News

Huck and Jim vs. Herzl and Morris: Mark Twain on Zionism and the first aliyah

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr
Mark Twain's visitors pass to Palestine issued by the Ottomans. (Photo by Shapell Manuscript Foundation via Haaretz)
Mark Twain’s visitors pass to Palestine issued by the Ottomans in 1867. (Photo by Shapell Manuscript Foundation via Haaretz)

Anyone reading Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial or its fetid progeny, Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, will find Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad invoked as evidence for the claim that there weren’t many or any Palestinians in Palestine. Dershowitz comments, “Other travelers recorded similar accounts of Palestine prior to the arrival of the Jews of the First Aliyah, who began the process of revitalizing the land and increasing its population by creating jobs and an infrastructure” (p. 24). This is a classic settler colonial argument for land theft. One can find versions of it the writings of John Winthrop on seventeenth-century Massachusetts, in Thomas More’s Utopia, and in Jabotinsky’s The Iron Wall.

38931What isn’t so well known is Twain’s hilarious satire of Christian and Jewish Zionism in Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), where Tom observes that there there’s nobody in the Holy Land but a bunch of “paynims,” who can be driven out in good conscience. “Paynims” is an archaism for “pagans,” and specifically, the Muslims of chivalric romance. Tom is drawing off his reading of Sir Walter Scott’s medieval romances. Twain hated Scott with a passion: the derelict steamboat containing the body of the no-count racist Pap Finn is “The Sir Walter Scott.” And Twain blamed Scott for the Civil War itself: what he called the “Sir Walter Scott disease” infected Southern readers with a dream of reactionary aristocratic glory. And of course, that dream never died, as we can see in the Jacobite regalia and icons of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

In this little-read sequel to Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, bourgeois Tom Sawyer sounds awfully like Herzl, Jabotinsky, Peters, and Dershowitz, in his belief that nobody who isn’t organized in a proper nation state has any right to the land. Just living on and working the land isn’t enough. Poor white Huck and poor black Jim, on the other hand, immediately identify with the Palestinian peasantry, who just want to be left alone on their farms. Jim even seems to have an intuition about Palestinian hospitality: “Ef we wuz to go ‘mongst ‘em, jist we three, en say we’s hungry, en ast ‘em for a bite to eat, why, maybe dey’s jist like yuther people. Don’t you reckon dey is? Why, DEY’D give it, I know dey would, en den—“

Twain is thinking about the contemporary First Aliyah, (1882-1903), which brought thirty thousand European Jews to what was then Ottoman Palestine. In 1896, two years after Twain wrote, Theodor Herzl invoked some Crusader rhetoric in The Jewish State to describe a Zionist state as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism.” More recently, in his infamous 2002 Haaretz interview with Ari Shavit, Benny Morris first mocks Yasser Arafat for seeing Israel “as a Crusader state.” Then, Morris morphs into Crusader Tom: “Yes. I think that the war between the civilizations is the main characteristic of the 21st century. I think President Bush is wrong when he denies the very existence of that war. It’s not only a matter of bin Laden. This is a struggle against a whole world that espouses different values. And we are on the front line. Exactly like the Crusaders, we are the vulnerable branch of Europe in this place.”

Back to Twain. Tom does his best to bully Huck and Jim into submission, but Huck’s backwoods humanism carries the day: “But I didn’t care much. I am peaceable, and don’t get up rows with people that ain’t doing nothing to me. I allowed if the paynim was satisfied I was, and we would let it stand at that.” And finally, Huck is a better reader of Sir Walter Scott than Tom is: “I took the book and read all about it, and as near as I could make it out, most of the folks that shook farming to go crusading had a mighty rocky time of it.”

From Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), the Gutenberg edition

Well, we went out in the woods on the hill, and Tom told us what it was. It was a crusade.

“What’s a crusade?” I says.

He looked scornful, the way he’s always done when he was ashamed of a person, and says:

“Huck Finn, do you mean to tell me you don’t know what a crusade is?”

“No,” says I, “I don’t. And I don’t care to, nuther. I’ve lived till now and done without it, and had my health, too. But as soon as you tell me, I’ll know, and that’s soon enough. I don’t see any use in finding out things and clogging up my head with them when I mayn’t ever have any occasion to use ‘em. There was Lance Williams, he learned how to talk Choctaw here till one come and dug his grave for him. Now, then, what’s a crusade? But I can tell you one thing before you begin; if it’s a patent-right, there’s no money in it. Bill Thompson he—“

“Patent-right!” says he. “I never see such an idiot. Why, a crusade is a kind of war.”

I thought he must be losing his mind. But no, he was in real earnest, and went right on, perfectly ca’m.

“A crusade is a war to recover the Holy Land from the paynim.”

“Which Holy Land?”

“Why, the Holy Land—there ain’t but one.”

“What do we want of it?”

“Why, can’t you understand? It’s in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.”

“How did we come to let them git hold of it?”

“We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.”

“Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”

“Why of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”

I studied over it, but couldn’t seem to git at the right of it, no way. I says:

“It’s too many for me, Tom Sawyer. If I had a farm and it was mine, and another person wanted it, would it be right for him to—“

“Oh, shucks! you don’t know enough to come in when it rains, Huck Finn. It ain’t a farm, it’s entirely different. You see, it’s like this. They own the land, just the mere land, and that’s all they DO own; but it was our folks, our Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven’t any business to be there defiling it. It’s a shame, and we ought not to stand it a minute. We ought to march against them and take it away from them.”

“Why, it does seem to me it’s the most mixed-up thing I ever see! Now, if I had a farm and another person—“

“Don’t I tell you it hasn’t got anything to do with farming? Farming is business, just common low-down business: that’s all it is, it’s all you can say for it; but this is higher, this is religious, and totally different.”

“Religious to go and take the land away from people that owns it?”

“Certainly; it’s always been considered so.”

Jim he shook his head, and says:

“Mars Tom, I reckon dey’s a mistake about it somers—dey mos’ sholy is. I’s religious myself, en I knows plenty religious people, but I hain’t run across none dat acts like dat.”

It made Tom hot, and he says:

“Well, it’s enough to make a body sick, such mullet-headed ignorance! If either of you’d read anything about history, you’d know that Richard Cur de Loon, and the Pope, and Godfrey de Bulleyn, and lots more of the most noble-hearted and pious people in the world, hacked and hammered at the paynims for more than two hundred years trying to take their land away from them, and swum neck-deep in blood the whole time—and yet here’s a couple of sap-headed country yahoos out in the backwoods of Missouri setting themselves up to know more about the rights and wrongs of it than they did! Talk about cheek!”

Well, of course, that put a more different light on it, and me and Jim felt pretty cheap and ignorant, and wished we hadn’t been quite so chipper. I couldn’t say nothing, and Jim he couldn’t for a while; then he says:

“Well, den, I reckon it’s all right; beca’se ef dey didn’t know, dey ain’t no use for po’ ignorant folks like us to be trying to know; en so, ef it’s our duty, we got to go en tackle it en do de bes’ we can. Same time, I feel as sorry for dem paynims as Mars Tom. De hard part gwine to be to kill folks dat a body hain’t been ‘quainted wid and dat hain’t done him no harm. Dat’s it, you see. Ef we wuz to go ‘mongst ‘em, jist we three, en say we’s hungry, en ast ‘em for a bite to eat, why, maybe dey’s jist like yuther people. Don’t you reckon dey is? Why, DEY’D give it, I know dey would, en den—“

“Then what?”

“Well, Mars Tom, my idea is like dis. It ain’t no use, we CAN’T kill dem po’ strangers dat ain’t doin’ us no harm, till we’ve had practice—I knows it perfectly well, Mars Tom—‘deed I knows it perfectly well. But ef we takes a’ axe or two, jist you en me en Huck, en slips acrost de river to-night arter de moon’s gone down, en kills dat sick fam’ly dat’s over on the Sny, en burns dey house down, en—“

“Oh, you make me tired!” says Tom. “I don’t want to argue any more with people like you and Huck Finn, that’s always wandering from the subject, and ain’t got any more sense than to try to reason out a thing that’s pure theology by the laws that protect real estate!”

Now that’s just where Tom Sawyer warn’t fair. Jim didn’t mean no harm, and I didn’t mean no harm. We knowed well enough that he was right and we was wrong, and all we was after was to get at the HOW of it, and that was all; and the only reason he couldn’t explain it so we could understand it was because we was ignorant—yes, and pretty dull, too, I ain’t denying that; but, land! that ain’t no crime, I should think.

But he wouldn’t hear no more about it—just said if we had tackled the thing in the proper spirit, he would ‘a’ raised a couple of thousand knights and put them in steel armor from head to heel, and made me a lieutenant and Jim a sutler, and took the command himself and brushed the whole paynim outfit into the sea like flies and come back across the world in a glory like sunset. But he said we didn’t know enough to take the chance when we had it, and he wouldn’t ever offer it again. And he didn’t. When he once got set, you couldn’t budge him.

But I didn’t care much. I am peaceable, and don’t get up rows with people that ain’t doing nothing to me. I allowed if the paynim was satisfied I was, and we would let it stand at that.

Now Tom he got all that notion out of Walter Scott’s book, which he was always reading. And it WAS a wild notion, because in my opinion he never could’ve raised the men, and if he did, as like as not he would’ve got licked. I took the book and read all about it, and as near as I could make it out, most of the folks that shook farming to go crusading had a mighty rocky time of it.

20 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Good old Mark Twain. What a beautiful exposition of Tom explaining what a Crusade is and Huck seeing no sense in it.

>> “You see, it’s like this. They own the land, just the mere land, and that’s all they DO own; but it was our folks, our Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven’t any business to be there defiling it. It’s a shame, and we ought not to stand it a minute. We ought to march against them and take it away from them.”

Tom Sawyer: The perfect Zio-supremacist.

What isn’t so well known is Twain’s hilarious satire of Christian and Jewish Zionism in Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) I read it as a child and got the message loud and clear. I always bring it up whenever someone tries to cite Twain’s satirical parody of a travelogue in Innocents Abroad as if it were serious non-fiction. Most Zionists just don’t grasp the fact that Twain was lampooning the cherished myths of Zionism and American… Read more »

Great to still be hearing from Twain, and using the Huck/Big Jim team to ponder on what’s right and moral, and with appropriate deference to their betters, more than a century after his death. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. “It ain’t no use, we CAN’T kill dem po’ strangers dat ain’t doin’ us no harm, till we’ve had practice . . . . ” Compare Irving Kristol in Commentary in 1984, urging American… Read more »

and brushed the whole paynim outfit into the sea like flies

wow. thank you for the great read Jim Holstun.