Apion: Intellectual and Anti-Semite

 It is simply not true that those who hate Jews are uneducated and ignorant. Throughout the history of our people some of the most virulent haters of Jews have been thinkers and intellectuals. Take for example the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the Shoah. Many of the best and brightest Germans participated in mass murder. Whether doctors such as Joseph Mengele who staffed death camps or judges who presided over the Nazi judicial system, the haters of Jews are often the most educated. Today, college campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel activity fueled by the rhetoric and pseudo-scholarship of professors and the participation of well-educated and middle class students. Attempts at educating the public about the merits of the State of Israel are noble and idealistic. But they are no guarantee of success in wiping away an ancient hatred that is alive and well in our world.

The model for today’s Jew-hating intellectuals is Apion. A scholar of epic Greek poet Homer and the head of the greatest library of the ancient world in Alexandria, Apion’s attacks on Jews presage charges of ritual murder leveled against Jews in medieval Christendom and can fairly be compared to the Nazi propaganda of Der Sturmer and Julius Streicher. While none of his writings are extant, we know of Apion’s anti-Semitism from the great ancient Jewish historian Josephus. In Against Apion, written by Josephus decades after Apion died in 48 CE, the Jewish historian—unfairly labeled as the epitome of a traitor—defends Judaism against the attacks of Apion and his collaborator in his writings Chaeremon. The lies leveled at Jews in their work include deriving the word “Sabbath” from an ancient Egyptian word for a disease of the groin and claiming that Jews worshiped an ass’s head in the Jerusalem Temple. The worst libel to come from Apion, however, was the accusation that Jews would kidnap a Greek child, fatten him up, and ritually consume him through human sacrifice in Jerusalem. This charge would come back to haunt the Jews 1000 years later and till today, the charge of Blood Libel.

The background to Apion’s hatred of Jews and the polemic of Josephus was rooted in the enmity between Greeks and Jews in ancient Alexandria, especially after the Hellenistic Ptolemy dynasty lost power to the Roman Empire in ruling Egypt. The Jews of Alexandria numbered 250,000 and the elite of the Jewish community focused on the writing of philosophy, poetry, plays, histories and novellas that were based on Greek genres but dealt with subjects from the Hebrew Bible. The Jews of Alexandria knew little Hebrew but remained committed to Jewish faith and peoplehood through the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Torah. The Jewish elite struggled to gain the benefits of citizenship under the Romans and were proud of their contributions during the rule of the Hellenistic Ptolemy kings and that of Rome. Greeks resented the Jews and tried, through violence and persuasion, to block any attempt by the Romans to give the august Jewish community special status. The tensions in Alexandria between Greeks and Jews both produced the libels of Apion and led to a rebellion of the Jews of the port city in 115 CE. Historian and translator Fredric Raphael has penned a biography of Josephus that rehabilitates the ancient Jewish historian as a defender of the Jews to a Roman audience. Against Apion is a polemic that responded to the libels of an intellectual and a scholar. We can learn from Josephus in our attempts to tell the true story of the Jewish people but education has not always proven successful. Nevertheless, it remains a valuable tool in persuading thinking people with open minds to reject an ancient hatred that is still with us.