Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Netanyahu’s Embrace of Mark Twain

A posting in the New York Times blog The Lede. Emphasis added.

May 20, 2009, 1:23 pm

Earlier this week a two-paragraph article on the Web site of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, on how a book by Mark Twain might factor in the quest for Middle East peace, sparked a brush fire of commentary from bloggers and journalists. The Haaretz report suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel planned to give President Barack Obama an excerpt from Twain’s travel memoir “The Innocents Abroad,” during their meeting in Washington. The fact that both the White House and the the prime minister’s spokesman told The Lede on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s gift to Mr. Obama was another book, a Bible, reminds us that blogging is a lot easier if you don’t have to base your posts on confirmed reports. A cartoon from American Publisher in 1872, showing Mark Twain on the trip to the Middle East described in his “Innocents Abroad.”

Still, our digging into the matter revealed that Mr. Netanyahu is just one of several people who have argued in recent years that the part of Twain’s book describing his visit to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in 1867 helps to prove that the Arab presence in what is today Israel was so insignificant before the arrival of Zionist pioneers that modern Palestinian claims on the land are unfounded.

As Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin wrote in a blog post suggesting that Mr. Obama should read Twain’s book:

Twain’s recollections of his post Civil War tour of the Mediterranean are an apt subject of reflection for Obama as he attempts to force Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state. The Palestine Twain visited was a backwater of the Ottoman Empire whose inhabitants had no sense of a separate national identity. Though Palestinian nationalism is a reality that Israel must contend with today, it originated and gained traction solely as a reaction to the return of large numbers of Jews to the country.

In fact “Innocents Abroad” is so popular with Zionists that the chapters from Twain’s travelogue on the Middle East have been translated into Hebrew and published as a separate book, called “Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land.”

Nine years ago, in a book of his own, “A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations,” Mr. Netanyahu cited some of the observations in “Innocents Abroad,” about how sparsely populated certain parts of the land were at the time of Twain’s visit, as proof of “what every civilized and educated person knew at the close of the nineteenth century: that the land was indeed largely empty.” Mr. Netanyahu quoted several passages from Twain’s book to support his argument that, even decades after the American writer visited the Holy Land, “this wasteland of Palestine,” with “its miniscule Arab presence, making use of virtually none of the available land for the people’s own meager needs, could hardly be considered a serious counter to the claim of millions of Jews the world over to a state of their own.”

To help convince his readers that the British had indeed given “a people without a land a land without a people,” in his book Mr. Netanyahu leaned heavily on quotes from Twain’s book, beginning with this one (all ellipses and punctuation are Mr. Netanyahu’s own):

Stirring senses… occur in this [Jezreel] valley no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent — not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings.

Next, Mr. Netanyahu cited this Twain’s description of the Galilee in 1867:

These unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of bareness that never, never, never, do shake the glare from their harsh outlines…; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under six funereal palms. … A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. … We reached [Mount] Tabor safely. … We never saw a human being on the whole route.

Mr. Netanyahu also supported his contention that Twain found “more of the same” in what the American described as “the barren mountains of Judea,” by quoting this passage:

Jericho the accursed lies a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago. … [Bethlehem,] the hallowed spot where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, and where the angels sand “Peace on earth, good will to men,” is untenanted by any living creature.

Whatever the merits of taking selected observations of a comic novelist as solid demographic evidence 130 years after the fact, Mr. Netanyahu might be faulted for constructing the paragraphs above by stitching together fragments of Twain’s account, with heavy use of ellipses. For instance, in the description of the Galilee quoted above, Mr. Netanyahu separated Mr. Twain’s thoughts about Tiberias and his description of a journey to Mount Tabor by ellipses and just one line of text, while in fact, as Frank J. Menetrez has pointed out in an analysis of how Twain’s text has been used by other Zionist authors, in “Innocents Abroad” there are “12 pages and numerous intervening paragraphs” between those two scenes.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONDetail from the first cover of “The Innocents Abroad.”

Mr. Netanyahu was not the first person to embrace “Innocents Abroad” in support of the argument that 19th century Palestine was a “wasteland.” As John Kearney wrote on the blog Mondoweiss on Monday, Twain’s “portrayal of the Holy Land as a filthy, backwards, empty place,” was cited by Joan Peters in her book “From Time Immemorial,” in 1984. All three of the passages from Twain quoted above from Mr. Netanyahu’s book appeared first in Ms. Peters’ book.

In his post on Mondoweiss, Mr. Kearney argued that Twain’s book was “hardly a survey,” and noted that “Today there are still large, non-agricultural areas in the West Bank and Israel where you can drive and not see a soul.”

Apart from the demographic argument though, there is no doubt that Twain had a lot of unfavorable things to say about Arabs, and was not shy of saying them. In a column in Haaretz on Wednesday, the Israeli historian Tom Segev noted that:

Netanyahu took historian Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, with him on his trip. Oren wrote a fascinating book on American attitudes toward the Middle East, in which he says the Muslims disgusted Twain: “No number of negative adjectives, it seems, could express Twain’s disgust.”

That said, in Mr. Oren’s book, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present,” he points out what some Israeli champions of Twain may have missed, that the writer was equally scathing about most of the world’s people, including Americans. According to Mr. Oren:

Twain indeed resembled earlier American visitors to the Middle East, yet one characteristic distinguished his writing from that of all other tourists. Whereas his predecessors looked at the region and saw in its brutality and backwardness an inverse image of their own tolerance and refinement, the mirror, for Twain, showed Americans to be equally small-minded and crude.

Mr. Oren also wrote that, in an essay against the anti-Semitism, which he wrote after being himself mistaken for a Jew, “Twain nearly defeated his purpose by mentioning the Jews’ alleged love of money and their reluctance to serve their country in war.” Such are the perils of embracing the criticism of your enemies by a comic happy to offend every member of his global audience.

Even if, as it seems, Mr. Netanyahu did not come to Washington bearing Twain’s book as a gift for Mr. Obama, the report in Haaretz did point a few American political reporters to the anti-Arab passages of “Innocents Abroad.” In a blog post on Monday, ABC’s Jake Tapper quoted this part of Twain’s description of Jerusalem under Muslim rule, which was far from flattering:

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, and they know but one word of but one language apparently—the eternal “bucksheesh.” 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.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONAn illustration from the first edition of “The Innocents Abroad.”

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