June 21, 2024
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Mark Twain’s Visit to Palestine in 1867

Due to the invention of the steamboat, Americans were finally able to travel to Europe and Palestine starting around the middle of the 19th century. In 1867, just after the Civil War, Mark Twain set out on such a voyage. He joined a group of pilgrims (whom he dubbed “The Innocents”) and boarded the “Quaker City” (a retired Civil War ship) for a trip of several months to Europe and destinations in the Mideast.

Prior to his departure, Twain had signed contracts to write articles during the voyage. The material he wrote while on the voyage was combined with articles he wrote later, and the result was “The Innocents Abroad” (1869), a book that detailed his impressions of the places he encountered.

Regarding what he saw in Palestine, here is a sample of what he wrote: “Stirring scenes…occur in this valley [Hula] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent—not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride 10 miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings…”

“These unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum; this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal plumes of palms…”

“It was hard to realise that this silent plain had once… trembled to the tramp of armed men…A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely… We never saw a human being on the whole route.”

“Nazareth is forlorn…Jericho the accursed lies in a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago; Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and their humiliation, have nothing about them now to remind one that they once knew…high honor….”

In Jaffa, before he took leave of the country, he summarized:

“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren… The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch…wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint… It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land… Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…desolate and unlovely…”

P.S. Similar to Twain’s description, just a few years earlier in 1857, the British Consul in Palestine reported: “The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population…”

Admittedly there were 472,000 to 750,000 Arabs who voluntarily left or were forced to leave Israel as a result of the war of 1947-1949. (I am using the estimates in Alan Dershowitz, “The Case for Israel,” p. 87. And as we all know, an even greater amount of Jewish refugees had to leave Arab lands in this same period or shortly thereafter.)

But let us just focus on the Arab refugees who left or were forced to leave Israel. A widespread assumption is that those Arabs and their ancestors had been there for decades or perhaps centuries. The reality is quite different.

Jews began to come to Palestine in the modern period in several waves beginning in 1882 (due in large part to pogroms in Russia, which began in 1881), and much agricultural and building work was done by Jews in Palestine in the subsequent decades to lay the groundwork for the eventual state. (There were about 30,000 Jews in Palestine in 1880.)

I just want to remind everyone of a few points:

1. In 1953, the chairman of the American Christian Palestine Committee wrote: “The Arab population of Palestine was small and limited until Jewish resettlement restored the barren lands and drew to it Arabs from neighboring countries… When organized Jewish colonization began in 1882, there were fewer than 150,000 Arabs in the land. The great majority of the Arab population in recent decades were comparative newcomers—either late immigrants or descendants of persons who had immigrated into Palestine in the previous seventy years.”

2. The special UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has a special definition of “refugee,” much more lenient than the definition of the other agency, UNHCR. UNRWA defines a refugee as anyone: 1) “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948,” and 2) “who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” (Plus, in another exceptional leniency, UNRWA defines as “refugees” those who are the descendants of those who meet these criteria!)

As Dershowitz writes in his “The Case for Israel,” “an Arab was counted as a refugee if he moved just a few miles from one part of Palestine to another—even if he returned to the village in which he had previously lived and in which his family still lived, from a village to which he had moved only two years earlier.”

In other refugee contexts, the more or less universally used description of a refugee is one who was forced to leave “permanent” or “habitual” homes.

In light of the extensive immigration of Arabs into Palestine in the decades prior to the founding of the state in 1947, due to the job opportunities created by the extensive Jewish activity in Palestine, this two-year definition is a ridiculously generous one. This definition, specifically created for the Arab-Israeli context, shows that the Arabs were aware that a large percentage of their refugees were only relatively recent immigrants. That is why they had to obtain this liberal definition.

Dershowitz writes further, p. 87: “Tens of millions of other refugees had been created as a result of World War II. In virtually all of those cases, the refugees were displaced from locations in which they and their ancestors had lived for decades, sometimes centuries—certainly more than the two years required for being considered a Palestinian refugee.”

3. A research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies concluded that 68% of the refugees from Palestine “left without seeing an Israeli soldier.” (Dershowitz, p. 84.) And yes, expulsions are sometimes necessary in a time of war, especially a defensive war forced on you by surrounding states.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Menachem Begin cited from “The Innocents Abroad” in his first visit with President Carter in 1977.

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