Evaluation Anti-Semitism is the idea that people who speak a Semitic language -
e.g., the Arabs and the Jews- 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
Anti-Semitism has ancient roots. In the age of the Crusades (1095-1291), the
Europeans started to regard the Muslim Arabs -which they had first admired- as
the enemies of Christianity, and the Christian anti-Judaic polemic dates back
to the first or second century CE. But aversion of Arabs and Jews is not a
Christian invention. The Romans described their emperor Philip (244-249), who
was of Arabian descent, in denigratory terms; and Greek and Roman authors
describe the Jews in words that are, in a sense, shockingly modern.
Their ideas about Judaism are the subject of the present article. In this first
part, several anti-Semitic incidents are described; in the second part, we will
discuss the ideas of those who hated the Jews.
The first incidents
For anti-Semitism to arise, the Jews had to be a recognizable minority in a
foreign state. Because they worshipped only one God, they were always
recognizable; and they became a minority in a foreign state during the
Babylonian exile. From the sixth century on, there was a substantial Jewish
minority in Babylonia.
The first known incident took place in the Persian 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. (Esther 3.8)
On May 16, 474 BCE (one day before Passover), a decree was sent to all satraps
that they were to kill the Jews on March 8, 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'
(Esther 9.5). 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. This was a large garrison, occupied by
Jewish soldiers, who had built a temple of their own.
The text known as ANET 493 is a letter by the priest of Elephantine, Yedonia,
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).
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 November 25, 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
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.