To the Editor:
Cynthia Ozick [“Mark Twain and the Jews,” May] is certainly correct that Mark Twain’s writing on the Jews, even at its most philo-Semitic, was based on the anti-Semitic canards of his day. At the same time, Twain’s essay, “Concerning the Jews,” contained a valuable lesson for the Jews of his time which is just as significant today. That essay was written in response to letters Twain received from American Jewish readers who were perplexed by the anti-Semitic violence which had broken out after clashes in the Viennese imperial parliament, and which, as Miss Ozick discusses, was chronicled in Twain’s “Stirring Times in Austria.” “The show of military force in the Austrian parliament which precipitated the [anti-Jewish] riots was not introduced by any Jew,” wrote one of Twain’s Jewish readers. And, he continued:
No Jew was a member of that body. No Jewish question was involved in the Ausgleich [treaty of confederation between Austria and Hungary] or in the language proposition [whether German or Czech would be Bohemia’s official language]. No Jew was insulting anybody. In short, no Jew was doing any mischief toward anybody whatsoever. In fact, the Jews were the only ones of nineteen different races in Austria which did not have a party—they were absolutely non-participants. Yet in your article you say that in the rioting which followed, all classes of people were unanimous only on one thing—viz., being against the Jews.
While Twain was sympathetic to the unfairness of Jewish victimization in Vienna, he had little tolerance for professions of helplessness based on lack of organized political power. “Who gives the Jew the right, who gives any race the right, to sit still, in a free country, and let somebody else look after its safety?” For Twain, the fact that Jews numbered 10 percent of the population of the empire and yet had no organized political party to represent their interest was not to their credit. . . .
In America close to 100 years after “Concerning the Jews” was written, Jews have organized themselves politically, following the path of other groups who have banded together to see that their interests are looked after in this democracy. Similarly, Zionism has yielded a Jewish state capable of looking after the political interests of Jews on the world stage. Those who resent the Jews for having finally organized themselves, or those Jews who feel squeamish at the thought of Jewish political power, should listen to the words of Mark Twain. . . .
To the Editor:
Cynthia Ozick describes a curious mixture of philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism within the complex person of Mark Twain. Such amivalence toward Jews is not strange, but what I find odd is, as Miss Ozick points out, that Twain’s anti-Semitism stemmed not from the teaching of the church but, rather, from more ancient times. . . . In “Concerning the Jews,” Twain wrote:
With precocious wisdom [the Jew] found out in the morning of time that some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and that over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite—but that they all worship money; so he made it the end and aim of his life to get it. He was at it in Egypt 36 centuries ago; he was at it in Rome . . . ; he has been at it ever since.
No matter that when Twain wrote his essay in 1897 most of the world’s Jewish population was living either at or below the poverty line; for him, worship of money was a trait common to all Jews, almost as if greed were a genetic Jewish flaw.
In 1867, Twain had traveled to Palestine and described the barrenness of the country and the poverty of its inhabitants. The Jews whom he saw there were truly a sorry group, but 30 years later, these memories had dimmed, and all he now could see were a people who had bought themselves the envy and enmity of the world. . . .
Boca Raton, Florida