History and Hate: The Dimensions of Anti-Semitism

By David Berger | Go to book overview
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"Anti-Semitism" in Antiquity: The Problem of Definition

Shaye J. D. Cohen

One of the most important objectives of the historian is the interpretation of the past on its own terms, and not on the terms of the interpreter. Most historians, however, especially the historians of antiquity, would concede that this goal is often unattainable. Our knowledge of the ancient world is so fragmentary, our documentation so sparse, and our uncertainties so numerous that the temptation to retroject upon antiquity the conditions and attitudes of the modern world is almost irresistible. This generalization is well exemplified by the study of ancient "anti- Semitism."

Nineteenth-century scholars "discovered" that humanity consisted of different races, each with its own characteristics. The classification of languages into Semitic, Indo-European, Hamitic, and other families was transmuted by these scholars into a racial classification of mankind. Hatred of the Jews was "scientifically justifiable" and received the scientific-sounding name "anti- Semitism." During the latter part of the century even those scholars who were not virulent anti-Semites used the hatred of the Jews in Greco-Roman antiquity to "prove" that Christianity was not responsible for anti-Semitism, since even in pre-Christian times the Jews were odious to Indo-Europeans. The fact that the Jews demanded civic equality while refusing to surrender their

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