Was Mark Twain's depiction of Israel in the 1800s accurate?

Was Mark Twain’s depiction of a desolate empty land inaccurate, an aberration? What did other travelers during this period write about their visits to the Holy Land?

 A portrait of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
A portrait of Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The renowned American author and masterful satirist Samuel Clemens, also known by the pen name Mark Twain, was an abolitionist, a supporter of women’s rights and a supporter of Jewish emancipation. His attitude toward Jews is evident in his earliest book, The Innocents Abroad (1869).

The book chronicles a trip he took in 1867 along with 74 other passengers on the Quaker City, a forerunner of today’s cruise liners. The five-month trip included visits to Spain, France and Italy as well as Turkey, Syria and Palestine.

Midway through the book, while in Rome, Mark Twain paints an idyllic picture of life in America, emphasizing the rights of the common man and the separation of church and state. He also writes that Jews in America are “treated just like human beings, instead of dogs.” They are entitled to vote, own land, live wherever they wish, practice the professions and associate with Christians. They are not, as was true in many parts of Europe, shut up in a corner of town, forced to attend church on Sundays in order to hear their religion maligned, or subject themselves to humiliating games at carnival time.

The book is of particular interest to Zionists because it documents the desolation and unpeopled nature of Palestine as “a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” On the approach to Jerusalem, “There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

Yet in a 2017 Haaretz article (“Mark Twain’s Book on the Holy Land is still controversial-Some Would Say Trumpian”), Moshe Gilad writes that Clemens ignored that his visit to the land coincided with a time when “many residents were absent because of serious economic difficulties that forced them to live for a certain time in Egypt and other lands.” In a similar vein, the pro-Palestinian website Palestine Remembered notes that Mark Twain’s visit occurred during the middle of the hot Mediterranean summer, that his visit was brief, and that he provided no statistical data regarding Palestine’s agricultural or demographic make-up.

The sea of of Galilee is forecast to hit its lowest level ever (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)The sea of of Galilee is forecast to hit its lowest level ever (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

So was Mark Twain’s depiction of a desolate empty land inaccurate, an aberration? What did other travelers during this period write about their visits to the Holy Land?

In fact, several 18th- and 19th-century travelers to the Holy Land wrote about their experiences, and the resulting volumes are in the public domain and available on the Internet. (In at least one case, a facsimile of the book is available.)

Fredrik Hasselquist, a Swedish doctor and naturalist, visited the Levant (today’s Israel, Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and Syria) in the 1750s. Hasselquist’s account, written in Swedish, describes the flora and fauna of the region, but also includes descriptions of the economy, the geography and the people. Hasselquist’s friend and fellow Swede, Carl Linnaeus, the prominent biologist and inventor of the taxonomic system still used to identify plant and animal life, translated the account into English. It was published in 1766 as Travels in the Levant in the Years 1749, 50, 51, 52.

Hasselquist writes that the Holy Land is “uncultivated and almost uninhabited.” The primary source of income to the Turkish administration are the fees charged to visitors; 4,000 European, Greek and Armenian visitors yearly, along with an equal number of Jews from “all quarters of the world.” He estimates the Jewish population of Jerusalem to be 20,000, surely a substantial proportion of its population, while the town of Tiberius is described as half inhabited by Arabs, and the other half by Jews, who pay taxes to the Arabs.

Journey of a Tour in the Levant, published in 1820 by William Turner, a British diplomat and writer, is a three-volume description of the Levant and surrounding countries. Volume II (653 pages) includes a journey to Mount Lebanon, Sidon, Tyre, Acre, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, through Samaria to Jerusalem and Jaffa.

Turner’s travelogue describes a sparsely inhabited land. He reports that there is a small Jewish community in the town of Acre; that Safed, a town of 1,000 houses, includes 300 to 350 that are Jewish; Tiberius, a town of 550 houses, includes about 100 that are Jewish; and some Jews are to be found in Samaria. He notes that a plague reduced the Jewish population of the Holy Land by 3,000. He also notes that Jews constitute about half of the population of Jerusalem. Like Hasselquist, Turner comments on the Jewish pilgrims coming from far and wide, and notes that during the previous year none came from Salonica because of a plague.

Felix Bovet, a Christian theologian and professor of French Literature and Hebrew, visited the Holy Land in 1858 and wrote a book describing it (Egypt, Palestine and Phoenicia: A Visit to Sacred Lands, translated into English in 1882). Bovet’s descriptions mirror those of Clemens – a dreary desolate landscape that is sparsely inhabited. He notes that close to half of the population of Jerusalem is Jews, and that a majority of the Jews in Jerusalem are indigenous, that is, Turkish subjects. He concludes the Palestine section of the book stating that the Turks “have made a desert of it where it is scarcely possible to walk without fear. Even the Arabs who dwell there do so as temporary sojourners.”

The late American economist Fred M. Gottheil published an article titled “The Population of Palestine, circa 1875” in 1979 in the journal Middle Eastern Studies. In it Gottheil refers to the writings and reports of 13 additional mid-19th century observers, including James Finn, the British consul for Palestine. All of them, he writes, report that Palestine is a desolate and underpopulated place.

Gottheil undertook a detailed statistical analysis of the population. Using data from the best available sources, such as that provided by the Palestine Exploration Fund, a British Society organized in 1865 to study the geography and demographics of the Southern Levant (Palestine), Gottheil concluded that the population of Palestine in 1875 would be, at most, a little less than half a million, confirming the observation by several observers that it was underpopulated.

So why is there so much fuss about the population of a small corner of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries?

It is all about intersectionality and rival narratives regarding indigeneity. For Palestinians, and their anti-Zionist supporters, they are the indigenous people of Palestine, and the Israelis (Jews) are European colonial interlopers with no historical connection to the land. Their struggle is at one with the struggle by North American aboriginal activists.

Yet the Jewish claim to indigeneity in the Holy Land is at least equally compelling, if not more so. The continuity of Jewish life in the Holy Land is well documented. The Jewish presence in Palestine did not plummet to zero after the Jewish defeat by the Romans in 70 CE. Archaeological evidence shows that with the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life in Palestine shifted to Galilee. An autonomous Jewish patriarchate existed until 429 CE, and Jews constituted a majority of the population of Palestine until at least the sixth century CE.

In the centuries that followed, the Jewish population of Palestine waxed and waned, depending on immigration, the tolerance of the ruling regime, disease, and natural disasters. For example, the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) led to the establishment of a sizable Jewish community and center for Jewish scholarship in Tzfat (Safed), as well as a significant textile industry. In 1837 an earthquake destroyed the Jewish quarters of Safed and Tiberius, killing thousands of Jews.

What the Haaretz article by Gilad is essentially saying is that there are extenuating circumstances to be considered when evaluating the low population of Palestine observed by Mark Twain (and others). He is referring, of course, to the dominant part of the population, the Arabs and Turks. What about the Jewish population of Palestine? Are there any extenuating circumstances here as well?

In fact, one of the other common observations made by the visitors to the Holy Land during the 18th and 19th centuries was the poor treatment meted out to the Jews in the country by the ruling Turks and local Arabs. Even Karl Marx, hardly a philosemite, commented on the oppression and intolerance experienced by the Jews of Jerusalem from the Muslims, in an article he wrote in 1854 for the New York Daily Tribune about the Crimean War. (He also noted that Jews constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem.)

The word pogrom is a Russian word, first used in English in 1882 at the start of a series of violent attacks on the Jews of Russia. But pogroms were also a periodic feature of Jewish life in the Muslim world – one reason why more than half of the Jews in Israel today are descendants of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries. Palestine was no exception.

Safed enjoyed a few years of Jewish renewal in the early 1830s as a result of an influx of European Jews. By 1834 they represented half of the inhabitants of the town. That same year, however, the Jews of Palestine were caught between Egyptian and Ottoman rivalries, and local Arabs took it out on the Jews of Hebron and Safed. The situation in Safed was particularly appalling – the town’s Jews experienced a month-long orgy of looting, raping and killing by the local Arab population. Five hundred were killed.

So it is not surprising that the number of Jews in the Holy Land was, at times, quite low. Nor do low numbers have any bearing on indigeneity. All of the points used to define indigeneity – occupying ancestral lands, having a common ancestry, a common culture (including religion), a common language – are checked off when it comes to Jews and the Land of Israel.

Ryan Bellerose, a Canadian Métis and a North American aboriginal rights activist, noted in a 2017 Tablet article that “Palestinian Arabs also hold a claim to the Land of Israel... this does not trump the indigenous status of Jewish people.” ■

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.