Excerpt from "Concerning the Jews"
Published in Harper's Magazine, March 1898
A well-known writer tries to explain why prejudice against Jews exists
"I am quite sure that … I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me."
In 1898, Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), writing under the name Mark Twain, wrote an article in which he tried to explain the widespread prejudice against Jews, both in the United States and in Europe. Though he claimed to have no personal prejudices against any group, the attitudes expressed in his article were similar to those of many Americans. But as he demonstrated in his essay, Twain's perceptions of Jews were the very essence of prejudice, even if he kept it hidden from himself. A strong case can be made that Twain's attitudes were a reflection of the attitudes of many Americans, in his time and since: strong prejudice hidden behind a screen of self-deceiving acceptance.
Twain, who gained celebrity as the author of such American classics as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wrote his essay about Jews while living in Vienna, Austria. Like many European cities at the end of the nineteenth century, Vienna had a large Jewish population marked by official prejudice. In addressing the question, Twain seemed to like to think that America was different than Europe; he looked at the United States as a country in which ancient religious hatreds and prejudices had been replaced by freedom of religion and an attitude that judged every individual on his or her own merits.
The subject was highly meaningful in 1898, when the essay was written, because significant numbers of Jewish immigrants were arriving in the United States from Russia, where Jews experienced official restrictions and physical attacks against them, making life unbearable. Most of the Jewish immigrants between 1880 and 1910 were from Russia and Poland. Most were poor, unlike an earlier wave of Jewish immigration from Germany during the 1840s, which consisted of mostly middle-class and professional Jews. Many young Jewish women went to work in clothing factories where they worked under difficult conditions and for low pay. To Twain, these recent Jewish immigrants seemed almost invisible. His essay was based on his perceptions of the earlier wave of middle-class professionals from Germany.
Twain professed, in his essay, to admire Jews. They made good citizens. They seldom committed crimes. They were generous in giving to charities. He attributed the prejudice against them to jealousy on the part of other Americans who thought they could not effectively compete with Jews in business. He also assessed the failure of Jews to establish political power for themselves by acting as a group in their own self-interest.
What Twain ignored was the strong desire of many Jews in America to identify themselves as Americans, rather than as Jews in America. For Jewish immigrants, establishing political influence by acting as a group of Jews would mean continuing in their role as outsiders in European society. The idea of America as a "melting pot"—where people from different nations could come together and create a new type of individual, the American—was one that Jewish immigrants appreciated. One such Jew was Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), whose poem "The New Colossus" was later attached to the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
(The entire section is 4,207 words.)