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than Europe; he looked at the United States as a country in which ancient religious hatreds and prejudices had been replaced by freedom of religion and an attitude that judged every individual on his or her own merits.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!"
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "Concerning the Jews":
- Twain painted a picture of Jews as successful businessmen, disliked by their neighbors because of their success. In fact, at the time Twain wrote his essay, many recent Jewish immigrants in the United States were extremely poor. Many clothing factories in New York City were staffed with young Jewish immigrant women who were hardly successful in business.
- Twain refers to an incident that occurred in the Austrian Reichstrath, or Imperial Parliament, in 1897. Twain was in the gallery watching, as Hungarian and German members of Parliament engaged in fierce disagreements, resulting in one member speaking for twelve straight hours so that opposing sides could not get their points across.
Excerpt from "Concerning the Jews"
Some months ago I published a magazine article ["Stirring Times in Austria," Harper's New Monthly Magazine (March 1898)] descriptive of a remarkable scene in the Imperial Parliament in Vienna. Since then I have received from Jews in America several letters of inquiry. They were difficult letters to answer, for they were not very definite. But at last I have received a definite one. It is from a lawyer, and he really asks the questions which the other writers probably believed they were asking. By help of this text I will do the best I can to publicly answer this correspondent, and also the others—at the same time apologizing for having failed to reply privately. The lawyer's letter reads as follows:
"I have read 'Stirring Times in Austria.' One point in particular is of vital import to not a few thousand people, including myself, being a point about which I have often wanted to address a question to some disinterested person. The show of military force in the Austrian Parliament, which precipitated the riots, was not introduced by any Jew. No Jew was a member of that body. No Jewish question was involved in the Ausgleich or in the language proposition. 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 the nineteen different races in Austria which did not have a party—they are 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., in being against the Jews. Now will you kindly tell me why, in your judgment, the Jews have thus ever been, and are even now, in these days of supposed intelligence, the butt of baseless, vicious animosities? I dare say that for centuries there has been no more quiet, undisturbing, and well-behaving citizen, as a class, than that same Jew. It seems to me that ignorance and fanaticism cannot alone account for these horrible and unjust persecutions.
"Tell me, therefore, from your vantage-point of cold view, what in your mind is the cause. Can American Jews do anything to correct it either in America or abroad? Will it ever come to an end? Will a Jew be permitted to live honestly, decently, and peaceably like the rest of mankind? What has become of the Golden Rule?"
I will begin by saying that if I thought myself prejudiced against the Jew, I should hold it fairest to leave this subject to a person not crippled in that way. But I think I have no such prejudice. A few years ago a Jew observed to me that there was no uncourteous reference to his people in my books, and asked how it happened. It happened because the disposition was lacking. I am quite sure that (bar one) 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 the present paper I shall allow myself to use the word Jew as if it stood for both religion and race. It is handy; and, besides, that is what the term means to the general world.
In the above letter one notes these points:
- The Jew is a well-behaved citizen.
- Can ignorance and fanaticism alone account for his unjust treatment?
- Can Jews do anything to improve the situation?
- The Jews have no party; they are non-participants.
- Will the persecution ever come to an end?
- What has become of the Golden Rule?
Point No. 1.
We must grant proposition No. 1 for several sufficient reasons. The Jew is not a disturber of the peace of any country. Even his enemies will concede that. He is not a loafer, he is not a sot, he is not noisy, he is not a brawler nor a rioter, he is not quarrelsome. In the statistics of crime his presence is conspicuously rare—in all countries. With murder and other crimes of violence he has but little to do: he is a stranger to the hangman. In the police court's daily long roll of "assaults" and "drunk and disorderlies" his name seldom appears. That the Jewish home is a home in the truest sense is a fact which no one will dispute. The family is knitted together by the strongest affections; its members show each other every due respect; and reverence for the elders is an inviolate law of the house. The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state nor of the city; these could cease from their functions without affecting him. When he is well enough, he works; when he is incapacitated, his own people take care of him. And not in a poor and stingy way, but with a fine and large benevolence. His race is entitled to be called the most benevolent of all the races of men. A Jewish beggar is not impossible, perhaps; such a thing may exist, but there are few men that can say they have seen that spectacle….
These facts are all on the credit side of the proposition that the Jew is a good and orderly citizen. Summed up, they certify that he is quiet, peaceable, industrious, unaddicted to high crimes and brutal dispositions; that his family life is commendable; that he is not a burden upon public charities; that he is not a beggar; that in benevolence he is above the reach of competition. These are the very quint-essentials of good citizenship. If you can add that he is as honest as the average of his neighbors—But I think that question is affirmatively answered by the fact that he is a successful business man. The basis of successful business is honesty; a business cannot thrive where the parties to it cannot trust each other. In the matter of numbers the Jew counts for little in the overwhelming population of New York; but that his honesty counts for much is guaranteed by the fact that the immense wholesale business houses of Broadway, from the Battery to Union Square, is substantially in his hands….
The Jew has his other side. He has some discreditable ways, though he has not a monopoly of them, because he cannot get entirely rid of vexatious Christian competition. We have seen that he seldom transgresses the laws against crimes of violence. Indeed, his dealings with courts are almost restricted to matters connected with commerce. He has a reputation for various small forms of cheating, and for practising oppressive usury, and for burning himself out to get the insurance, and for arranging cunning contracts which leave him an exit but lock the other man in, and for smart evasions which find him safe and comfortable just within the strict letter of the law, when court and jury know very well that he has violated the spirit of it. He is a frequent and faithful and capable officer in the civil service, but he is charged with an unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier—like the Christian Quaker.
Now if you offset these discreditable features by the creditable ones summarized in a preceding paragraph beginning with the words, "These facts are all on the credit side," and strike a balance, what must the verdict be? This, I think: that, the merits and demerits being fairly weighed and measured on both sides, the Christian can claim no superiority over the Jew in the matter of good citizenship.
Yet in all countries, from the dawn of history, the Jew has been persistently and implacably hated, and with frequency persecuted.
Point No. 2.
"Can fanaticism alone account for this?" Years ago I used to think that it was responsible for nearly all of it, but latterly I have come to think that this was an error. Indeed, it is now my conviction that it is responsible for hardly any of it….
When I was a boy, in the back settlements of the Mississippi Valley, where a gracious and beautiful Sunday-school simplicity and unpracticality prevailed, the "Yankee" was hated with a splendid energy. But religion had nothing to do with it. In a trade, the Yankee was held to be about five times the match of the Westerner. His shrewdness, his insight, his judgment, his knowledge, his enterprise, and his formidable cleverness in applying these forces were frankly confessed, and most competently cursed….
The Jew is being legislated out of Russia. The reason is not concealed. The movement was instituted because the Christian peasant
and villager stood no chance against his commercial abilities. He was always ready to lend money on a crop, and sell vodka and other necessaries of life on credit while the crop was growing. When settlement day came he owned the crop; and next year or year after he owned the farm….
For the like reasons Spain had to banish him four hundred years ago, and Austria about a couple of centuries later.
In all the ages Christian Europe has been obliged to curtail his activities. If he entered upon a mechanical trade, the Christian had to retire from it. If he set up as a doctor, he was the best one, and he took the business. If he exploited agriculture, the other farmers had to get at something else. Since there was no way to successfully compete with him in any vocation, the law had to step in and save the Christian from the poor-house. Trade after trade was taken away from the Jew by statute till practically none was left. He was forbidden to engage in agriculture; he was forbidden to practise law; he was forbidden to practise medicine, except among Jews; he was forbidden the handicrafts. Even the seats of learning and the schools of science had to be closed against this tremendous antagonist. Still, almost bereft of employments, he found ways to make money, even ways to get rich. Also ways to invest his takings well, for usury was not denied him. In the hard conditions suggested, the Jew without brains could not survive, and the Jew with brains had to keep them in good training and well sharpened up, or starve. Ages of restriction to the one tool which the law was not able to take from him—his brain—have made that tool singularly competent; ages of compulsory disuse of his hands have atrophied them, and he never uses them now. This history has a very, very commercial look, a most sordid and practical commercial look, the business aspect of a Chinese cheap-labor crusade. Religious prejudices may account for one part of it, but not for the other nine.
Protestants have persecuted Catholics, but they did not take their livelihoods away from them. The Catholics have persecuted the Protestants with bloody and awful bitterness, but they never closed agriculture and the handicrafts against them. Why was that? That has the candid look of genuine religious persecution, not a trade-union boycott in a religious disguise….
I am persuaded that in Russia, Austria, and Germany nine-tenths of the hostility to the Jew comes from the average Christian's inability to compete successfully with the average Jew in business—in either straight business or the questionable sort….
With most people, of a necessity, bread and meat take first rank, religion second. I am convinced that the persecution of the Jew is not due in any large degree to religious prejudice.
No, the Jew is a money-getter; and in getting his money he is a very serious obstruction to less capable neighbors who are on the same quest. I think that that is the trouble. In estimating worldly values the Jew is not shallow, but deep. With precocious wisdom he 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….
Point No. 4.
"The Jews have no party; they are non-participants."
Perhaps you have let the secret out and given yourself away. It seems hardly a credit to the race that it is able to say that; or to you, sir, that you can say it without remorse; more than you should offer it as a plea against maltreatment, injustice, and oppression. 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? The oppressed Jew was entitled to all pity in the former times under brutal autocracies, for he was weak and friendless, and had no way to help his case. But he has ways now, and he has had them for a century, but I do not see that he has tried to make serious use of them…. In the United States he was created free in the beginning—he did not need to help, of course. In Austria and Germany and France he has a vote, but of what considerable use is it to him? He doesn't seem to know how to apply it to the best effect. With all his splendid capacities and all his fat wealth he is to-day not politically important in any country….
Point No. 3.
"Can Jews do anything to improve the situation?"
I think so. If I may make a suggestion without seeming to be trying to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs, I will offer it. In our days we have learned the value of combination. We apply it everywhere—in railway systems, in trusts, in trade unions, in Salvation Armies, in minor politics, in major politics, in European Concerts. Whatever our strength may be, big or little, we organize it. We have found out that that is the only way to get the most out of it that is in it. We know the weakness of individual sticks, and the strength of the concentrated fagot. Suppose you try a scheme like this, for instance. In England and America put every Jew on the census-book as a Jew (in case you have not been doing that). Get up volunteer regiments composed of Jews solely, and, when the drum beats, fall in and go to the front, so as to remove the reproach that you have few Massenas among you, and that you feed on a country but don't like to fight for it. Next, in politics, organize your strength, band together, and deliver the casting vote where you can, and, where you can't, compel as good terms as possible. You huddle to yourselves already in all countries, but you huddle to no sufficient purpose, politically speaking. You do not seem to be organized, except for your charities….
Point No. 5.
"Will the persecution of the Jews ever come to an end?"
On the score of religion, I think it has already come to an end. On the score of race prejudice and trade, I have the idea that it will continue. That is, here and there in spots about the world, where a barbarous ignorance and a sort of mere animal civilization prevail; but I do not think that elsewhere the Jew need now stand in any fear of being robbed and raided. Among the high civilizations he seems to be very comfortably situated indeed, and to have more than his proportionate share of the prosperities going. It has that look in Vienna. I suppose the race prejudice cannot be removed; but he can stand that; it is no particular matter….
Point No. 6.
"What has become of the Golden Rule?"
It exists, it continues to sparkle, and is well taken care of. It is Exhibit A in the Church's assets, and we pull it out every Sunday and give it an airing. But you are not permitted to try to smuggle it into this discussion, where it is irrelevant and would not feel at home. It is strictly religious furniture, like an acolyte, or a contribution-plate, or any of those things. It has never been intruded into business; and Jewish persecution is not a religious passion, it is a business passion.
To conclude. If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
What happened next …
Twain's article was widely criticized, especially on actual grounds. He had asserted that Jews were reluctant to defend their country. Readers of Harper's were eager to correct the record. When Twain's essay was later collected into a book, he printed a correction to his oversight:
"When I published the above article in Harper's Monthly, I was ignorant—like the rest of the Christian world—of the fact that the Jew had a record as a soldier. I have since seen the official statistics, and I find that he furnished soldiers and high officers to the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. In the Civil War he was represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by 10 per cent of his numerical strength—the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations of the two sections. This large fact means more than it seems to mean; for it means that the Jew's patriotism was not merely level with the Christian's, but overpassed it."
Two decades after Twain's essay appeared, the U.S. Congress began passing a series of laws to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, laws that were aimed especially at Catholic and Jewish immigrants. The laws never proclaimed prejudice against religious groups. They were based on restricting immigration from specific countries in proportion to the number of Americans whose ancestors came from these countries. This meant, in practice, that the number of immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries like Italy was sharply limited. Immigrants from Russia—which in practice meant Jews—also were sharply restricted.
Did you know …
- In his essay, Twain assumed that Jews were unwilling to fight in the armed forces, either of the United States or of other countries. In fact, just the opposite was true. In the nineteenth century, Jews regarded fighting in the army as a sign of acceptance. On the other hand, they were not always welcomed as soldiers. In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, later New York, Jews volunteered to stand armed guard. They were told instead they should depart, "whenever and whither it pleases them."
For More Information
Twain, Mark. The Complete Essays of Mark Twain Now Collected for the First Time. Edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
Gilman, Sander L. "Mark Twain and the Diseases of the Jews." American Literature (March 1993): p. 95.
Levy, M. S. "A Rabbi's Reply to Mark Twain." Overland Monthly (October 1899). http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/levy99.html (accessed on February 21, 2004).
Twain, Mark. "Stirring Times in Austria." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (March 1898). http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~habsweb/sourcetexts/twain1.htm (accessed on February 21, 2004).
Zwick, Jim. "Mark Twain's Vienna and 'Concerning the Jews.'" BoondocksNet.com. http://www.boondocksnet.com/twainwww/essays/twain_vienna970... (accessed on February 21, 2004).