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A unique form of hate or another form of xenophobia?

A unique form of hate or another form of xenophobia?
As mentioned before, there is a historiographical debate regarding whether anti-Jewish expressions in the Greco-Roman world should be viewed as a unique form of hatred or as one of the various forms of xenophobia that existed during this period. Let’s hear more about this issue. There’s a tradition in Greco-Roman antiquity about Greco-Romans writing about exotic “others”. Greeks write about Persians and they make fun of Persians - Greeks are hard, Persians are soft. Greeks are masculine, Persians are feminine and so on. When Rome becomes the big kid on the block, you get Romans talking about Greeks as soft and Romans are hard. This is all a very masculinized, gender-specific type of discourse. Egyptians are strange. They are picky about food.
Jews are secretly lazy. Germans are physically strong but intellectually weak. And if you’re going to be an ancient Greco-Roman ethnographer, it seems that one of the qualifications is not liking other ethnic groups very much, because all of these other ethnic groups are brought in for critical description by these ancient people. We have many more of the anti-Jewish comments arrive in our evidence than we do for these other people groups, because the anti-Jewish pagan comments were preserved and reused for different ends by the later gentile Christian church. But in terms of equal-opportunity dislike, anti-Jewish remarks by pagans does fit against this Greco-Roman wallpaper of grouchy ethnography.
So, I don’t think that one can call this ethnographic picture of the Jews as somewhat asocial or anti-social group, I don’t think one can call that antisemitism. It simply falls into the category of Greeks encountering other civilizations and focusing on what was different, what was unusual about them. That changes somewhat in one geographical region in particular during the time after Alexander the Great, and that is Egypt. The Ptolemies, the last of whose rulers was Cleopatra, took over and governed Egypt for some 300 years, and at that time, and in fact slightly before, Jewish mercenary troops served the ruling Greek regime. This put them between the outsider Greeks who were governing the country and ordinary Egyptians who were being governed.
The Jewish mercenaries were caught in between, and the fact that they were caught in between generated considerable hostility toward them, because they represented the alien ruling Greeks, and they were in fact a military power. There is a serious discussion among historians of this period as to whether one can call the attitudes toward Jews in this period something like antisemitism. The closest one comes to it, I think happens a little bit later, after the Romans enter Egypt and take over the control of Egypt from the Ptolemies.
There we have certain pieces of literature that have actually survived, in which the native Egyptians, out of their hatred of the Roman rule of Egypt, blame the Jews, who are still serving as intermediaries, as military representatives of the Romans on Egyptian soil. Not surprisingly, native Egyptians - not all native Egyptians to be sure but some native Egyptians, perhaps of a nationalist streak - took out their hatred of the Jewish military presence in Egypt as a kind of antisemitic depiction of the Jews, as opposed to all the gods, as a hateful people, as military rulers who destroyed the religion and the culture of the Egyptians. And I think the roots then of these negative attitudes are seriously political.
If by antisemitism one means that one begins with the hatred of Jews and their religion, then I think there’s some question about whether we can call the roots of this hatred antisemitism. It is intense. It is very negative with respect to the Jews. But I think that its fundamental roots and causes are political. So wwhat’s the difference between xenophobia and antisemitism? I would say that most people groups in antiquity were quite aware of differences between their own group and the behaviors of other groups, and obviously our group is always the one that’s doing it the best and other groups are doing it wrongly and differently.
But there’s something in particular about the anti-Jewish statements that you don’t get with the anti-Persian statements or the anti- German statements, which also exist in ancient ethnography. And that is that there’s a kind of nervousness about Jewish behaviors because Jewish behaviors are so different in terms of circumcision, in terms of Sabbath observance and, in particular, in terms of not showing respect to other gods; and that I think, in particular, lifts up anti-Jewish xenophobia to be a type of dislike that can be characterized, not as antisemitism full stop, but certainly as ancient antisemitism.

Prof. Paula Fredriksen, Prof. John G. Gager

Should anti-Jewish expressions in the Greco-Roman world be viewed as a unique form of hatred or should they be perceived as one of the various forms of xenophobia that existed during this period?

For additional visual materials as well as relevant quotations please see “downloads” below.


  • Gager, John G., The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).‏

  • Gruen, Erich S., Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

  • Isaac, Benjamin, Empire and Ideology in the Graeco-Roman World: Selected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 285 – 305.

  • Schäfer, Peter, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

  • Schwartz, Daniel R., “Antisemitism and Other-isms in the Greco-Roman World,” in Robert Wistrich, ed., Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Amsterdam: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), pp. 73 – 87.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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