The Unexplainable Hatred

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by AC Britell.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by AC Britell.

“Go back to Poland.”

It’s one of the most common refrains of a certain crowd since last fall, a reminder of the deep, often unspoken hatred lingering in the bellies of far too many around the world.

A few thousand years ago, it may well have been “Back to Crete.”

The prominent Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the Histories, puts forth several unusual origin stories for the Jews — including one that mentions a theory that the Jews fled the Greek island of Crete in an exit dating back to the time of the Roman deity Saturn.

Another posited that the Jews were a collection of lepers from Egypt — or perhaps a “race of Ethiopian origin” looking for a new home.

Even in the second century CE, when Tacitus wrote the five books of his histories, the Jews were a mysterious, unexplained, unwanted group, one of what the Roman called a “tasteless and mean” religion — even when Jews were, in the centuries leading up to the Roman conquest, reasonably populous across much of the Mediterranean and not exactly an unknown quantity.

Is the current climate, then, two millennia later, really any surprise to us?

There has always been a degree of inexplicability to antisemitism, the world’s most pervasive, continuously practiced form of hatred.

Because it’s a hatred borne both by those who know us well, and those who have never met a Jew in their life. The thought of Jews living in their homeland is anathema to them; as is the idea that Israel is their homeland at all.

We are perhaps the original “other,” a group that, well, isn’t really supposed to be here, wherever here is, isn’t from here, and, of course, isn’t from where we say we’re from.

It’s that level of mystery to antisemitism that has made it, especially in the months since Oct. 7, so hard to defend against. How do you identify and challenge something that has no explainable provenance?

Because it just doesn’t really make any sense. Even in the places and periods when Jews have been very well assimilated with the local population, they’ve been unable to escape this unexplained hatred.

That’s what’s been most troubling about recent antisemitism in the US, something my Jewish friends from places like Latin America have had so much difficulty understanding — the US has been the most welcoming country for Jews in their history — and yet, today, we have somehow reverted to this strange, almost otherworldly group, unwelcome here and an object of instant scorn.

Of course, Tacitus was writing a few decades before the Romans would expunge the name Jerusalem in favor of the new Aeolia Capitolina, Judea in favor of Palestina, after having already destroyed the Second Temple and sent the Jews into a two-thousand-year journey of solitude.

Perhaps they should have simply gone back to Crete.

About the Author
AC Britell graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 2007 with a degree in Near Eastern Civilizations. HIs thesis covered the name of the word G-d in the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic versions of the Bible. He was a Harvard College Fellow for Study in Israel in 2008, studying Biblical Archaeology at the Rothberg School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and then working for the Jerusalem Post as a contributor and night editor. He then graduated cum laude from the University of Miami School of Law. He has been a journalist for two decades.
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