Ancient and modern

Rome and the Jews

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn, it is said, does not have a racist bone in his body, and therefore cannot, by definition, be anti-Semitic (‘Semitic’ here referring to Jews, not Arabs). The Jewish community, however, begs to differ. Perhaps the problem is that Corbyn and Momentum take a Roman attitude towards the Jews.

If racism today relates to defining people as inferior simply because of some unalterable characteristic (e.g. heredity, colour), irrespective of evidence, the Romans, it has been argued, were ‘proto-racist’. The reason is that, like the Greeks, they thought that the environment or heredity made a people what they were. One born in the frozen north, therefore, would automatically be stupid but hardy and brave, one born in the warm south, intelligent and cunning but cowardly, and so on.


But Romans did not in fact stereotype Jews in that way. It was the Jews’ freely chosen way of life that got up Roman noses. The main charge against them was that they were obdurately antisocial, ‘in revolt not only against the Romans but all humanity’. This was mainly down to the fact that while the ancients practised an all-embracing form of syncretism, Jews refused to worship any god but their own. Tacitus put this down to Moses, who introduced ‘new religious practices quite opposed to all other religions’. Dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath, circumcision and so on were all part of this unsociable package; proselytes to Judaism became traitors to religion, country and family. So keep them out of Rome was the message. The point here is that while Romans had no time for the Jewish way of life, they did not regard them as irredeemably inferior. Let them give up that life and all would be well.

In modern technical terms, Roman attitudes to Jews were not racist but a form of ‘ethnic prejudice’. The big question, then, becomes: do the Corbynistas believe that their attitudes, mutatis mutandis, towards the Jews are similar to those of the Romans? And if so, is that why they believe they are being rational, when others take a quite different view?

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