Mark Twain, Eretz Yisrael, And The Jews
By: Saul Jay Singer
The Jewish Press
June 19th, 2015
Albert Bigelow Paine (1861-1937), a respected member of the Pulitzer Prize Committee, was himself a prolific writer of novels, stories, children’s books, travel volumes and, perhaps most famously, a definitive three-volume biography on Twain (1906).
As Twain’s literary executor, he was singularly responsible for controlling both the publication of Twain’s posthumous works and protecting his public image and reputation. As an interesting side note, the title of his novel The Great White Way (1901) came into general use as the name for Broadway and New York’s theatrical district.
Twain was already a famous author and American icon when he undertook a journey from the United States to Europe and the Middle East and published his accounts of his travels as the semi-autobiographical and partly fictional The Innocents Abroad (1869), which was the best-selling of his works during his lifetime and, even to date, remains one of the best-selling travel books of all time.
He was among the first notables in the nineteenth century to travel to Eretz Yisrael and provide a description of the Holy Land and its people, and his descriptions provide a bleak picture of a desolate and miserable land only eighty years before the rebirth of the state of Israel.
Twain: “We traversed some miles of desolate country, a silent, mournful expanse; a desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We never saw a human being on the whole route. The further we went, the more repulsive and dreary the landscape became. No landscape exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem…. At last, away in the middle of the day, ancient bite of wall and crumbling arches began to line the way – Jerusalem!
Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. We dismounted and looked across the wide intervening valley for an hour or more; and noted those prominent features of the city that pictures make familiar to all men from their school days till their death….
The appearance of the city is peculiar. It is as knobby with countless little domes as a prison door is with bolt heads. The streets are roughly and badly paved with stone, and are tolerably crooked…. The population of Jerusalem is composed of Moslems, Jews, Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Abyssinians, Greek Catholics, and a handful of Protestants. It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem.
Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic, assail you on every hand. To see the numbers of maimed, malformed and diseased humanity that throng the holy places and obstruct the gates, one might suppose that the ancient days had come again, and that the angel of the Lord was expected to descend at any moment to stir the waters of Bethesda. Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land…. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.”
Twain observed that not a solitary village could be found throughout the Jezreel Valley for 30 miles in either direction; that the desolation in the Galilee was beyond description; that Bethlehem is “untenanted by any living creature,” and describes the Kotel as that portion of the ancient wall of Solomon’s Temple which is called the Jew’s Place of Wailing, and “where the Hebrews assemble every Friday to kiss the venerated stones and weep over the fallen greatness of Zion; any one can see a part of the unquestioned and undisputed Temple of Solomon.”
Twain’s book, “Innocents Abroad” remains particularly important to Zionists because it proves that the Palestine visited by Twain was nothing but a colonial Ottoman Empire backwater whose few wretched residents lacked any sense of national identity or attachment to the land. Many properly cite “Innocents” as evidence that the Arab presence in Eretz Yisrael was so inconsequential before the arrival of the Zionist pioneers as to defeat any modern Arab claim to the land.
After the Civil War, when a majority of Americans held negative stereotypical opinions of the Jewish people, Twain defended them. In Stirring Times in Austria, published by Harper’s Magazine (March 1898), he wrote that although no Jew had even arguably participated in the Austrian riots, the one constant was the uniformity of the animosity of the Austrian people against the Jews: “In all cases the Jew had to roast, no matter which side he was on.” An American Jewish lawyer wrote to him asking why the Jews have always been “the butt of baseless, vicious animosities” even though “for centuries there has been no more quiet, undisturbing, and well-behaving citizen, as a class, than that same Jew.”
In “Concerning the Jews” (Harper’s, September 1989), an original copy of which is displayed with this column, Twain penned his well-considered answer, in which he begins with the observation that the Jew, a well-behaved citizen, “is not a loafer, he is not a sot; in the statistics of crime his presence is conspicuously rare, in all countries” and comments on the beauty of the Jewish home and how honestly and charitably the Jews conduct their affairs.
He argues that, in light of the outstanding moral character and monumental intellectual achievement of the Jewish people and their contributions to society, it cannot be mere ignorance and fanaticism that fuels anti-Semitism, but that the “hostility to the Jew comes from the average Christian’s inability to compete successfully with the average Jew in business.”
In an intriguing conclusion, Twain suggests that the Jews can improve their situation by organizing politically and by acting together to enact a Jewish agenda, and he cites with approval “Dr. Herzl,” who “wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own.” However, the most significant passage in Concerning the Jews is the author’s oft-quoted conclusion, which never fails to move me to tears:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Indeed, words to be treasured for all time.
About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every other week.
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