• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 joke, but a sophisticated judgment about the German language and the attitude toward the Jews expressed by it: the word “judenfreundlich” does not exist because Germans have never been, and never are, friendly toward the Jews. Nothing could illuminate better the terrain on which a German author writing on anti-Semitism, even if only on the “remote” history of ancient anti-Semitism, must tread.

Schäfer is perhaps a little more inhibited by such feelings than an author ideally would be. It might be thought, in the present instance, that there are some other parallels in ancient texts to this zeal for the complete destruction of a people. We might find them, not in Greek or Roman sources, but in the biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, of Jericho and Ai (“Joshua…utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai…. And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day” [Joshua 8:26-28]). We might be reminded too of the Amalekites, whom King Saul was commanded by God to destroy completely:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)

The prophet Ezekiel had a similar fate in mind for the city of Tyre (Ezekiel 26), and so on; the ferocious author of the Revelation, a Jew and a Christian, who gloats over the prospect of earthly destruction followed by eternal torment for most of mankind, only twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel being saved, perhaps represents the logical end of this line of thought. None of this is mentioned by Schäfer.

There are a few other examples in Schäfer of misguided tenderness to the ancient Jews, who were a tougher lot than this book tends to suggest. Thus we find a number of discussions in pagan authors of the story of the exodus from Egypt, a narrative on which several different slants were put. Some said the ancestors of the Jews were expelled by force, from fear that they were growing too numerous; or because they were leprous; or because their leader Moses was “outstanding for his wisdom and courage”; or for some other reason. They came to Palestine. Some Greek sources report that the land was at that time desert and unoccupied; others that it was inhabited, and that the Jews enslaved or drove out the people living there. Schäfer regards the latter version as evidence of anti-Semitic tendencies:

…With regard to the occupation of Judaea, [Tacitus] chooses the most negative possibility, namely that Moses and his followers drove out the former inhabitants. This is in contrast to both Hecataeus and Strabo, who stress that the country was uninhabited.

This argument presumably has the consequence that the biblical account, which describes the conquest and destruction of the indigenous peoples, is more anti-Semitic still. Something must be wrong; our notions of the politically correct do not transfer so simply to that more frankly ferocious world.

Schäfer goes in detail through the ancient evidence for two anti-Jewish explosions. One took place at the town of Elephantine in Egypt, when in 410 BCE the longstanding hostility between a garrison of Jewish soldiers and the local Egyptian population, especially the priests of the god Khnum, broke out into violence. The Jews were stationed there by the Persian overlords, and it is clear that they were seen by the Egyptians as the agents of a hated imperial power. At a moment when the Persian governor was away, a subordinate Persian officer was induced to join in what seems to have had the character of a nationalist uprising. The local Jewish temple was destroyed. Later all concerned were punished by the Persians.

These events emerge from a cache of documents on papyrus, which also fascinatingly illuminate the difficult relations between the Jews in Elephantine and the authorities of the great Temple in Jerusalem, whose permission they had to seek in order to rebuild their own temple, and who granted it only with some delay and on sharply limiting terms. The Jerusalem priesthood took the opportunity to disallow animal sacrifice, which was reserved as the unique privilege of their own great Temple.

The second set of events is what might be called the first pogrom known to us, the famous affair of the riots in Alexandria in the Thirties CE, in the reigns of the Roman emperors Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius. We have a lot of evidence, including highly partisan pamphlets from both sides, Jewish and Greek. The problem was that the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander as a Greek center in the conquered land of Egypt, had come to have a large Jewish population, in addition to the great numbers of Egyptians who lived there. The Greeks enjoyed the highest level of citizen rights; the Jews aspired to equal them (their propagandists alleged that they had been given equal rights from the founding of the city). The Greeks replied that, on the contrary, the Jews had, and should have, no more rights than the fellahin: that is to say, very few. Both sides were highly articulate, both had friends at court, and both furiously lobbied the Roman governors and emperors. In 38 CE there was a real pogrom. Jewish shops and houses were looted and burned; there were murders and rapine. Other outrages and provocations followed, not all on one side.

In this case, too, it could not have happened without the connivance of the representative of the imperial power, in this case the Roman governor who, in his turn, was duly deposed by Rome, sent into exile, and eventually executed. The Emperor Claudius can be seen intervening, after a second round of violence, with evident impatience (“Unless you stop this mutual enmity, obstinate and destructive, I shall be forced to show you what a benevolent ruler can really be, when he turns to justified anger”). The Jews had their sufferings to deplore; the Greeks had two of their leaders put to death by the Romans, and they commemorated them as martyrs. At issue, it seems, was the status of the Jews: Were they to have equality with the Greeks? But the violence was possible because of the background of smoldering hostility between different groups in Alexandria.

The Greeks of the city resented and disliked the Jews and their aspirations. The Egyptians (whom, in distinction from the Greeks, Schäfer wants to make more responsible for the violence than the sources suggest, or than seems to me plausible) were notorious for their unruliness and their dislike of all their rulers, right back to the time of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasty which ruled before the coming of Rome. As for the Jews of the insubordinate city of Alexandria, we read that a century later the philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after long years of hard campaigning against half-civilized tribes on the Danube frontier, exclaimed sadly, in his weariness at their turbulence, “O Marcomanni, O Quadi, O Sarmatians. I have finally found a people more troublesome than you!”

Schäfer declares, in the light of these events, that “one may well maintain that anti-Semitism did, and could, emerge in Egypt alone,” and that “the mother of anti-Semitism” is “the very heart of Egypt itself.” That is not a new conclusion: Victor Tcherikover, in his Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, also argued that “anti-Semitism originated in Egypt.”1 The occasion of explosive outbursts like these was political: a Jewish garrison was acting for a hated occupying power; or a Jewish community was attempting to improve its status. It was not directly religious, as it was often to be in the Christian period.

Their occurrence was, however, made more likely by a deeper hostility, which was inseparable from the Jewish religion. Many ancient writers give as the motive for hostility to the Jews that they live a life which is “unsocial” and “misanthropic.” This centered on the Jewish refusal to eat with outsiders, to intermarry with them, or to worship with them. The English word “companion,” which comes from the Latin for “sharing bread” (panis), helps to show how central to human sociability is the act of eating together; while for a Greek the unforgettable last scene of the Iliad, the main set book in every school, showed the hero Achilles gently obliging the aged Trojan king Priam, who has come through the night to ransom the body of the son whom Achilles has slain, to eat with him, as they contemplate together the tragic lot of mankind.

  1. 1

    Translated by S. Applebaum (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959), p. 358.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print