Chapter 2: Judeophobia in the Pagan Ancient World - Alexandria a
In the previous chapter you read why Judeophobia is unique. It is important to bear this singularity in mind in order to avoid a feeling students frequently express, who suggest that by stressing Judeophobic danger we are overlooking discrimination and persecution against other groups.
I think they miss the point. We should naturally repudiate every kind of group hatred, racism and persecution, but Judeophobia is and remains the longest hatred, the most permanent, deep, obsessive, universal, dangerous, chimerical hatred on earth. If we dilute it into a sea of discriminations and hatreds we will understand less.
Our second point was the genesis of Judeophobia. After presenting (and refuting) five hypotheses, the two remaining ones demand explanation.
One, that Jew-hatred was born within Hellenism, is held among others by a contemporary historian of Judeophobia, the American priest Edward Flannery, whose book “The Anguish of the Jews -Twenty -Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism,” gives us his answer in its subtitle.
In his attempt to single out the first historically documented hostility against the Jews, Flannery traces Judeophobia back to Alexandria in the third century b.c.e. Let me acquaint you with that famous town.
ALEXANDRIA AS THE CRADLE OF JUDEOPHOBIA
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great, a disciple of Aristotle who was to be the most renowned conqueror of all times. Apparently Alexander was well disposed towards the Jews. He allowed them to build a Jewish area in the town, where they were active in commerce and became very prosperous. Alexandria became the commercial and intellectual capital of the ancient world. At the beginning of the common era, Jews occupied two-fifths of the city and already numbered 100,000.
Egypt was both the heart of the Jewish Diaspora, and the most advanced centre of Hellenization outside Greece itself. And it was not an exception to the rule that, in general, the pagan world was very tolerant towards religious diversity. After all, if each family worshipped several gods, what harm could be attributed to further deities others choose to worship. That atmosphere allowed the Jews to freely practice monotheism. Indeed there were many prominent figures who thought highly of the Jews as a group. Three examples are Clearchus, Theophrastrus and Megasthenes, at the beginning of the third century b.c.e. The first two were disciples of Aristotle. Clearchus of Soli describes in his dialogue “On Sleep” the meeting between his teacher and a Jew. Theophrastrus of Eresos describes the Jews as “philosophers by race,” a characterization that was not uncommon among those writers, for whom the Jews were philosophers dwelling among the Syrians. When Megasthenes went to India as ambassador of Seleucus Nicator, he wrote a work in which he idealized the Indians and included the Jews in his idealized descriptions.
However the mainstream of Alexandrian historians (Egyptians who wrote in Greek) were notorious for their Judeophobia. One reason for this animosity was that many native Egyptians, unhappy with Greek and Roman domination, did not approve of the tolerance under which the Jews flourished. This social envy was the context of the very first Judeophobic writings, all of them by Hellenistic writers in Alexandria and its environs.
The first one mentioned by Flannery is Hecataeus of Abdera (fourth century b.c.e.). He was the first pagan who wrote extensively on the history of the Jews, albeit in a legendary fashion: “When a plague occurred, the Egyptians expelled them... The majority fled to uninhabited Judea... Their leader, Moses, founded Hierosolyma and its Temple, establishing a cult and a constitution which differed completely from any other... groups of men, to whom the Jews adopted a hostile attitude.” On the whole Hecataeus’ account is sympathetic to the Jews (four centuries after him Phylo of Byblos even wondered whether Hecataeus had become a Jewish convert).
Nevertheless he is to be blamed for the first myth related to Jewish history, in what was to become an extensive and murderous mythology. The Jews “had been expelled,” and “in remembrance of the exile of his people, Moses instituted for them a misanthropic and inhospitable way of life.” All the following Alexandrian writers picked up on this humiliating origin. The only exceptions were Timagenes and Appian, about the only Alexandrian Greek historians not to show animosity towards the Jews. And Alexandrian historians were many in number and prolific in their writings.
The first Egyptian to give an account of the history of his country in Greek was the priest Manetho during the third century b.c.e. He tells that “King Amenophis son of Paapis decided to purge the country of lepers and other polluted persons. He collected 80,000 people and sent them to work in the quarries east of the Nile... They appointed as their leader Osarsiph (who) decreed that his people neither worship the gods nor abstain from the flesh of animals reverenced by the Egyptians... he sent representatives to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who had been expelled from Egypt. The people of Osarsiph (who Manetho identifies with Moses) defeated the Egyptians in a concerted effort.” Although he never explicitly mentions the Jews, Manetho does speak of “a nation of alien conquerors who set fire to Egyptian towns, razed the temples of the gods, and treated the natives with cruelty. After their expulsion from Egypt... they crossed the desert on their way to Syria, and in the country called Judea built a town, which they named Jerusalem.”
Manetho’s contribution was the seriousness he added to what had previously been unsubstantiated tales, in his capacity as the official historian. From this point, the themes of leprous origins and misanthropy were rarely absent from the litanies of pagan Judeophobia. Lysimachus would say that “the Jews, sick of leprosy took refuge in the temples, until king Bocheris drowned many of the lepers and sent another one hundred thousand of them to die in the desert. Moses exhorted them to show kindliness to no one, to follow only the worst advice, and overthrow all the sanctuaries and altars of the gods they might come upon. They arrived in Judea and they built a town called Hierosyla (“town of temple ...”).
Once the story of the Exodus was rewritten, myths were added in order to explain why they were expelled. Poseidonius tells that Jews were “impious people, hated by gods” and refers sardonically to the Jewish abhorrence of pork. During the second century b.c.e. Mnaseas of Pathros raises for the first time the charge that the Jews adore the golden head of an ass. And Philostratus summarizes these pagans’ belief: “For the Jews have long been in revolt against humanity... they have made their life apart and irreconcilable, and cannot share with the rest of mankind the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices... they are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from the most distant Indies.”
To those two main accusations (that Jews were lepers and that their religion was misanthropic) a third one was added by Agatharchides of Cnidus, who mocked “the ridiculous practices of the Jews, the absurdity of their law, in particular what concerned the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a focus of scorn because it revealed a people of laziness, who needed to rest one seventh of their lives.
During the first century b.c.e. Apollonius Molon (famous rhetorician, teacher of Cicero and Caesar) was the first to compose an entire work against the Jews in which he calls the Jews “the worst among the barbarians, lacking any creative talent, they did nothing for the good of mankind, they do not believe in any god... Moses was an impostor.”
But the worst pagan myth was still to appear in the first century b.c.e. through Damocritus’s pen. In “On the Jews” he claims that “every seven years they capture a stranger, lead him to their Temple, and immolate him cutting his flesh into small pieces.” His slander constitutes a remote source of the blood libel, about which we shall talk in the next two classes.
The peak of Alexandrian Judeophobia was achieved by Apion, whom Flannery calls “the first of the titans in the history of antisemitism.” Apion repeated in his “History of Egypt” every single myth held till then, and filled them with bitter consistency. The Sabbath originated because of a pelvic ailment incurred as Jews fled Egypt, which forced them to rest once a week. The Jews would kidnap a Greek, fatten him, convey him to a wood, slay him, sacrifice his body and swear an oath of hostility against the Greeks. And all this they did once a year (there was inflation in the legends of these “historians.”)
Two great Jews confronted this Judeophobe. The historian Flavius Josephus who called one of his books “Against Apion,” and the philosopher Philo of Alexandria who led a delegation to Rome to plead the Jewish cause before Caligula in the wake of Judeophobic riots in Alexandria under Flaccus in the year 38 c.e. (A.D) (Apion represented the attacking mobs).
Greek Judeophobia was inherited by Rome. In the beginning of the common era, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo claimed that “the Jews had already gotten into all cities, and it is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that hath not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them.”
This overperception of the Jews often accompanies Judeophobia. In any case, whether it created hostility or not, overperception of Jews is the rule. It is well exemplified in a letter sent by Mark Twain (not at all a Judeophobe) to the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica: “I read that the Jewish population of the U.S. was 250,000. I was personally acquainted with more Jews than that in my country. (The) figures were without a doubt a misprint for 25,000,000.”
In every country in which they live, Jews are at most 1% of the population (the only two exceptions are the US, where they are more than 2%, and Israel, where they constitute almost 90%). But in every single country they are usually perceived as five or ten times that proportion. The reasons for this overperception are that Jews are extremely urban (90% of them are concentrated in each country’s two major towns), they are very active in central activities (economy, arts, science) and Jewish history is the sacred history of most of the world (most people learn about the Jews at some stage during their education, so that the Jews are present in people’s minds long before they are personally acquainted).
But besides this overperception, the question remains why these Alexandrians initially attacked the Jews. We mentioned the prosperity of the Jews that created envy. Moreover, there was another reason for the first expressions of Judeophobia, namely that the centrality of the Exodus in the Jewish religion offended Egyptian national feelings. The biblical account challenged the Egyptians to provide a suitable answer, and that is why Judeophobic feelings existed in Egypt even before its conquest by Alexander the Great.
The Romans absorbed the Greek prejudices against the Jews (shameful origin, isolationism, ridiculous practices) and those prejudices were a mainstay of the intelligentsia. The Jewish community in Rome was second only to Alexandria. Already in 59 b.c.e. Cicero in his plea “Pro Flacco” mentions “how numerous they are, their clannishness, their influence in the assemblies.” As in Alexandria, privileges given by the Roman emperors to the Jews earned the hatred of envious neighbors. Those privileges were necessary for practicing their way of life since Romans were generally tolerant of other religions but uncompromising with whatever threatened to undermine their own cult. And their rituals were so woven into daily life that Jewish abhorrence of any type of image worship was a source of tension. However, the policy of the empire was never consistently Judeophobic. Some emperors were hostile to the Jews and some were not . Even the war against Judea did not modify that ambivalence.
But men of letters tended to incline the equilibrium. Horace, Tibullus and Ovid mocked Jewish practices and Seneca brought these jibes to their pitch by calling the Jews “most wicked nation (who) lose one seventh part of life contrary to a useful life.” Quintilian, Martial and Juvenal joined the attack on the “pernicious nation” but the apogee of pagan Judeophobia was reached in Tacitus. For him Jewish institutions are “sinister, shameful, and have survived only because of their perversity. Of all enslaved peoples the Jews are the most contemptible, loathsome... All that we hold sacred is profane to them; all that is licit to them is impure to us.”
Thus we close the chapter on ancient Judeophobia, which was mainly a literary phenomenon, and which justifies the standpoint of those who see in Alexandria the beginnings of Judeophobia.
The question is how could it be otherwise? How could anyone claim that Judeophobia was born with Christianity (as in our 5th thesis of last class) if there is so much evidence that both the Greeks and the Romans produced Jew-haters in abundance?
We will devote the next chapter to this question.
These pages are adapted by the kind permission of Dr. Gustavo Perednik.They are based on a twelve-lecture Internet course prepared for "The Jewish University in Cyberspace." During 2000 and 2001, the book by Gustavo Perednik "Judeophobia" was published in Spanish. This course summarizes the core ideas of the book. It presents a comprehensive and unique analysis of the development of Jew hate (Judeophobia or antisemitism) throughout history. It tries to answer the question "why the Jews?" - why have Jews been particularly singled out for ethnic, racial and religious persecution, and it traces the relationship between anti-Zionism and racist Judeophobia or so-called antisemitism.
Reproduced by permission. This work is copyright ©1997-2005 by Gustavo Perednik. Please do not copy it in any form without direct permission from the author. All rights reserved