Viewpoint: What Benjamin Disraeli knew about bullies

Benjamin Disraeli, a British politician during the mid-1800s, once said that “courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.”

And Disraeli would know, being the only British prime minister of Jewish descent. Born of Jewish parents, Disraeli was baptized a Christian early in life, but never hid from his origins, even though much of the bullying he met came veiled in anti-Semitic cloth.

Disraeli was often depicted in political cartoons as having a big nose and curly black hair, often under captions like “Shylock” (the villainous Jew from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) and “abominable Jew.” Once, he was even depicted as murdering an infant Britannia.

The man could have allowed his Jewish heritage to ruin him politically. He was already a successful lawyer and could have simply allowed the general anti-Semitism prevalent in Victorian England to keep him from pursuing his political ambitions. Instead, he went on to serve as British prime minister twice, serving in the British government for more than four decades. He gained a fast friendship with Queen Victoria, became well known for his writings and social critiques, and is considered one of the most influential figures of the Victorian Era.

Indeed, according to biographer Adam Kirsch, Disraeli’s Jewish heritage was not only “the greatest obstacle to his ambition,” but also “its greatest engine.”

Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician of the day, once overreacted to what he considered slander from Disraeli by saying that he “possesses all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle, etc. which would qualify him . . . to show that he is of Jewish origin.” He continued to insinuate that Disraeli’s lineage could probably be traced directly to those same fellows who “ended (the) career (of) the Founder of the Christian Faith.”

Disraeli’s now-famous reply to that bully, often quoted, was as follows:

“Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman (O’Connell) were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Bullying can show up anywhere. It shows up in the halls of the British Parliament, but also in the halls of any junior high school. Or, more relevantly, in the halls of our university.

And so, since today (Oct. 10) is National Bullying Prevention Day, how do we recognize these smoking bullies and put out their harmful fires?

A bully may be the archetypal brute, stealing lunch money and stuffing folks in lockers, but a more destructive bully may appear in the form of a close friend who spreads gossip.

Bullies may appear as anti-anyones, who define themselves not by what they believe, but by mocking those who do believe.

Bullies may appear as teachers who demand long hours on short notice, abusing their grading authority.

Bullies may appear as students who grade-grub and hassle professors for the marks they don’t deserve.

Bullies may appear in the form of anyone who rejects new ideas for the sake of their newness.

But wherever bullies appear, they always show up as anyone who causes a person to feel low. They may target short people, fat people, ugly people, gay people, religious people, irreligious people, old people, rich people, young people, poor people, or maybe Jews trying to be politicians. They target perceived “flaws” simply to feel better about their own.

Bullies, at their core, have none of the fire of courage. Disraeli knew that and proved it. They may blow smoke, but it’s up to the rest of us to simply open the window and wave their words outside.