Their Jewish Problem

Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World

by Peter Schäfer
Harvard University Press,, 306 pp., $35.00

It would have come as a surprise to the imperial peoples of antiquity—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans—if they could have been induced to believe that they would all pass away into extinction, leaving in unbroken existence only an inconsiderable people, never even mentioned by the Greeks before the fourth century BCE, which each of them in turn had defeated, conquered, and ruled. Yet so it is. One ancient people has clung on to its existence: repeatedly subjected, repeatedly dispersed, but somehow never extinguished. In the modern world there are no Babylonians, no Medes, no Romans even, but the Jews are still here.

All the peoples of the ancient world, of course, were conquered in the end. The Jews had no monopoly of the experience of defeat. But their survival is all the more surprising when we add that they, and they alone, were intermittently the object of a special hostility. There is hardly a parallel to be found elsewhere in ancient history to the advice given by “most of his counselors” to the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus VII, as he besieged Jerusalem about 135 BCE, to

take the city by storm and wipe out the Jewish people completely. Of all nations they alone have no community with other peoples and regard all men as their enemies. They pointed out that the Jews’ ancestors had been driven right out of Egypt as offenders against religion, hated by the gods…. [Having seized Jerusalem], they had made their hatred for the human race hereditary, and for this reason they had devised the most outlandish laws and customs, never to break bread with outsiders nor to show them any form of good will whatever.

This passage from a Greek historian is, for us, heavy with future history; much more than it was for ancient readers, who knew that no such attempt at a final solution was in fact made. What the kings of Syria did sporadically attempt was the extinction not of the Jewish people, but of the Jewish religion and way of life, and its replacement with a regular Greek style and worship of the Greek gods.

The passage is duly recorded by Professor Schäfer, who holds the Chair of Jewish Studies and is Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Free University, Berlin, in his well-informed and intelligently argued book. It is also admirably readable, especially for a work of which the author says, “This is the first book I have ever dared to write completely in English.” He shows a decent awareness that for a German to write on such a subject can raise problems. He opens with a wry and suggestive anecdote. The spell check on his German computer queried the word judenfreundlich, friendly to the Jews; it did not recognize the word; and as the nearest word that it did recognize it offered judenfeindlich, hostile to the Jews.

The composer of the spell check had ventured, not a bad …

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