Antisemitism (2)

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 ancient anti-Semitic ideas are well known to us. Even though the most notorious anti-Jewish libel, the five books of Egyptian history by Apion of Alexandria (c.20 BCE - 45 CE), are now lost, they were used by other authors, such as the Roman historian Tacitus (55-c.120) - and his works survive. The text of his description of the Jews can be read over here. Moreover, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote a book Against Apion; this is also a source for Apion's ideas.

But Apion was not the only one who detested the Jews. The following accusations were common.

These are all very unkind ideas. However, few would deny that the Jews were human beings. The Greek author Philostratus (170-c.244) makes precisely this claim in his vie romancée of the first-century charismatic teacher Apollonius of Tyana.

For the Jews have long been in revolt [...] against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.note

This statement, which does not necessarily represent Philostratus' own opinions, is probably the strongest expression of Judaeophobia in Antiquity. It is remarkable, because Philostratus was a courtier of the Roman emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Caracalla (211-217), who were unusually kind towards the Jews.


The words of Philostratus - "they are in revolt against humanity" - are shockingly similar to certain remarks by politicians of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Hitler writes in the second chapter of Mein Kampf (1925):

Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity.

And when we read the story of the Alexandrine pogrom, we cannot help but think about the gradual isolation of and the violence against the Jews during the Second World War. It is tempting to compare ancient and modern anti-Semitism.

Tempting though this may be, this would be mistaken. There are three very important differences between nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-Semitism and its ancient predecessor.

In the first place, the most frequent accusation made by Christian authors, was that the Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth; in other words, modern anti-Semitism was in the first place a religious hatred. This important aspect is absent from ancient anti-Semitism.

In the second place, the economic accusations were absent. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, many believed that the European Jews were looking for economic world domination; there was some discussion whether this dominance was to be liberal or marxist (both Ricardo and Marx were Jews), but many people knew for certain that the Jews were trying to dominate world trade. In Antiquity, it is the other way round: the Jews are despised because they were very poor. (An example can be found at the beginning of the Third Satire of Juvenal.)

The third and most important difference is that the more elaborate aspects of racism were absent in Antiquity. In the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, many serious scientists believed that they could establish the characteristics of human races; in their theories, Jews were always recognizable because they had - for example - large noses and dark eyes. This biological racism is (to the best of my knowledge) completely absent from our ancient sources.

The accusations that were made by the ancients are absent from the anti-Semitic writings of the modern age. Few anti-Semitic writers in the nineteenth and twentieth century have believed the inverted Exodus-story and the other accusations mentioned above. The exception is the accusation of human sacrifice, which has been made frequently in European history.

This leaves us with two completely different types of anti-Semitism, or even three: an ancient type, a Christian type (in which the accusation of killing Christ was the central theme), and a modern type, in which economic and biological accusations were important. The only thing they have in common is an irrational hatred of the Jews.