The American author, Mark Twain, and Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader, may seem unlikely associates. In fact, they not only knew of each other but became good friends. Both were journalists, having met in Paris in 1894,1 the year of the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongfully accused of spying for the Germans. Although he protested his innocence, he was tried and found guilty, and condemned to deportation for life. He was publicly stripped of his rank and dismissed as the crowd shouted, “Death to the Jews!”2

Although it is not certain that they discussed the Dreyfus Affair, both Twain and Herzl were influenced by it. Indeed, for many years Twain continued to follow and comment upon the Affair in his reports and letters back to the United States.3 For Herzl, the Dreyfus Affair strengthened his developing idea that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only solution to the Jewish problem.

Twain is probably best known for his two popular novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but he may not be so well known for his lesser writings on a wide variety of subjects, including the Jews. A great traveller and close observer of human behaviour, Twain wrote with biting satire and an irreverent wit that challenged many of the cherished beliefs of polite society. His unconven­tional attitudes are reflected in the many articles he contributed to the newspapers and popular journals of his day.

Herzl was Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, the most distinguished newspaper in Vienna.4 He was familiar with Twain’s writings and enjoyed their biting humour. After attending a reading by Twain of his works at the British em­bassy in Paris, Herzl submitted a humorous piece to his Vienna newspaper. He seems to have become personally acquainted with Twain at this time.5

In 1897, the year of the first Zionist Congress, Twain moved his family to Vienna. He was suffer­ing from depression, possibly brought on by the sud­den death of his daughter, Susy, aged twenty-four. While staying in Vienna, he was invited to address the Concordia club, an association of intellectuals and educated elites. Nearly half its members were Jews and included the musician and composer, Gustav Mahler, amongst other notables of Jewish society. Theodor Herzl was in the audience.6

While staying in Vienna, Twain and his family attended a performance of Herzl’s play, The New Ghetto, which dealt with the problem of Jewish assimilation. Twain attempted to persuade his New York financial adviser to fund the production of Herzl’s play in English. But the project seems to have lapsed through lack of interest by Twain’s adviser.7

His close association with Vienna’s Jews was not lost on the anti-Semitic press and he was soon labelled “the Jew Mark Twain”. His real name was, of course, Samuel Clemens but the name Samuel, with its Old Testament origin, had Jewish connota­tions for anti-Semites. They implied that he used the name Mark Twain to hide his Jewish origin.8

As a young man, growing up in Missouri, Twain had accepted the negative stereotypes of Jews that were held by the local population. A change in his thinking appears to have taken place about the time of the American Civil War.9

In 1898, during his stay in Vienna, he wrote an article titled, ‘Stirring times in Austria’, based on his observation of proceedings in the Austrian parliament. The article was published in America in the March issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In the article he mentioned the awkward position of the Jews who were used by the parliament as scapegoats to distract the general population from controversial issues. In response to this article, Twain received several letters from American Jews asking for his view on why the Jews were hated without apparent reason and were the victims of prejudice.

As a result, Twain wrote the essay ‘Concerning the Jews’, which was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for September 1899. His article included a comment on Herzl’s work and on the first World Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1897. Twain noted that Herzl had a plan to “gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own – under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose.”10

Twain appears, however, to have been ambivalent about the success of the Zionist plan. But he was optimistic about the survival of the Jews. His article concluded with the often quoted words: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”11

The secret is revealed in the Bible. The faithfulness of Yahweh, God of Israel, to His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: “…though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure, and will not leave thee altogether unpunished” (Jer 30:11).

Footnotes

  1. Dan Vogel, Mark Twain’s Jews, Jersey City, N.J.: KTAV Pub. House, 2006, p. 54.
  2. Alex Bein, Theodore Herzl: a Biography, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962, p. 115.
  3. Dan Vogel, p. 53.
  4. David Vital, The Origins of Zionism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 238.
  5. Dan Vogel, p. 56.
  6. Anne-Marie O’Connor, The Lady in Gold, New York: Alfred A. Kno , 2012, p. 30-32.
  7. Dan Vogel, p. 58.
  8. Anne-Marie O’Connor, p. 33.
  9. Jews in America: Mark Twain and the Jews [Online] jewish- virtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/twain.html
  10. Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews”, in Harper’s New
  11. Monthly Magazine, September 1899, p. 534.
  12. Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews”, p. 535.