish origins as a mere affectation, stating that as a politician “he was insensitive or insensible to a range of Jewish issues” and was, at best, inconsistent with regard to Jewish matters. In December of 1837, soon after his first election, Disraeli uncharacteristically kept his head down while other MPs heatedly debated whether Sir Moses Montefiore or any other Jew should be allowed to hold political office. And unlike many other British leaders, he remained completely silent during “the Damascus Affair,” a blood libel charge against a dozen prominent Syrian Jews that resulted in widespread riots against the Jewish community in Damascus and triggered protests around the Jewish world.

Even as Prime Minister, says Cesarani, Disraeli chose to completely ignore “vicious [verbal] attacks on the Jews” by establishment figures and, in his many travels to Europe and the Middle East, made no effort to seek out Jewish sites or groups. He generally seemed to have little knowledge of, or interest in, Jewish history. Cesarani notes that Disraeli, in one of his early writings, said Britain enjoyed great freedom under the Plantagenet monarchs, but made no mention of the fact that under Plantagenet rule, Jews “suffered exploitation and massacre.” 

Cesarani offers nuanced revisions and correctives to prior scholarship on the nature of Disraeli’s Jewishness. For instance, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt suggests that Disraeli’s “Jewish obsession was a strategy to combat his own sense of social inferiority…as an outsider in upper class Tory circles….” [He invented] “the myth of Jewish racial superiority” to match the perceived nobility of members of the British aristocracy.” Cesarani contends that “the chronology of this explanation does not work” because, he notes, Disraeli was able to “[rub] shoulders with both raffish and respectable aristocrats” early on, “even if he was not yet invited to their country houses.”

Few other historians fully concur with Cesarani’s view on this; Arendt’s suggested explanation for Disraeli’s Jewish exhibitionist behavior is now part of a well-trodden path. In his biography of Disraeli, Columbia University scholar Adam Kirsch says that to find a way to be both English and Jewish, he “had to convince the world, and himself, that the Jews were a noble race, with a glorious past,” turning “his Jewishness from something generally considered disgraceful and embarrassing into a strength.”

In Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory, Bernard Glassman also agrees that Disraeli exploited his background to demonstrate the nobility of his ancient heritage and the superiority of his ancestral origins over those of his opponents: “Rather than deny his roots, he chose to make them an integral part of his mystique.” In Disraeli’s Jewishness, an anthology of essays edited by Todd Endelman and Tony Kushner, Endelman says his Jewish obsession “constituted a bold, if unusual, strategy to combat his own sense of special inferiority as an outsider in aristocratic Tory circles.”

But in that anthology, Kushner cautions that Disraeli’s parading his Jewish pride is “perhaps in danger of being overstated at the cost of many other features that made up this remarkable figure.” And Glassman asserts that, although Disraeli’s support of Jewish causes was “problematic,” his growing prominence attracted the admiring attention of Anglo-Jews who needed a hero to validate their own Englishness, and that gradually, in spite of Disraeli’s baptism, English Jews (numbering around 50,000 at the time) accepted him as a true representative of their faith and culture. Louise de Rothschild, a member of the famous Jewish banking family and a contemporary of Disraeli, was recorded to have said she felt “a sort of pride in the thought that he belongs to us, that he is one of Israel’s sons.”

Such exculpation does not impress Cesarani, who makes very few references to anything positive in Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism. He concludes his study of Disraeli with a further harsh assessment of his subject: “Ultimately, he fits squarely in modern Jewish history for the worst of reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse.” Disraeli’s racial stereotyping of Jews became part of the foundation of a prominent theme in modern anti-Semitic writings and speechifying by figures including Adolf Hitler. “At best,” says the implacable Cesarani, Disraeli “was a tragic, transitional figure; at worst, he was a reckless egoist.”

 Norman Gelb is a London-based historian and author. His most recent book is Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant.