Antisemitism (1)

Anti-Semitism is the idea that people who speak a Semitic language belong to an inferior race. This nineteenth-century idea is mistaken, because there is no link between language and race; besides, the concept of "race" is epistemologically weak and probably senseless. Although the expression might cover Arab-speaking people as well, it is generally used to indicate anti-Jewish sentiments.

The first incidents: Esther

For anti-Semitism to arise, the Jews had to be a recognizable minority in a foreign state. Recognizable they always were, because they worshipped only one, aniconic God; a minority in a foreign state they became during the Babylonian Captivity. From the sixth century on, there was a substantial Jewish minority in Babylonia.

The first recorded incident took place in the Achaemenid Empire and is mentioned in the biblical book Esther. According to this story, a courtier named Haman came to king Xerxes and said:

There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king's laws; it is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them.note

On 16 May 474 BCE (one day before Passover), a decree was sent to all satraps that they were to kill the Jews on 8 March 473 (13 Adar). However, one of Xerxes' wives, his Jewish queen Esther, intervened and was able to prevent the disaster. Xerxes understood that Haman was unreliable and had him executed, and "the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them".note They next days, Adar 14 and 15, became a day of feasting and joy, which is called Purim.

It is unclear whether this story refers to a historical event, but there may be some truth to it, because another incident is known from our sources, which shows that anti-Semitism was not discouraged by the Persian authorities. It happened in 410 in Elephantine in Egypt.

The first incidents: Elephantine

Elephantine was a large garrison, occupied by Jewish soldiers in Persian service, who had built a temple of their own. Several texts document the lives of these soldiers.

The text known as ANET3 492 is a letter by the priest of Elephantine, Yedoniah, to the Persian governor of Judah. He tells that in July/August 410 the satrap of Egypt, Arsames, was away from his country (to visit king Darius II Nothus). Consequently, he was unable to prevent the Egyptian priest of the local god Chnum and the commander of the garrison, an Iranian named Vidaranag, to proceed against the Jewish temple. The reason for their attack was that the Jews sacrificed lambs, holy animals according to the Egyptians. Vidaranag's son Nefayan and a small army of native Egyptians entered the sanctuary, destroyed the columns and gates and set fire to the roof. The precious cups and candles they took with them.

However, the Jews of Elephantine had their revenge, although it is not exactly clear how. But it is certain that they destroyed the possessions of Vidaranag and killed him ("the dogs have eaten his feet"). On 25 November 407, the Jews asked permission to rebuild their temple. This was granted under the condition that other sacrifices were offered, and that is the last we hear about this incident.

The difference between these two incidents is the motivation. In Esther, the Jews are persecuted because they do not obey the Persian laws but the Law of Moses; the Egyptians were angry because of the Jewish religion. These two themes - unlawful and impious behavior - were to become very common complaints.

Antiochus' persecution of the Jews

Antiochus IV Epiphanes

The next incident is very difficult to interpret. It took place after the Achaemenid Empire had been replaced by the kingdom of the Greek Seleucids. One of their kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r.175-164), persecuted the Jews of Judah, but we do not know why. What is certain, however, is that it all started when the king seized the treasuries of the temple of Jerusalem in September 169 after a successful but expensive campaign against Egypt during the Sixth Syrian War.

This was neither an unusual nor a sacrilegious act. Oriental kings considered the temples in their territories as deposits of precious metal; they could give and take whenever and whatever they liked. However, the Jews were deeply shocked.note Even worse, two years earlier, the king had replaced the high priest Jason by Menelaos, who had promised him more tribute. Again, this was a normal oriental practice (at the same time, Antiochus had replaced the high priest of the Esagila complex at Babylon). The problem was that Menelaos wanted to hellenize the cult at Jerusalem, i.e., allow Greek influences.

In 168, the situation worsened. The Romans intervened in the Egyptian war and forced Antiochus to return. Seizing the opportunity, Jason tried to return to Jerusalem, which caused a civil war in Judaea. The king sent a peace-enforcing army, which took Jerusalem and built a military settlement. Because the soldiers needed a sanctuary to perform their religious duties, the Jerusalem temple was rededicated to the Olympian Zeus or Ba'al Ĺ amem. This happened in December 168.

According to the (biased) books of the Maccabees, Antiochus forbade the Jewish religion.note Orthodox Jews who had fled to the desert, were attacked during a Sabbath.

Many pious Jews - they are usually called the Hasidim - joined the revolt of Judas the Maccabaean, who lead a small force against the Seleucid army and defeated it. His enemies were unable to strike back, because they were occupied with a war against the Armenians. After several victories, Judas liberated Jerusalem (165), cleansed the temple - annually celebrated by the Jews at the Hanuka festival - and defeated the Seleucids. The situation normalized when Antiochus IV died in November/December 164; his successor Antiochus V made an end to the persecution. This was not the end of the struggle, however, and in 152 Judas' brother Jonathan was recognized as high-priest. In fact, this meant that the independence of Judah was recognized. The family of Judas and Jonathan became the new royal dynasty of Judaea, the Hasmonaeans.

It is unclear why Antiochus IV decided to persecute the Jews. It was a most unusual step, because religious tolerance was the normal policy in Antiquity; kings seldom intervened in the cultic practices. However, there is one parallel: the Roman emperor Hadrian, who was a great admirer of Greek culture, tried to root out Judaism (130 CE). He also forbade circumcision and the study of the law of Moses. This event is discussed here. It is possible that Antiochus abhorred Judaism because he was thoroughly hellenized.

Possible, but not very likely. The same king was not above a sacred marriage to the Syrian goddess Atargatis - an act that no Greek would aprove of. The fact that pigs had to be offered is another argument against the theory that Antiochus wanted to hellenize the country: the Greeks did not sacrifice pigs.

Probably, something else was going on in Judaea. It has been assumed that Menelaos was the architect of the king's decree, seeing an opportunity to hellenize his country and to show his loyalty to the Greek king. From a conservative Jewish point of view, the high priest had turned against his own people.

Later generations have called Antiochus IV a defender of hellenism because he attacked Judaism. His action is often called anti-Semitic, but in reality, things were far more complex than simple Judaeophobia.

Pogroms in Alexandria

According to a modern estimate, Alexandria had a million inhabitants: the native Egyptian population, the Greek elite, and some 150,000 Jews. The Greek kings usually treated the Jews kindly; for example, king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r.282-246) had paid for the translation of the Bible into Greek. His grandson Ptolemy IV Philopator (r.222-205) had other thoughts, however.

The Jewish legend has it that he visited Jerusalem in 217 BCE and was so impressed by its beauty, that he wanted to enter the temple. The high priest invoked God's help to prevent this sacrilege, and indeed, the king was punished by a stroke. He returned to Egypt, where he decided to avenge himself on the Jews of Alexandria, who were told that they could only save their lives by sacrificing to the god Dionysus. When they refused, they were imprisoned in the stadium, where five hundred elephants were to trample them. A miraculous intervention by two angels saved the Jews' lives, and Ptolemy repented.

This legend can be found in the Third Book of Maccabees. There may be some truth in it, because the story of the elephants is also told by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus,note although he calls the king Ptolemy VIII Euergetes Physcon (r.145-116), who is otherwise known for his kindness towards the Jews.


We know a lot more about another Alexandrine pogrom: in 38 CE, some seventy years after Egypt had become part of the Roman empire. Our main source is a text called Against Flaccus, written by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE - 50 CE). Aulus Avilius Flaccus was the Roman governor of Egypt between 32 and 38 and, according to Philo, a complete villain. According to Philo, Flaccus had not sent the Jewish declaration of loyalty to Caligula, when he became emperor (in 37). This may be a lie, but what is certain is that Flaccus was unable to control the outbreak of violence in August/September 38, and even encouraged it.

There had always been tensions between the three population groups of Alexandria: the Greeks despised the Jews, and Egyptians hated them because the Jews had privileges which they did not possess. In July 38, the Jewish king Herod Agrippa visited Alexandria on a mission from the Roman emperor Caligula. When he was insulted, Flaccus did nothing to punish those guilty of lese majesty. According to Philo, this encouraged the populace to demand that statues of Caligula had to be placed in the synagogues.

This demand was a trick of the Greek elite of Alexandria, people who hated the Romans and detested the Jews. It was intended to bring the Roman governor into trouble: if he allowed it to happen, the Jews would be furious and he would be forced to use violence against them; if he refused, he would have to explain himself in Rome to an emperor who was reportedly insane.

Flaccus was forced to order the statues to be placed, and this encouraged people to attack the synagogues: the gardens were destroyed, the buildings set afire. Philo says that this was done by the Alexandrian mob, but the assaults had been well-organized. They were planned.

From now on, the Jews were trapped. They had been living in all five quarters of the city; now they were ordered to live in one part, close together. It may be that Flaccus thought that this segregation would help the Jews, because it now became impossible to attack them as individuals. Whatever the motive, the result was the first known ghetto in history. Of course, the houses the Jews had left, were plundered by the Egyptian and Greek mob.

It was impossible for the Jews to leave their quarter: they were stoned, clubbed, or burned and the dead bodies were mutilated. Others were brought to the arena or crucified. Philo gives a shocking eyewitness account. Thousands must have perished, and -according to Philo- Flaccus did nothing to prevent it; instead, he sided with the attackers. Members of the Jewish council were arrested and whipped in the theater to celebrate the birthday of the emperor; others were crucified (31 August, a Sabbath).

After this, the situation seems to have relaxed a bit: as long as they stayed in their ghetto, the Jews were more or less save; the governor had shown the Greeks that he was one of them, and it is possible that he now had the credit to persuade the mob to calm down. It was a cynical solution, but the killing may have ceased.

By now, prince Agrippa had reported to the emperor. Caligula immediately sent an officer to Alexandria, who arrested Flaccus in the first week of October. Philo notes that this happened during the festival of Tabernacles, suggesting that the arrest was a divine intervention; he delights in his description of Flaccus' trial, exile and violent death.

The next governor allowed the Jews of Alexandria to explain what had happened in Rome. Unfortunately, Caligula had by now turned into a cruel tyrant and did not sympathize with the Jews. However, before things could get worse, Caligula was assassinated (24 January 41). The new emperor, Claudius, was able to normalize the situation, but it is not exactly clear how he did it, because Philo's narrative breaks off before the death of Caligula.

This was the best known anti-Semitic incident from Antiquity. There were some other events (go here for the story of a second pogrom in Alexandria), but it is unclear whether they were really anti-Semitic in nature. E.g., the emperor Tiberius expelled Jews from Rome in 19 CE, but this seems to have been a police measure after riots. This was certainly the case when Claudius expelled Jews in 49 or 50: they had been quarreling "because of the agitator Christ". Other incidents are related to war and are atypical.

We must now turn to the ideology of those who attacked the Jews.