How Edward Said’s Ideas Perverted the Study of Ancient Jewry

Sept. 17 2018

Having started his scholarly career as a student of ancient Roman politics, Erich Gruen—now a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley—later shifted his focus to the study of Jews in the Hellenistic and ancient Roman eras. In a retrospective on his scholarship of ancient Jewry, Gruen sums up some of his key conclusions:

I entered [the academic debates concerning ancient Jewry] directly by confronting the widespread notion that societies tended to define themselves by “othering” those unlike them and by demonizing those from whom they wished to distance and distinguish themselves. The classic statement of that approach rang loud and clear in Edward Said’s powerfully influential Orientalism. And it seeped deeply into studies of the ancient world. Negative images, misrepresentations, and stereotypes, it was regularly argued, justified marginalization and exclusion, a tendency to divide the world into the acceptable and the unacceptable, whether Greek and Persian, Roman and barbarian, Jew and Gentile—in short, the invention of the “Other.” . . .

[I] attempted to show that Greeks, Romans, and Jews (whence comes the bulk of our evidence) had far more mixed, nuanced, shifting, and complex opinions about other peoples and did not simply propagate derogatory images to enhance their own self-image. There was more going on than ethnocentrism or xenophobia. [Thus, many ancient] Jewish writers underscored their connectedness [to the Gentiles] rather than their separatism, as in the story [in Genesis of Judah and his daughter-in-law] Tamar and of [the convert and ancestor of King David] Ruth, and in the manipulation of traditions that implied kinship between Jews and Greeks, such as turning Abraham into a forefather of the Spartans or inventing a marriage alliance between Abraham and Heracles, as well as a number of tales that linked Jewish sages to Greek philosophers. These intertwinings, however fictitious, reveal a mindset that did not retreat into isolation and xenophobia.

Nor did Greek and Roman writers view Jews as beyond the pale. They might mock their customs and badly misconstrue their practices. But that was due more to ignorance or dismissal than to animosity or malice. Even the notorious [anti-Jewish] tirade by the Roman historian Tacitus, normally seen as the chief purveyor of [ancient] anti-Semitism, had a very different agenda. Tacitus’ penchant for irony and sardonic reversal twisted the image of the Jews largely to skewer his own countrymen. . . .

If a consistent thread runs through my studies of Jewish history in the context of classical antiquity, it can be found in resistance to the common portrayal of Jews as victims.

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Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: Ancient Israel, Ancient Rome, Anti-Semitism, Edward Said, Hellenism, History & Ideas

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror