The Moral Imperative to Object

In the year 40 C.E., the Jewish community living in Alexandria, Egypt, was in turmoil. Amid anti-Jewish riots, synagogues were being burned down and Jews were being harassed and killed in the streets. The new emperor Gaius Caligula had declared that Jews in Alexandria should place icons of his deified figure in their synagogue sanctuaries, and in response to the uproar of protest that this caused in the Jewish community, anti-Jewish riots broke out throughout the city. At this time, Alexandria was one of the greatest cosmopolitan centers in the Roman Empire, and hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in the city. For centuries, Jews had been keeping their ancestral traditions in Egypt, while embracing the cultural and technological gifts that the Greco-Roman world around them had to offer. Jews in the upper social castes attended philosophical schools, learned mathematics and astronomy, and exercised in gymnasiums. Yet many of these Jews did not totally Hellenize by abandoning their Jewish identities. Many Jews in Egypt prayed regularly in synagogues, kept the Sabbath, observed dietary laws, practiced circumcision, and sent donations to Jerusalem to support the Temple. These Jews were willing to fight back against those who wanted to compel them to put idolatrous icons in their synagogues.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria speaks about this crisis in two of his works, On the Embassy to Gaius and Against Flaccus. Philo describes how he was sent to Rome as part of an envoy of Jewish intellectuals to plead with the emperor to intercede. The Roman governor of Alexandria, Flaccus, was inciting rather than diffusing the violence. Philo reasoned that if he were explain to Gaius how his edict had caused great damage to Jews who also happened to be loyal citizens to the Greek Empire, Gaius would reverse his edict and put an end of the anti-Jewish violence in Alexandria. Instead, Philo tells us, he and the rest of the Jewish enjoy were mocked and ultimately turned away by the emperor. Philo closes his Embassy to Gaius by focusing not on the civilian perpetrators of violence, but on the lack of support that he and his fellow Jewish delegates had received from local and imperial leadership:

“Would it not be a terrible thing for the interests of all the Jews throughout the whole world to be thrown into confusion by the treatment to which we, its five ambassadors, were exposed? For if he [Gaius] were to give us up to our enemies, what other city could enjoy tranquility? What city would there be in which the citizens would not attack the Jews living in it? What synagogue would be left uninjured? What state would not overturn every principle of justice in respect of those of their countrymen who arrayed themselves in opposition to the national laws and customs of the Jews? They will be overthrown, they will be shipwrecked they will be sent to the bottom, with all the particular laws of the nation, and those too which are common to all and in accordance with the principles of justice recognized in every city.” (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XLVI.371, trans. C. Yonge)

Philo knew that Gaius’ refusal to help the Jews would be taken by others as implicit permission to continue and to escalate the violence against the Jewish community – not only in Alexandria, but in all cities where Jews resided. The refusal to intervene would ultimately damage the Gentiles themselves who refused to openly oppose the Jews’ attackers.

Over 1900 years ago, Philo argued that if gentile government leaders did not take a public stand on anti-Jewish violence, violence against the Jews would increase all over the world. He therefore believed that leaders had a moral imperative to take action.

In the past month, there has been anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish violence in major cities throughout the world. Synagogues have been desecrated with swastikas. Jews have been beaten up at random. A young college student, a girl named Samantha Hamilton, was beaten until she was unconscious in Calgary. Her only crime was showing up to a pro-Israel demonstration with her family. Today there are reports from Antwerp that a physician, in defiance of the Hippocratic Oath, refused to treat a patient on the basis of her being Jewish.

Edmund Burke’s famous statement that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” rings more true than ever. Leaders who remain on the sidelines, waiting to see how things play out, refusing to take a public stand – those leaders are giving terrorists throughout the world implicit permission to keep doing what they’re doing.

It’s time to implore our leaders at every level of government to accept their moral imperative to speak out and protect the lives of innocent Jews around the globe.

About the Author
Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich is the author of Discovering Second Judaism: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism, and The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria. Her research focuses on universalist Jewish literature that emerged from Egypt under the Roman empire.