Book review: Innocence And War: Mark Twain’s Holy Land Revisited

Ian StrathcarronSignal Books, £12.99

Ian Strathcarron

Signal Books, £12.99

MARK Twain’s observant and very funny The Innocents Abroad is an account of his trip through Palestine in 1867 with a party of American Christians.

Following in the footsteps of a long-ago journey can be a problem, if, like Twain, the original travelled hard on donkey and horse, and accommodation was literally lousy. Lord Strathcarron tracks Twain’s route by car, visiting many of the same places.

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But he has picked up a rock, as the Chinese say, only to drop it on his own feet. Where Twain is witty, Lord Strathcarron is clunking, where Twain is interesting, Lord Strathcarron offers opinions on subjects already known, partly mistaken, or just wrong. He never misses a crude beat: “A constant theme [in virgin births] is that a prophet, or god, or messiah or a Greek or Latin-style demi-god had to be given a leg-up by being born without a leg-over.”

There is also the dodgy English: “One forsakes to be judgmental about other people’s beliefs”; “the twenty beasts of burden desaddled their cargo”. Donkeys, he should know, don’t come in “corals”; the collective is drove, herd, or pace.

As for Jews and Israel, Lord Strathcarron offers views at tiresome length. We get the idea quickly: “…Judaism – at least as shown to the world here at the epicentre – is fast shaping up to be my least favourite religion. In Western countries we don’t really notice the practice of Judaism very much; as a minority religion it just gets on with it in the background. But here, where it is a highly visible majority religion, one sees at first hand… what a nasty piece of work it can be…” So Jews are OK if neither seen nor heard?

Similarly, on why Jews get so many Nobel prizes, Lord Strathcarron suggests that it arises from years of persecution, and emphasis on “self-succor, education, and excellence”. Perhaps. But then he notes – non-Jewish Scotland on Sunday readers can consider their Jewish friends – “the less attractive side-effects of intensity and fervour and a lack of what used to be called gaiety and what is still called charm.”

On Israel and Israelis he asks and answers: “Why is Israel every Gentile tourist’s least favourite destination? …One answer is the rudeness, brusqueness and a total lack of any form of charm.” Didn’t we read over 100 pages back that Jews everywhere lack charm?

Lord Strathcarron explains that sectarianism has kept Jews “intact as a race”. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemeni, and Chinese Jews, however, with their different genetic backgrounds, don’t share DNA. All of them Jews, yes; a single race, no.

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I agree with Lord Strathcarron that Israel treats its immediate Arab neighbours badly. But he sees a “moral similarity between what went on in Warsaw [he means Hitler’s executioners] and what goes on in Hebron.” If this Innocent chose to be scatty or vulgar, Twain would have smiled. But offensive? Never.