Humorist Mark Twain’s bitter cynicism and cleverness as a wordsmith combined to make him a popular commentator in mid-nineteenth century United States. His jaundiced observations of Palestine and Palestinians, publicized in his 1869 account of travels through Europe and the Holy Land, The Innocents Abroad, have made him a favorite with proponents of Israel ever since. Of the land of Palestine, he wrote, “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. … It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land. … Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.” Of its Arab inhabitants, he wrote that they were “all abject beggars by nature, instinct, and education.” Describing an Arab village, he wrote that it was “thoroughly ugly and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable and filthy—just the style of cities that have adorned the country since Adam’s time.” When he rode into the village, he said, “the ring of the horses’ hoofs roused the stupid population, and they all came trooping out—old men and old women, boys and girls, the blind, the crazy, and the crippled, all in ragged, soiled, and scanty raiment.”
In modern times, Twain’s exaggerations have become grist for the mills of those who propagate the line that Palestine was a desolate land until settled and cultivated by Jewish pioneers. Twain’s descriptions are highlighted in Israeli government press handouts that present a case for Israel’s redemption of a land that had previously been empty and barren. Hisgross characterizations of the land and the people in the time before mass Jewish immigration are also often used by U.S. propagandists for Israel.
Mark Twain’s was only one of literally hundreds of travel books about the Middle East published in Europe and the United States throughout the nineteenth century that conveyed an image of Palestine and its Arabs; the image was almost without exception derogatory, although often less dramatically
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drawn than Twain’s. In fact, the frame of reference within which Palestinian-Israeli issues have been perceived in the late twentieth century began forming when this image took hold—not when Israel was created in 1948 or even when Zionism became a force in Palestine fifty years earlier but in the mid-nineteenth century, when Western orientalist historians, geographers, and ethnographers, as well as Western Christian missionaries, religious pilgrims, and ordinary travelers like Twain, began visiting Palestine and conveying their impressions of the land and its people to readers and congregations throughout the Western world.
During the nineteenth century, particularly the latter half, interest in the Orient and especially in the Middle East flourished. The area became a favorite destination for travelers, scholars, and imperial agents—”layer upon layer of interests, official learning, institutional pressure, that covered the Orient as a subject matter and as a territory.” As many as twenty thousand visited Jerusalem alone every year. Learned societies sent archaeological expeditions and geographical survey teams throughout the area, missionaries proselytized, and travelers wrote guides and memoirs that became bestsellers. At a time when the population of the United States was only about twenty million, the travelogue Incidents of Travelin Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, by adventurer John Lloyd Stephens, sold over twenty thousand copies in the first two years after its publication in 1837. Two decades later, missionary William Thomson published a long work on the Holy Land, The Land and the Book, that went through multiple editions and eventually sold almost two hundred thousand copies, said to be more than any U.S. title other than Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold to that point. Twain’s travelogue sold sixty-seven thousand copies in the first year after its publication.
Travel books were the most popular genre at that time in the United States, according to one contemporary publisher; they did not sell fast, like novels by well-known authors, but they sold longer and more steadily and in the end sold best. Americans also avidly read myriad periodicals that published travel articles, and travelers were well received on the lecture circuit. Works of fiction from the Middle East were also widely popular. In 1873, author Harriet Beecher Stowe edited a collection of nine works of fiction judged to be most popular at the time. Two of these, almost onequarter, were Middle Eastern. Parts or all of The Arabian Nights were frequently reprinted in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Stowe wrote that stories like “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Sindbad the Sailor”
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were so exotic that they gave “a start to the imagination, … a powerful impulse to the soul,” particularly transporting impressionable children to a magic place “among genii and fairies, enchanted palaces, jewelled trees, and valleys of diamonds.”
Edward Said calls orientalism “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.” Nineteenth-century orientalism imposed “a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient,” became an instrument for imposing actual imperialist authority, and always operated from the assumption of Western superiority over the East and its dark-skinned peoples. Orientalism perceived itself as a civilizing mission, a set of texts and observations that would assist the West in bringing modernity and civilization to primitive “natives.” Westerners sometimes viewed the natives with affection, romanticizing them as “noble savages” or exotic remnants of the past, the fantastic genii of Stowe’s imagination. Most often, however, native populations were scorned, and always they were regarded as uncivilized. The Orient in the nineteenth century, Canadian scholar Thierry Hentsch has observed, became all that the West was not, “the antithesis par excellence of modernity.”
The mere fact of categorizing and differentiating between the Western and the Oriental created a polarization between the two. Each became more so—more Western, more Oriental—and a barrier was thrown up to any kind of human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies. Without a human and personal element, orientalism became stylized; the people studied became objects, and their characteristics were typed. Characteristics became generalizations, and generalizations became part of an immutable framework about the Oriental nature, temperament, and mentality. Orientalism distilled certain “ideas about the Orient—its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness—into a separate and unchallenged coherence,” so that the mere mention of the word Oriental came instantly to convey an impression. The impression was negative.
U.S. orientalism had elements of both religion and politics about it. Like the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which encouraged westward expansion in North America, the nineteenth-century impulse to extend U.S. influence to the Orient was based on a desire to bring Christianity and “civilization” to the benighted infidel native populations of the Orient. For Americans who thought in these terms, the United States seemed centrally placed, between backward nations to the east and the west, to extend its reach in all directions, bringing enlightenment and the word of God to lands
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perceived to lie in darkness. As far as many Americans were concerned, it was the will of God that the United States should “stand as sure in Asia as in America.” U.S. sights fastened on Palestine—the Holy Land, the land of the Bible—as the place where Christianity and the ancient kingdom of Israel must be restored and repossessed from Muslim intruders.
Islam, and the West’s perception of it, strengthened the barrier to understanding between the West and the East. Islam had been regarded as the enemy of Europe, the quintessential “Other,” from its earliest days, when its emergence split the unity of the Mediterranean world; through the Dark Ages, when its learning and scientific accomplishments challenged Europe’s ignorance and backwardness; through the Crusades, when Europe fought the infidel; and into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Europe began attempting to “recapture” the Orient from Islam and dominate it. Only in this last period, however—coinciding with the rise of colonialism and of orientalism—did Europe begin to exhibit a sense of superiority over the Orient and to deny the intellectual, linguistic, and cultural debt it owed to Islam and the Arab world. In this later period, it became politically expedient in Europe to portray Arabs and Muslims—the two became interchangeable in the Western mind—in derogatory terms. European travelers and merchants, abetted by the translation into European languages of The Arabian Nights, began to identify Arabs and Muslims with the images from those tales, and in European eyes all Arabs became indolent, obstinate, sensual—”wild, cruel, savages or robbers, in greater or lesser degree.” These were the images and impressions passed on to Americans, even before they began to read The Arabian Nights for themselves. As the nineteenth century went on, U.S. writers began to take on Islam directly, writing about the religion and the Prophet Muhammad for the express purpose, as one writer puts it, of exposing Islam as “a heap of rubbish,” an imposture, and Muhammad as an evil schemer.
In this orientalist framework, Palestine’s Arabs were equated with “uncivilized” American Indians. Moreover, because the Holy Land had special significance for Western Christians, Palestine’s Arabs and Muslims were represented, uniquely among Oriental peoples, as aliens in their own land. To the missionaries, pilgrims, and other travelers who went to the Holy Land attempting to “reclaim” it and “restore” it to their preconceptions of its biblical state, Palestine’s Arabs appeared to be foreign—not biblical, not Christian or Jewish, and therefore alien to Palestine’s “true” Christian and Judaic heritage.
Nineteenth-century missionaries and other travelers and writers considered it a “shame that the Turk is permitted to keep and desecrate the
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Holy Land,” and historians ignored Muslim history, focusing on Palestine’s biblical period or skipping ahead to the Crusades, leaving a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history untouched. One scholar has noted that “the idea that the true Palestine lay buried beneath the rubble of the contemporary scene” became so common in the nineteenth century that the assumption that the Holy Land contains secrets waiting to be uncovered by Western science or by Israeli archaeologists remains today largely unquestioned. Because Palestine was so widely regarded as belonging to Western Christians, there was, as one historian has observed, “a sense of injured pride, of molested personal property, when the Western Christian traveler arrived in Hebron, Jerusalem, or Constantinople after a long journey, with great expectations, only to find that the guardians of ‘his’ holy places” were Muslims or strange Eastern Christians. Americans railed against the alien “occupiers,” often seriously advocating that Muslims be expelled from the Holy Land.
If not reviled, Palestine’s Arabs were often ignored altogether. Stephens had little to say one way or the other about the Arabs in his 1837 book, concentrating instead on Palestine’s Christian holy sites and its Jewish inhabitants. In this period, Muslim Arabs made up well over 90 percent of Palestine’s population, and the vast majority were not nomadic Bedouin, as one would gather from Stephens, but inhabitants of towns and villages. Thomson was similarly oblivious to Palestine’s Arab and Muslim character. His chief concern in the 1859 book The Land and the Book, as the title suggests, was to relate Palestine’s physical features to the Old and the New Testaments, and while he gave lengthy descriptions of the country’s flora and fauna, people rarely figured in the book’s seven hundred pages. Twain’s description of the all-Arab town of Nablus is typical of how travel writers dealt with Arab localities. Calling the town Shechem, its biblical name, he described in detail the ancient roots of Jews there but never mentioned an Arab presence and only once used the name Nablus.
Palestinians were sometimes romanticized as quaint evidence of Palestine’s unchanging biblical aspect. The illustrated religious books, postcards, and stereoscopic slides popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries regularly captioned landscape pictures and photographs of the most ordinary village and town scenes with biblical citations. Although not unsympathetic, these depictions portrayed the Palestinians simply as props—a bit unreal, backward, and above all different from the modern European and U.S. audiences at whom these portrayals were directed. It was only a short step from these stylized depictions to the kinds of unfavorable stereotypes that originated in nineteenth-century travel books and
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the press and that have clung to Arabs until today: the lascivious pasha, the harem girl, the devious rug merchant, the murderous tribal chieftain.
Western Christian travelers did not find Palestine’s local inhabitants any less distasteful because some were Christian. The fact that these Arabs were the descendants of Jesus Christ’s followers seemed in fact to escape the notice of most modern Western visitors, who, ignoring the local Christian communities themselves, were often repelled by the Eastern, Byzantine opulence of orthodox churches. Stephens lamented that the “parti-colored marble” and “gaudy and inappropriate ornaments” that marked the points of Christ’s life in Palestine were wholly unlike descriptions from the New Testament and seemed to have been “intentionally and impiously” superimposed by local Christian sects “to destroy all resemblance to the descriptions given in the sacred book.” Other writers criticized the Byzantine propensity for “gewgaw” and found the Eastern liturgies nothing more than “curious humbug” and “disgusting mummeries.” The animosity extended beyond the aesthetic. An active hostility developed between proselytizing Western Protestant missionaries and the clergy of local Christian orthodox sects, which strenuously resisted the Protestants’ conversion efforts.
The disappointment Stephens felt upon discovering that Jerusalem’s churches did not live up to his mental image of New Testament Palestine is characteristic of much orientalist literature. For many nineteenth-century travelers, the actual Middle East was not as glamorous or romantic as in their imaginings. French artist Gérard de Nerval, who produced the classic Voyage en Orient after an 1843 trip to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, complained to a friend that he would never find the “real Egypt” under the dust of Cairo; in the end, he said with no apparent sense of irony, “it is only in Paris that one finds cafés so Oriental.” The frame of reference from which these travelers approached Palestine was essentially the Parisian café sceneor the English country side or the small-town verdure of Mark Twain’s Missouri, and what did not match these scenes was condemned.
The assumption that the real Orient lay somewhere beneath the surface, that the real Palestine was Christian or Jewish (or both) rather than Arab or Muslim, constituted a symbolic dispossession of the Palestinians. The notion that there were no Arab inhabitants in the Holy Land or that they were alien interlopers became a part of the popular imagination in the West, at least among the informed public and the religiously aware, well before the first Zionist settlers ever conceived of migrating to Palestine in the 1880s. The assumption fit perfectly with the prevailing orientalist and colonialist notion that backward non-Western lands everywhere lay ready for
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the taking by more capable Western powers and peoples. Zionist writers and intellectuals seized on this idea with the well-known slogan that Palestine was a “land without people for a people without land,” and early Zionist writings planted and widely promoted the idea among Western Christians that a Jewish return to Palestine would be a fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
By contrast, the Arabs of Palestine did nothing to put forth their case in the nineteenth century. The wave of nationalism that swept Europe in this period did not reach the Arab world until later. In addition, because there was no separate Palestinian administrative entity during Ottoman rule, Palestinian Arabs did not yet have a well developed sense of living in a territorial unit called Palestine or of being “Palestinians,” and they therefore also perceived no need to enunciate a specifically Palestinian nationalism. Although this perception would change soon thereafter, as a greater sense of territorial nationalism began to develop early in the new century, nineteenth-century Palestinians, having nosense of what was about to happen to them, lacked awareness that they needed to defend their place in Palestine.
Palestinians in these early years, in fact, were at a great disadvantage vis-à-vis the Zionists precisely because they lived in Palestine and therefore perceived no need to organize, propagandize, or publicize in order to advance their goal of continuing to live and form a nation in Palestine. By the time of the First Zionist Congress in 1897, 117 local Zionist groups existed throughout the world; a year later, atthetime of the Second Congress, there were 900. The Zionists’ organizational efforts benefited in some measure from the very fact of the Jews’ dispersal. The Palestinians—not dispersed, not reaching out for anything, minding their own business in their homeland—had already lost a major battle in the war to keep that homeland. The Palestinians also did not feel a need to intellectualize their right to remain in Palestine. Whereas Zionist writings defined a conscious and highly articulated sense of place, specifically because Zionists longed for a land they did not possess, the Arabs of Palestine as insiders, as possessors, felt no need in this early period to give expression to their attachment to the land. The great outflow of poetry and prose in honor of home and land that today makes up the large body of Palestinian literature would come much later, when the land had been lost.
Certainly not all Westerners in the nineteenth-century Middle East were scornful of Palestine’s Arab population or oblivious to its existence. Some U.S. missionaries in this era became deeply attached to the Arab world, began a tradition of educating local Arabs, and, at the post—World
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War I Versailles peace conference, became active advocates for Arab independence. Among the most notable U.S. Protestant educators were those who founded the Syrian Protestant College, later renamed the American University of Beirut, and the Quakers who operated separate girls’ and boys’ elementary and secondary schools in Ramallah in Palestine. U.S. Protestants established educational missions throughout Ottoman Anatolia and Syria from the mid-nineteenth century onward and by the beginning of World War I had developed a larger network of these schools than any other Western nation. This missionary-led educational effort, with its mission presses, contributed at least a small part to a late-century resurgence of interest throughout the Arab world in Arabic-language publishing, from scientific textbooks to ancient Arabic literature. The large U.S. mission and educational effort also produced the well-known families whose names (Dodge, Bliss, and others) are still associated with education in Lebanon—and because many missionary children entered the Foreign Service, with what supporters of Israel charge was a pro-Arab bias in U.S. State Department diplomacy for decades before and after Israel’s creation.
Nonetheless, throughout the nineteenth century, whatever favorable images of Arabs these few missionaries may have transmitted to U.S. congregations and readers were largely buried under the weight of the more voluminous writings of those who were decidedly unsympathetic. In any case, Arabs were but a small part of the missionary effort. Missionary educators concentrated their efforts much more heavily in non-Arab Christian areas of the Ottoman empire, particularly in Armenian areas in the north, where the number of American-run schools was more than four times the number in Syria and Palestine. When they did work in the Arab world, missionaries tended to focus their proselytizing on the small Arab Christian communities, whom they tried to turn away from orthodoxy, rather than on Muslims, who were considered too difficult to convert.
That the missionary effort in the Middle East was not entirely sympathetic to the Arabs is attested to by the fact that one of the earliest U.S. attempts to generate support for Jewish settlement in Palestine came from a Protestant missionary in the late nineteenth century. In 1889, a Presbyterian minister from Chicago, William Blackstone, visited Palestine and Syria, saw Palestine’s potential for agricultural and commercial development, and concluded that it should be given to the Jews as a national home to alleviate their suffering. Two years later, he presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison for which he had collected the signatures of 413 prominent non-Jewish Americans, including governors, congressmen,
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judges, clergymen, editors, and business leaders, among them John D. Rockefeller.
The prevalence of anti-Semitism in the United States at the turn of the century did not by any means lead to an enhancement of the Arab image, although many have tried to demonstrate otherwise. Peter Grose, writing in his popular 1983 book, Israel in the Mind of America, notes that many of the State Department officials who staffed the Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and opposed Israel’s creation in 1948 were raised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on a diet of anti-Semitic children’s literature that portrayed Jews as “routinely ridiculous figures.” This literature made an early and largely indelible impression on young Americans and specifically on these policymakers in their youth, Grose believes. “Nothing they, or others like them, would learn or hear in their maturity,” he says, “could wholly erase its effects.”
Grose does not exaggerate the extent of anti-Semitism in the United States or the lasting impact of impressions and mind-sets gained in childhood. As a people, Jews in the early twentieth century suffered grievous prejudice, and in a political sense they were only slightly less invisible than the Arabs of Palestine. Jews faced an anti-Jewish prejudice that came as second nature to most Americans, and, in an age totally unconcerned with political correctness, this prejudice was rarely hidden or camouflaged.
Nonetheless, among Americans the picture of Arabs conveyed by travelogues from Palestine was no better than the image of Jews, and may have been worse. Because Jews lived throughout the United States and because individual Jews had risen to positions of public prominence, they may have had a some what more human face among the U.S. public than those strange storybook Arabs from far away. The notion of sending the Jews to Palestine found favor with many Americans—both for cynical reasons, because the idea of decreasing the number of Jews in the United States was welcomed in the minds of many, and for the more compassionate reason of providing Jews with a home and a sanctuary from persecution. Furthermore, the thought of Jews returning to the Promised Land inspired among many Americans imbued with biblical teachings a kind of religious and emotional passion with which Palestinians in their invisibility could not hope to compete. Jews, in short, had a place in the mind of Americans, for better or worse, whereas Palestinians had virtually no place at all, and certainly no favorable place, in the public consciousness.
Although Grose is undoubtedly correct in believing that anti-Semitic children’s literature made a lasting impact on many of those who later became involved in making policy on the Palestine issue, it is equally true that
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those U.S. policymakers who supported the Zionist program in Palestine and ultimately supported the creation of Israel must have read the same children’s literature and been able to throw off its invidious influences. Furthermore, it must be assumed that the substantial body of derogatory writings on the Arabs of Palestine made at least as enduring an impression on young minds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as anti-Semitic literature had. Indeed, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge spoke stirringly during a speech on the Senate floor in 1922 of having read Sir Walter Scott’s stories Ivanhoe and The Talisman as a young boy and come away with an intense admiration for the Crusaders who freed Jerusalem from Muslim rule. “The dominant impression of the boyish mind,” he said, “was hostility to the Mohammadan.”
To the extent, then, that early twentieth-century policymakers in the United States thought about the Palestine situation at all, it was within an orientalist framework in which Palestine stood forth as a holy and biblical land destined by divine writ for reclamation by Christians and Jews and in which the native Arab inhabitants were unimportant. As the Zionist movement grew in strength, this framework was increasingly reinforced by Zionist intellectuals and lobbyists. There was no counterpoint; no one brought the Arab and Muslim presence and lineage in Palestine to Western attention or refuted the paternalistic assumption that Western, including Jewish, stewardship must necessarily be better for Palestine than Arab/ Muslim stewardship. Within this framework, Arabs, simply put, did not fit.