Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


MODERN antisemites who are in quest of sires for themselves, unhesitatingly trace the first demonstrations against the Jews back to the days of ancient Egypt. For that purpose they are particularly pleased to refer to Genesis, xliii, 32, where it is said: “The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that it is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” They also rely upon a few verses of the Exodus, among them the following: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come on, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply.” (Exodus, i, 9, 10.)

It is certain that the sons of Jacob who came to the land of Goshen under the Shepherd Pharaoh Aphobis, were treated by the Egyptians with the same contempt as their brothers, the Hyksos, referred to in hieroglyphic texts as lepers, called also “plague” and “pest” in some inscriptions.[15] They arrived at that very epoch when a very strong national sentiment manifested itself against the Asiatic invaders, hated for their cruelty; this sentiment soon led to the war of independence, which resulted in the final victory of Ahmos I., and the enslavement of the Hebrews. However, unless one is a violent anti-Jew, it is impossible to perceive in those remote disturbances anything beyond a mere incident in a struggle between conquerors and conquered.

There is no antisemitism until the Jews, having abandoned their native land, settle as immigrants in foreign countries and come into contact with natives or older settlers, whose customs, race and religion are different from those of the Hebrews.

Accordingly, the history of Haman and Mordecai may be taken as the beginning of antisemitism, and the antisemites have not failed so to do. This view is, perhaps, more correct. Though the historical reality of the book of Esther can scarcely be relied upon, still it is worthy of note that its author puts into the mouth of Haman some of the complaints, which, at a later period, are uttered by Tacitus and other Latin writers. “And Haman said unto the king, Ahasuerus: there is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws.” (Esther, iii, 8.)

The pamphleteers of the middle ages, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of our own time, say nothing else; and if the history of Haman is apocryphal, which is highly probable, still it cannot be denied that the author of the Book of Esther has very ably brought out some of the causes, which for many centuries exposed the Jews to the hatred of nations.

Yet we must go to the period of Jewish expansion abroad, to be enabled to observe with certainty that hostility against them, which by a peculiar misuse of terms has in our days been called antisemitism.

Some traditions refer the entrance of the Jews into the ancient world to the epoch of the first captivity. While Nabu- Kudur-Ussur led away to Babylonia a portion of the Jewish people, many of the Israelites, to escape from the conqueror, fled to Egypt, to Tripoli, and reached the Greek colonies. Tradition brings back to the same period the arrival of the Jews in China and India.

Historically, however, the wanderings of the Jews across the globe commence in the fourth century before our era. About 331 B.C. Alexander transported some Jews to Alexandria, Ptolemy sent some of them to Cyrenaica, and about the same time Seleucus led some of them to Antioch. When Jesus was born Jewish colonies flourished everywhere, and it was among them that Christianity recruited its first adherents. There were Jews in Egypt, in Phoenicia, in Syria, in Coele-Syria, in Pamphylia, in Cilicia, and as far as Bithynia. In Europe they had settled in Thessalia, Boeotia, Macedonia, Attica and Peloponnesus. They were to be found in the Great Isles, on Euboea, on Crete, on Cyprus, and at Rome. “It is not easy to find a place on earth,” says Strabo, “which has not received that race.”

Why were the Jews hated in all those countries, in all those cities? Because they never entered any city as citizens, but always as a privileged class. Though having left Palestine, they wanted above all to remain Jews, and their native country was still Jerusalem, i.e., the only city where God might be worshipped and sacrifices offered in His Temple. They formed everywhere republics, as it were, united with Judea and Jerusalem, and from every place they remitted monies to the high priest in payment of a special tax for the maintenance of the Templethe didrachm.

Moreover, they separated themselves from other inhabitants by their rites and their customs; they considered the soil of foreign nations impure and sought to constitute themselves in every city into a sort of a sacred territory. They lived apart, in special quarters, secluded among themselves, isolated, governing themselves by virtue of privileges which were jealously guarded by them, and excited the envy of their neighbours. They intermarried amongst themselves and en tertained no strangers, for fear of pollution. The mystery with which they surrounded themselves excited curiosity as well as aversion. Their rites appeared strange and gave occasion for ridicule; being unknown, they were misrepresented and slandered.

At Alexandria they were quite numerous. According to Philo,[16] Alexandria was divided into five wards. Two were inhabited by the Jews. The privileges accorded to them by Caesar were engraved on a column and guarded by them as a precious treasure. They had their own Senate with exclusive jurisdiction in Jewish affairs, and they were judged by an ethnarch. They were ship-owners, traders, farmers, most of them wealthy; the sumptuousness of their monuments and synagogues bore witness to it. The Ptolemies made them farmers of the revenues; this was one of the causes of popular hatred against them. Besides, they had a monopoly of navigation on the Nile, of the grain trade and of provisioning Alexandria, and they extended their trade to all the provinces along the Mediterranean coast. They accumulated great fortunes; this gave rise to the invidia auri Judaici. The growing resentment against these foreign cornerers, constituting a nation within a nation, led to popular disturbances; the Jews were frequently assaulted, and Germanicu, among others, had great trouble protecting them.

The Egyptians took revenge upon them by deriding their religious customs, their abhorrence of pork. They once paraded in the city a fool, Carabas by name, adorned with a papyrus diadem, decked in a royal gown, and they saluted him as king of the Jews. Under Philadelphus, one of the first Ptolemies, Manetho, the high-priest of the Temple at Heliopolis, lent his authority to the popular hatred; he considered the Jews descendants of the Hyksos usurpers, and said that that leprous tribe had been expelled for sacrilege and impiousness. Those fables were repeated by Chaeremon and Lysimachus. It was not only popular animosity, however, that persecuted the Jews; they had also against them the Stoics and the Sophists. The Jews, by their proselytism, interfered with the Stoics; there was a rivalry for influence between them, and, notwithstanding their common belief in divine unity, there was opposition between them. The Stoics charged the Jews with irreligiousness, judging by the sayings of Posidonius and Apollonius Molo; they had a very scant knowledge of the Jewish religion. The Jews, they said, refuse to worship the gods; they do not consent to bow even before the divinity of the emperor. They have in their sanctuary the head of an ass and render homage to it; they are cannibals; every year they fatten a man and sacrifice him in a grove, after which they divide among themselves his flesh and swear on it to hate strangers. “The Jews, says Apollonius Molo, are enemies of all mankind; they have invented nothing useful, and they are brutal.” To this Posidonius adds: “They are the worst of all men.”

Not less than the Stoics did the Sophists detest the Jews. But the causes of their hatred were not religious, but, I should say, rather literary. From Ptolemy Philadelphus, until the middle of the third century, the Alexandrian Jews, with the intent of sustaining and strengthening their propaganda, gave themselves to forging all texts which were capable of lending support to their cause. The verses of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, of Euripides, the pretended oracles of Orpheus, preserved in Aristobulus and the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria were thus made to glorify the one God and the Sabbath. Historians were falsified or credited with the authorship of books they had never written. It is thus that a History of the Jews was published under the name of Hecataeus of Abdera. The most important of these inventions was the Sibylline oracles, a fabrication of the Alexandrian Jews, which prophesied the future advent of the reign of the one God. They found imitators, however, for since the Sibyl had begun to speak, in the second century before Christ, the first Christians also made her speak. The Jews would appropriate to themselves even the Greek literature and philosophy. In a commentary on the Pentateuch, which has been preserved for us by Eusebius,l7 Aristobulus attempted to show that Plato and Aristotle had found their metaphysical and ethical ideas in an old Greek translation of the Pentateuch. The Greeks were greatly incensed at such treatment of their literature and philosophy, and out of revenge they circulated the slanderous stories of Manetho, adapting them to those of the Bible, to the great fury of the Jews; thus the con- fusion of languages was identified with the myth of Zeus robbing the animals of their common language. The Sophists, wounded by the conduct of the Jews, would speak against them in their teaching. One among them, Apion, wrote a Treatise against the Jews. This Apion was a peculiar individual, a liar and babbler, to a degree uncommon even among rhetors, and full of vanity, which earned him from Tiberius the nickname “Cymbalum mundi.” His stories were famous; he claimed to have called out, by means of magic herbs, the shade of Homer, says Pliny.

Apion repeated in his Treatise against the Jews the stories of Manetho, which had been previously restated by Chaeremon and Lysimachus, and supplemented them by quoting from Posidonius and Apollonius Molo. According to him, Moses was “nothing but a seducer and wizard,” and his laws contained “nothing but what is bad and dangerous.”[18]

As to the Sabbath, the name was derived, he said, from a disease, a sort of an ulcer, with which the Jews were afflicted, and which the Egyptians called sabbatosim, i.e., disease of the groins.

Philo and Josephus undertook the defence of the Jews and fought the Sophists and Apion. In Contra Apionem, Josephus is very severe on his adversary. “Apion,” says he, “is as stupid as an ass and as imprudent as a dog, which is one of the gods of his nation.” Philo, on the other hand, prefers to attack the Sophists in general, and if he mentions Apion at all, in his Legatio ad Caium, it is merely because Apion was sent to Rome to prefer charges against the Jews before Caligula.

In his Treatise on Agriculture he draws a very black picture of the Sophists, and insinuates that Moses has compared them to hogs. Nevertheless, in his other writings, he advises his co-religionists not to irritate them, so as to avoid all provocation to disturbances, but to await patiently their chastisement, which will come on the day the Jewish Empire, the empire of salvation, will be established on earth.

Philo’s injunctions were not heeded; the exasperation on both sides often led to violent riots and massacres of Jews; the latter, however, valiantly defended themselves.[19]

At Rome the Jews had a powerful and wealthy colony as early as the first year of the Christian era. If Valerius Maximus may be trusted they first came to the city about 139 B.C., during the consulate of Popilius Loenus and Cajas Calpwinius.[20]

Certain it is that, in 160 B.C., an embassy from Judas Maccabee arrived in Rome to negotiate an alliance with the Republic against the Syrians; other embassies followed, in 143 and 139.[21]

The settlement of the Jews at Rome probably dates from that time. Under Pompey they came in numbers, and as early as 58 B.C., they had quite a settlement. Turbulent and formidable, they were an important factor in politics. Caesar availed himself of their support during the civil wars and lavished favours upon them; he even granted them exemption from military service. Under Augustus the distribution of free bread was postponed for them whenever it fell due on Saturday. The Emperor gave them permission to collect the didrachm which was sent to Palestine, and he ordered the sacrifice of one or two lambs to be offered in his behalf at the Temple of Jerusalem for all time to come. When Tiberius became emperor, there were at Rome 20,000 Jews, who were organized in colleges and sodalitates.

Except the Jews of prominent families, like the Herods and the Agrippas, who mixed in public life, the Jewish masses lived in retirement. The majority resided in the dirtiest and busiest quarter of the city, the Transtiberinus. They were to be seen near the Via Portuensis, the Emporium and the Great Circus, in the Campus Martius, and in Suburra, beyond the Capenian Gate, on the banks of the Egerian Creek, and near the sacred grove. They were engaged in retail trade and the sale of second-hand goods; those at the Capenian Gate were fortune tellers. The Jew of the Ghetto is already there.

At Rome the same causes were at work as at Alexandria. There, also, the excessive privileges of the Jews, the wealth of some of them, as well as their unheard-of luxury and ostentation, excited popular hatred. This resentment was aggravated by deeper and more important reasons of a religious character; it may even be maintained, strange as it may seem, that the motive of Roman anti-Judaism was religious.

The Roman religion resembled in nothing the admirable and profoundly symbolic polytheism of the Greeks. It was ritual rather than mythical; it consisted of customs closely connected with the doings of everyday life, as well as with all sorts of public acts. Rome was one body with its gods; its greatness was bound, as it were, with the rigorous observance of the practices of their national religion; its glory depended upon the piety of its citizens, and it seems that the Roman must have had, like the Jew, that notion of a covenant between the deities and himself, which was to be scrupulously lived up to by both parties. Somehow or other, the Roman was always in the presence of his gods; he left his hearth, where they abode, only to find them again in the Forum, on the public highways, in the Senate, even in the fields, where they kept watch over the power of Rome. At all times and on all occasions sacrifices were offered; the warriors and the diplomats were guided by auguries, and all authority, civil as well as military, partook of the priesthood, for the officer could not perform his duties unless he knew the rites and observances of the cult.

It was this cult that for centuries sustained the Republic, and its commandments were faithfully obeyed; when they were changed, when the traditions became adulterated, when the rules were violated, Rome saw its glory fade, and its agony commenced.

Thus the Roman religion preserved itself for a long time without change. True, Rome was familiar with foreign cults; she saw the worshipers of Isis and Osiris, those of the great Mother and those of Sabazius; still, though admitting them into her Pantheon, she gave them no place in her national religion. All these Orientals were tolerated; the citizens were allowed to practice their superstitions, provided they were harmless; but when Rome perceived that a new faith was subversive of the Roman spirit, she was pitiless, as in the case of the conspiracy of the Bacchantes, or the expulsion of Egyptian priests. Rome guarded herself against the foreign spirit; she feared affiliation with religious societies; she was afraid even of Greek philosophers, and the Senate, in 161, upon the report of the praetor Marcus Pomponius, barred them from entering the city.

From this, one may understand the feeling of the Romans toward the Jews, Greeks, Asiatics, Egyptians, Germans, or Gauls, while bringing with them their rites and beliefs, made no objection to bowing before Mars of the Palatine, or even before Jupiter Latiaris. They conformed within certain limits, to the rules of the city, to its religious customs; at all events, they showed no opposition. Not so the Jews. They brought with them a religion as rigid, as ritualistic, as intolerant, as the Roman religion. Their worship of Yahweh excluded all other worship; thus they shocked their fellow citizens by refusing to swear to the eagles, whereas the eagle was the deity of the legion. As their religious faith was blended with the observance of certain social laws, the adoption of this faith was pregnant with a change of the social order. Therefore the Romans were worried by its establishment in their midst, for the Jews were eager to make proselytes.

The proselytic spirit of the Jews is attested by all the historians, and Philo justly says: “Our customs win over and convert the barbarians and the Hellenes, the continent and the isles, the Orient and the Occident, Europe and Asia, the whole world, from end to end.”

The ancient nations, at their decline, were deeply attracted by Judaism, by its dogma of divine unity, by its morals; many of the poor people were attracted by the privileges accorded to the Jews. These proselytes were divided into two great classes: those who accepted the circumcision and thereby entered into the Jewish community, thus becoming strangers to their families, and those who, without complying with the requisites for admission to the community, nevertheless gathered around it.

These conversions, generally by suasion and at times by force, as when the rich Jews converted their slaves, were bound to create a reaction. It was this chief cause, together with the secondary causes previously referred to, viz., the wealth of the Jews, their political influence, their privileged condition, that led to anti-Judaic demonstrations at Rome. The majority of Roman and Greek writers from Cicero on bear witness to this state of mind.

Cicero, who was a disciple of Apollonius Molo, inherited his teacher’s prejudices; he found the Jews in his way: they were with the popular party against the party of the Senate, to which he belonged. He feared them, and we can see from some passages of Pro Flacco, that he hardly dared to speak of them, so numerous were they around him and in the public place. Nevertheless, one day he burst forth. “Their barbarous superstitions must be fought,” says he; he accuses them of being a nation “given to suspicion and slander,” and proceeds by saying that they “show contempt for the splendour of the Roman power,”[22] They were to be feared, according to himthose men who, detaching themselves from Rome, turned their eyes towards the far away city, that Jerusalem, and supported it by denaries which they drew from the Republic. Moreover, he reproached them for winning citizens over to the Sabbatarian rites.

It is this last charge that recurs most frequently in the writings of the polemists, the poets and the historians. The Jewish religion, which charmed those who had penetrated its essence, was repulsive to others who had a scant knowledge of it and regarded it as a heap of absurd and dismal rites. The Jews are nothing but a superstitious nation, says Persius;[23] their Sabbath is a lugubrious day, adds Ovid;[24] they worship the hog and the ass, affirms Petronius.[25]

Tacitus, well informed as he is, repeats, with regard to Judaism, the fables of Manetho and Posidonius. The Jews, says he, are descended from lepers, they honour the head of an ass, they have infamous rites. He further specifies his charges, which, one would say, are those of modern French Nationalists: “All those who embrace their faith,” says he, “undergo circumcision, and the first instruction they receive is to despise the gods, to forswear their country, to forget father, mother and children.” And he warms up by saying: “The Jews consider as profane all that is held sacred with us.”[26] Suetonius and Juvenal repeat the same thing; the principal charge reads: “They have a particular cult and particular laws; they despise the Roman laws.”[27] This is likewise the complaint of Pliny: “They despise the gods.”[28]

Seneca has the same grudge, still with the philosopher other motives supervene. There was a rivalry between Seneca, the Stoic, and the Jews, the same as there had been between the Stoics and the Jews at Alexandria. He quarreled less with their contempt of the gods than with their proselytism which thwarted the spread of the doctrine of the Stoics. He thus gives expression to his displeasure: “The Romans,” says he regretfully, “have adopted the Sabbath.”[29] And, further speaking of the Jews, he says in conclusion: “This abominable nation has succeeded in spreading its usages throughout the whole world; the conquered have given their laws to the conquerors.”[30] Seneca’s view was in accord with the attitude of both the Republic and the Empire, by which measures were adopted from time to time to check Jewish proselytism. Under Tiberius, in the year 22, a senatus-consult was directed against the Egyptian and Judaic superstitions and four thousand Jews, says Tacitus, were deported to Sardinia. Caligula subjected them to vexatious persecution; he encouraged the doings of Flaccus in Egypt, and Flaccus, sustained by the Emperor, robbed the Jews of the privileges granted to them by Caesar; he took away from them their synagogue and directed that they might be treated as in habitants of a captured city. Domitian imposed a special tax upon Jews and those who led a Judaic life, hoping by the levy of the tax to stop conversions, and Antoninus Pius prohibited the Jews from circumcising other than their sons.

Anti-Judaism manifested itself not only at Rome and Alexandria, but wherever there were Jews: at Antioch, where great massacres occurred; in Lybia, where, under Vespasian, the governor Catullus stirred up the populace against them; in Ionia, where, under Augustus, the Greek cities, by an understanding among themselves, forced the Jews either to renounce their faith or to bear the entire burden of public expenditures.

Yet it is impossible to speak of the persecution of the Jews without speaking of the persecution of the Christians. For a long time Jews and Christians, these hostile brothers, were included in the same contempt, and the same causes which made the Jews hateful made the Christians hateful as well. The disciples of the Nazarene brought into the ancient world the same deadly principles. If the Jews taught the people to leave their gods, to abandon husband, father, child and wife, and to come to Jehovah, Jesus also said: “I have not come to unite, but to separate.” The Christians, like the Jews, refused to bow to the eagle; like the Jews they would not lie prostrate before idols. Like the Jews, the Christians knew another country than Rome; like the Jews, they would be oblivious of their civic, rather than their religious duties.

Thus, during the first years of the Christian era, the Synagogue and the ancient Church were despised alike. Simultaneously with the Jews “a certain chrestus”[31] and his followers were driven from Rome. Each side endeavoured to convince the people that it ought not to be mistaken for the other, and no sooner did Christianity make itself heard than it rejected, in its turn, the descendants of Abraham.


15. Inscription of Aahmes, chief of the mariners, cited in Ledrain’s Histoire du peuple d’Israel, I, p. 53.

16. In Flaccum.

17. Preparatio Evangelica.

18. Josephus, Contra Apionem, book II, ch. 6.

19. Philo, In Flaccum.

20. Valerius Maximus, I, 3, 2.

21. Maccab. viii., 11, 17-32- xii, 1-3; xiv, 16-19, 24.-Josephus, Antiqu. Jud., xii, 110; xiii, 5, 7, 9 Mai; Script. vet., 111, part 3, p. 998.

22. Pro Flacco.

23. Sat., V.

24. Ars amatoria, I, 75, 76.

25. Fragm. poet.

26. Tac., Hist., v. 4, 5.

27. Juvenal, Sat., xiv, 96, 104.

28. Hist. nat., xii, 4.

29. Epistle xv.

30. De superstitione, fragm. xxxvi.

31. Suetonius, Claud., 25.