Mark Twain on the Root Cause of Antisemitism

Mark Twain on antisemitism

In 1898, Harper’s Magazine published an essay by Mark Twain titled Concerning the Jews, in which the author responds to a letter from a lawyer who asks Twain to explain why antisemitism is so rampant in society and why Jewish people throughout history have born the brunt of so much hatred and hostility. Twain essentially argues that the main reason why antisemitism exists is because of Jewish success, and the envy, resentment, and anger this engenders among non-Jews. In his view, religious prejudice is a minor cause of antisemitism, and ignorance and fanaticism cannot fully account for the level of anti-Jewish bigotry that exists.

Twain refers to Jews disproportionately succeeding in many spheres of society (given their low numbers in the general population) and believes that this level of competition in society led to antisemitic attitudes and laws. In this essay, I argue that, while there may be validity to Twain’s explanation of antisemitism, he still nonetheless relies on various generalisations, tropes, and stereotypes, and hence, ironically, his supposedly pro-Jewish essay can be considered antisemitic in some respects.

A Reaction to the Antisemitism of the Day

In this essay, Twain sought to identify the root cause of antisemitism and use it to shine a light on the manifestations of this bigotry he was witnessing around him at the time – in the form of antisemitism at the end of the 19th century in Europe, in the anti-Jewish diatribe in the Viennese Parliament, and in relation to the Dreyfus affair. The latter example refers to a political scandal that began in December 1895, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry, was wrongfully convicted of treason, a decision now seen as a notable example of antisemitism. Those who opposed Dreyfus (known as anti-Dreyfusards) – who supported the conviction – included the journalist Édouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole, and the founder of the Antisemitic League of France, a nationalist league that spread antisemitic propaganda.

La Libre Parole (and other French newspapers) and the Antisemitic League of France were very active during the Dreyfus affair, launching scathing and duplicitous attacks on Dreyfus. Anti-Dreyfusards were ignited by the culture of antisemitism that existed in France before the scandal, a culture that papers like La Libre Parole and La Croix had helped to create through their antisemitic material. But even if antisemitism didn’t start the anti-Dreyfus affair, it definitely helped to fuel it.

Twain’s Explanation of Antisemitism

Antisemitism has long been known as history’s oldest hatred, and it is certainly persistent as well. Twain therefore attempts to explain in this essay why this virulent animosity originated and why it doesn’t seem to go away. His explanation is, in a nutshell, based on the notion that Christian nations have come to despise Jewish people and seek to expel them from society because they have been successful in many areas of life and outcompeted Christians in the process. He states:

…the argument is that the Christian cannot compete with the Jew, and that hence his very bread is in peril. To human beings this is a much more hate-inspiring thing than is any detail connected with religion.

He adds, speaking about Jews generally, that:

…his success has made the whole human race his enemy – but it has paid, for it has brought him envy, and that is the only thing which men will sell both soul and body to get.

Twain frequently refers to Jewish people throughout history excelling in whatever trades and professions they turned to, and that this led to the law having to step in to forbid Jewish people from engaging in such pursuits, as a way to “save the Christian from the poor-house.”

Twain’s Philosemitism

Twain’s explanation of antisemitism comes from a kind of philosemitism or Judeophilia, which refers to a respect for and appreciation of Jewish people, including their history, religion, and culture. Another notable example of philosemitic attitudes can be found in the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche was very much against antisemitism, despite the popular opinion that he was antisemitic. This inaccurate impression is due, in large part, to the influence of his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a Nazi sympathiser who edited her brother’s work after his death so that it fitted in with her antisemitic ideology. In The Will to Power, published under Friedrich’s name, posthumously, in 1901, Elisabeth turned the anti-German and anti-anti-semitic Friedrich into a Jew-hating, pro-eugenics nationalist who was in favour of breeding a master race. She omitted all opinions not in accordance with her own. Through her distortion of her brother’s work, and her close affiliation with Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche’s work became material for Nazi propaganda. It’s because of Elisabeth sister that Nietzsche’s work has been viewed as pro-Nazi. In contrast, we can see expressions of Nietzsche’s philosemitism in The Gay Science (1882), in which he writes that all Jewish scholars:

have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by forces of reason; they know, with that they are bound to win even when they encounter race and class prejudices and where one does not like to believe them.

He continues:

…Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making people think more logically and for establishing cleanlier intellectual habits – nobody more so than the Germans who are a lamentably déraisonnable race who to this day are still in need of having their “heads washed” first. Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions, more rigorous inferences, and to write in a more luminous and cleanly fashion; their task was ever to bring a people “to listen to raison.”

Twain likewise admires Jewish people for their high intelligence but believes such abilities reflect a way of coping in a society hostile to them. As he states:

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…

Persecution therefore motivated Jewish people to place a high cultural value on intelligence and education, so that they could overcome disadvantages and achieve as much success as possible, better enabling their survival. Evidence consistently points to the high intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, who make up 80% of the Jews in the world today. Ashkenzai Jews have the highest IQs of any ethnic group, scoring an average of 115 on an IQ test, compared to the world average of 79.1 (although IQ is not of course the only or necessarily the best indicator of intelligence). And since 1950, 29% of Nobel Prize winners have been Ashkenazi Jews, despite making up only 0.25% of the global population. It is interesting to consider the explanation that this high intelligence is, at least in part, an effect of antisemitism. Moreover, average high intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews could explain Jewish people’s disproportionate achievements, with such achievements fuelling antisemitism through envy, in line with Twain’s reasoning.

In his essay, Twain underscores the impressive intellectual achievements of Jewish people and their contributions to society, and concludes his essay with a strongly philosemitic sentiment:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust 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?

Philosemitism as Antisemitism

Twain’s positive appraisal of Jews clearly contrasts with the negative stereotypes of Jewish people as greedy and dishonest, inspired by works like On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), an antisemitic treatise and diatribe written by the German Reformation leader Martin Luther. Twain diverges from such sentiments, which were common in his day, and instead describes Jewish people as benevolent, law-abiding, peaceful, industrious, and honest in business. However, while Twain was indubitably praising what he saw as virtues of Jewish people in his essay, he refers to Jews in an extremely general and black-and-white way, often speaking of “a Jew” or “the Jew”, then followed by a description that he sees typical of Jewish people: benevolent, law-abiding, peaceful, etc. And it is through such monolithic descriptions of Jewish people that we can cast doubt on Twain’s belief that he has no prejudices about Jews. “I have no such prejudice [against Jews]” and “no race prejudices,” he writes at the beginning of the essay.

The philosemitism that Twain is so keen to get across is – like much positive stereotyping about Jews – antisemitic in nature. For instance, when reading Twain’s essay, I had the impression that there was not much difference between the stereotypes he was painting of Jews and the ones propagated by antisemites. The underlying intent may be different, with Twain praising Jews and antisemites demonising them, but the stereotype is more or less the same: Jewish success is portrayed as being problematic in society, causing harm to others’ livelihoods. Bennet Kravitz, who teaches American Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, makes this point in his essay Philo-Semitism as Anti-Semitism in Mark Twain’s “Concerning the Jews”:

…Twain’s philo-Semitic text is anti-Semitic because all philo-Semitic texts are anti-Semitic. Both types of texts create easily interchangeable stereotypes. One might just as reasonably hate the Jews for the very same reasons that Twain, or any other philo-Semite, admires them. Thus it makes perfect sense that Twain’s philo-Semitic text could be put to use by Nazi sympathizers in America and elsewhere in the 1930s. And that is the main problem with “Concerning the Jews” and with philo-Semitism in general. Both praise a non-existent homogenous group of people called the “Jews” who are too easily relegated to a negative stereotype. The flawed logic of “Concerning the Jews” and all philo-Semitism leads to the very real anti-Semitic beliefs that the latter seeks to deflate.

For this reason, we can also critique the philosemitism of Nietzsche, as he too was guilty of viewing an ethnic group in a simplistic and inaccurate way, and that while being extremely praiseworthy and appreciative, his generalisations about Jews could be exploited for malicious reasons. For instance, such philosemitism could foster a baseless kind of jealousy, a jealousy that ends up encouraging antisemitic attitudes.

Here I’d like to distinguish between envy and jealousy, as the former is defined by a desire for what someone else has, whereas the latter refers to a suspicion that someone else is threatening something we possess. I believe Twain’s explanation of antisemitism, or similar explanations, may confuse the two. After all, jealousy is usually seen in more negative terms; it consists of an unpleasant suspicion about someone else, a perceived rivalry, and this seems to pertain more closely with antisemitic attitudes than mere envy, which is a covetous feeling towards another person’s attributes or possessions, and may not necessarily lead to feelings of hostility. Nevertheless, this is more of a semantic (and possibly pedantic) point, and I don’t think explaining antisemitism in terms of envy rather than jealousy significantly alters the nature of the argument.

In terms of Twain’s philosemitic essay, he seemed to me to rely on tropes and stereotypes that could much more easily bolster antisemitism than Nietzsche’s stereotyping. Twain, for example, states that “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.” This description, to me, appears antisemitic for two reasons. Firstly, the “money-getter” phrase promotes – or at least provides justifications for – economic antisemitism, which involves stereotypes about Jews and money (e.g. Jews are good with money; Jews are greedy; Jews are obsessed with money, profit, and materialism; and all Jews are wealthy). We see this kind of stereotyping again from Twain when he argues that “he [the Jew] made it [money] the end and aim of his life to get it” and that “he has been at it [getting money]” since the time of ancient Egypt. In making these statements, Twain seems to ignore (or forget) that most of the world’s Jewish population in his time were living at or below the poverty line. And Jewish people have certainly lived in poverty throughout history and all over the world. So, it is inaccurate for Twain to claim that Jews, in general, have been unusually successful and therefore likely to attract envy and enmity.

Secondly, Twain opines that Jewish success was inextricably tied to the impoverishment of non-Jews. But he does not base this opinion on anything. Such a belief, in fact, is linked to many other stereotypes central to economic antisemitism (e.g. Jews take advantage of non-Jews, Jews are ruthless in business, powerful Jews control the business world, and Jews use their economic power to benefit ‘their own kind’). Abraham Foxman, an American lawyer and former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, outlines these stereotypes and their historical origins in his book Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype (2010).

One key historical and religious factor keeping in mind is that moneylending (charging interest on a loan) was long prohibited in Christianity. Christians found engaging in the practice ran the risk of being excommunicated. In the Jewish tradition, however, moneylending was permissible, so long as one lent money on interest to a “stranger” (non-Jew) and never to a fellow Jew. (Biblically, this practice was known as usury, a term which today refers to lending money at an interest rate that is considered excessively high or illegal. I use the term moneylending here to avoid the pejorative connotations of modern-day usury.)

This asymmetry in how Christians and Jews viewed moneylending is why European Jews throughout the Middle Ages were often driven towards this profession, as moneylenders were still in demand, and the profession was potentially lucrative. Moreover, many Jews would have become moneylenders out of necessity, given the restrictions on the kind of work they were permitted to do. Yet even though Christians would have benefited from moneylending, the practice was still seen as sinful. This, along with the tense relationships between Jewish moneylenders and Christians, has no doubt played a role in the demonisation of Jews’ economic activity. The historical association of Jews with usury leaves us with many of the unpleasant stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews that persist to this day.

When reading Twain’s self-avowed non-prejudicial essay about Jews, I couldn’t help but notice that he was continually depicting Jews throughout history as driving non-Jews out of business and threatening their very survival. It seems he may not have been unaffected by antisemitic attitudes, despite him thinking otherwise. Why should the success of Jews be viewed as antagonistic to non-Jews, rather than helpful? Did Twain likewise see the economic success of other minorities as a threat to others? Twain might be praising Jewish success in this essay, but as Kravitz emphasises, the story about Jewish success that Twain is telling could easily be interpreted in an antisemitic way. One could read this essay and conclude that Jews have been too successful and so their persecution is their own fault. Isn’t Twain implying that persecutors of Jews were just acting in a self-protective and understandable way? We should be wary of arguments that sound like – or could be used for – this kind of victim-blaming. Pinning the blame on the victim rather than the persecutor is, after all, a typical feature of religious and racial prejudice.

Twain also misses the essential point that Jews, throughout history, were often the only minority available to scapegoat. It’s not so much that Jewish success, in particular, worsened the life outcomes of others but that issues and crises affecting the host culture could easily be explained away by pointing the finger at this visible and recognisable minority. A classic example of this dynamic would be the accusations of ‘blood libel’, an antisemitic canard that falsely accused Jews of murdering Christian children for the purpose of using their blood in religious rituals. These allegations followed instances where Christian children disappeared, leading to a communal panic, and a need to find someone to blame – and much like today, minorities often become the target. Jews were also scapegoated during the Bubonic Plague – or ‘Black Death – in 14th century Europe, with Jewish people falsely accused of poisoning the wells. These accusations led to tens of thousands of Jews being burned alive.

Furthermore, prior to all the scapegoating, discrimination, pogroms, persecutions, and expulsions faced by Jewish people, the Christian Churches had been teaching that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Christians were also inculcated with the belief that Jews should be collectively blamed for this act of deicide (the killing of God Incarnate, or God in human form). Pre-existing negative perceptions of Jews in Christian countries, therefore, made Jewish people an easy scapegoat. It seems unwarranted for Twain to dismiss this religious prejudice as playing only a small role in the ubiquity of antisemitism.

In summary, there are various issues with Twain’s essay Concerning the Jews, issues which ironically illustrate Twain’s philosemitism as antisemitic. Nonetheless, his explanation that antisemitism has its roots in envy is less controversial, with other scholars such as Steven Beller and Gerald Krefetz also espousing this view. Whether envy can justifiably be proffered as the main or overriding cause of antisemitism throughout history and in contemporary society is, however, subject to debate. The problem of antisemitism is complex, with many historical, religious, economic, and psychological factors contributing to it.

It is difficult to conclude to what extent, exactly, envy plays in antisemitism (perhaps it is more significant in economic antisemitism than other kinds of antisemitism, for example). Nevertheless, it is clear that basic and powerful emotions – like jealousy and fear – play crucial roles in the origin and preservation of hostility towards minority groups. On a personal and collective level, it is wise to deeply question how our perception and treatment of minority groups might be driven by specific insecurities and fears, as this process usually occurs without us being consciously aware of it.


  1. Stephen B Kagan
    January 19, 2021 / 1:13 am

    I realize here that you are focusing on Twain’s views in this article and yet it got me thinking in a larger context. When I think of my ancestors leaving Russia and the Ukraine, I wonder how much of the anti-Semitism they faced was created to simply justify taking their land and property. In this sense jealousy takes a backseat to competition for valuable resources. This could also be argued as a motivation in the beginning of the Nazi’s removing Jews to take their art, houses and gold.

    • Sam Woolfe
      January 19, 2021 / 8:27 am

      That’s an interesting aspect to think about. Jews throughout the Middle Ages often had to pay special taxes and were denied the right to own land, so I can see that as a form of competition for valuable resources, with antisemitism justifying it.

      My ancestors also came from Russia but I know nothing else about them, so I don’t know what their motivations were for leaving the country.

  2. Stephen B Kagan
    January 21, 2021 / 10:19 pm

    Queue in the movies Everything is Illuminated and Fiddler on the Roof.

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