Center Field: Mark Twain’s ‘Innocents Abroad’ explains our Israel obsession

Clearly, we have some Mark Twain-like “unlearning” to do, especially about Israel.

Mark Twain 521 (photo credit: Creative Commons)
Mark Twain 521
(photo credit: Creative Commons)
A delightful exhibition at the New York Historical Society, in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, celebrates the 150th anniversary of Mark Twain’s biggest best-seller when he was alive. No, it had nothing to do with Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn or any Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur’s court. Instead, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, one of the best-selling travelogues ever, chronicled Samuel Clemens’s world tour in 1867, culminating with his visit to Palestine.
The book shows how travel opens minds, exposes follies, busts myths. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth,” Clemens taught, using his pen name Mark Twain for these journalistic dispatches he published all together in 1869. Twain’s insight still applies: texting globally from home is not enough. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely....”
I had the privilege of interviewing the leading American Jewish historian, Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, at the exhibit’s launch last week. The exhibit features goose-bump-inducing treasures, many collected by Ben Shapell of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Seeing parts of the manuscript in Twain’s handwriting, viewing a ticket to Twain’s tour, drawings of the ship itself, along with the signatures of famous travelers on similar world tours, including Herman Melville and Theodore Roosevelt, brings history alive.
But reading the book – and discussing it with Sarna – brought history home, making it strikingly relevant. Even a century and a half later, we have much to learn from seeing how this magnificent American writer engaged this ongoing Western obsession, the Promised Land, especially when viewed from the new Promised Land, America.
When dining, pairing the chardonnay with the foie gras may highlight our pretenses. In this match made in heaven, the 32-year-old former riverboat pilot showcases our gullibility when dazzled by tall-tale-telling tour guides or overly literal preachers.
Twain mocked the idiocies of the pious people lovingly. His popularity evokes happier days when we could laugh at our foibles, even when someone else dared to point them out.
Visiting the Holy Land, tourists suddenly become “pilgrims” and relinquish their characteristic skepticism. Compressing “too much into one day,” Twain noted, they “gorge sights” like they were “sweetmeats,” swallowing as much “food for a year’s reflection,” before every breakfast.
Twain shared the Pilgrims’ amazement that he was “sitting where a god has stood,” that the Promised Land’s magic radiated to the world’s most “remote islands.” Because he appreciated that travel “rob[s] us of the most cherished traditions of our boyhood,” he realized: “I must studiously and faithfully unlearn a great many things I have somehow absorbed concerning Palestine.”
Raised in America’s expansive, fertile heartland, Twain assumed Palestine would be equally grand. Stunned that the “mighty” Jordan barely gurgled and three Palestines could fit snugly into his home state of Missouri, he confessed: “I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history.”
Twain exhausted his vocabulary describing how bald, desolate, deserted, sterile, depressing Palestine was – “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes,” he mourned. His anguish disproves modern Palestinians’ allegations that calling pre-1948 Palestine “abandoned” is some Zionist slur.
Twain offered his pragmatic American explanation for Palestine’s desolation: “Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land.” Twain feared that Palestine induced so much stargazing no one ever rolled up their sleeves to produce anything there.
Fortunately, the Zionist movement was starting to tap into old-new Jewish dreams to motivate hardy, hardscrabble, hardworking pioneers – much as the American dream drove Twain’s fellow Americans. This pre-Zionist book offers a core Zionist message. The Palestine Twain saw highlights the modern miracles Zionism created that we take for granted.

STILL, IF dreams can motivate or paralyze, mythmaking can inspire – or disappoint. Sarna has long shown how Palestine as dreamland boosted modern Israel in American and Jewish eyes. Many Americans, especially American Jews, echo the pilgrims’ naivete. They romanticize Israel, falling in love with what Sarna calls a “mythical Israel,” more indicative of “American Jewish ideals” than “Israeli realities.” The Zionist dream, American-style, long celebrated an Israel that was even more progressive than America – defined by kibbutz workers, not Wall Street investors; built by new brawny Jews, not traditionally brainy Jews.
Beware: too much mythmaking about any country – especially the world’s only Jewish state trying to survive in a Middle East hostile to Jews and democracies – is risky. As with any romance, some idealization during courtship greases the wheels of love. And Israel’s “dreamland” still dazzles most Americans. But, today, with Israel in middle age, the toxicity of faded romance often triggers an overly harsh counterreaction. Somehow, many of Israel’s jilted leftist lovers still love America while hating Donald Trump. Yet when they detest an Israeli policy or prime minister, they give up on Israel and Zionism.
Mark Twain’s memories of being a Missouri non-Yankee in King Solomon’s court helps explain our modern obsession with Israel, too. Twain emphasizes how foundational Palestine is to the West. “Crowded with historical interest,” filled with “elegant fragments,” it still dominates our collective imaginations.
But heed Twain’s warning. Those who believe Israel can do no right – along with those who believe Israel can do no wrong – are often telling us more about the “verdicts they brought with them” rather than their fair assessments of this rich, complex, modern democracy.
Clearly, we have some Mark Twain-like “unlearning” to do, especially about Israel.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.