Much has been said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first meeting with Barack Obama, yet little attention has fallen on Netanyahu’s gift to the president: a copy of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, a satirized account of the author’s 1867 visit to Palestine.
Though Twain’s book is satire—of the noxious Western tourist trudging through unfamiliar lands with inauthentic reverence and deep contempt for local customs—it’s difficult to separate Twain’s actual observations from his vicious spoof. So much so that some Israeli historians and politicians have used Innocents Abroad as evidence that Israel was created atop a land without people—populated only by tribes living backwards lives.
Gifted into the hands of a U.S. leader, Innocents Abroad is a barely coded message about the history and inherent value of the land and culture Palestinians have fought and died for since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Here, in Twain’s words, is the historiography that Netanyahu offered to Obama:
On pilgrim claims that they could not tear themselves away from the Holy Land: “It does not stand to reason that men are reluctant to leave places where the very life is almost badgered out of them by importunate swarms of beggars and peddlers who hang in strings to one’s sleeves and coat-tails and shriek and shout in his ears and horrify his vision with the ghastly sores and malformations they exhibit. One is glad to get away. I have heard shameless people say they were glad to get away from Ladies’ Festivals where they were importuned to buy by bevies of lovely young ladies. Transform those houris into dusky hags and ragged savages, and replace their rounded forms with shrunken and knotted distortions, their soft hands with scarred and hideous deformities, and the persuasive music of their voices with the discordant din of a hated language, and then see how much lingering reluctance to leave could be mustered” (p. 386)
On beautiful Arab men and their repulsive women: “Arab men are often fine looking, but Arab women are not. We can all believe that the Virgin Mary was beautiful; it is not natural to think otherwise; but does it follow that it is our duty to find beauty in these present women of Nazareth?” (p. 297)
On Arabs as savages (a theme Twain returns to again and again): “We rode a little way up a hill and found ourselves at Endor, famous for its witch. Her descendents are there yet. They were the wildest horde of half-naked savages we have found thus far.” (p. 306)
On the “hopeless, dreary, heart-broken” landscape: “Of all the places there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. . . . It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” (p. 391)