“In the decades leading up to the Common Era, the city of Alexandria, Egypt, was a crown jewel of the Roman Empire and a meeting point for people coming from all ends of the empire. Travelers journeying from one side of the empire to the other would stop at its port to exchange goods. Scholars would gather in the city’s great libraries to share ideas and produce philosophical tracts. Throngs of Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians crowded the city’s markets to buy and sell food. The city was also home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. The Jews of Alexandria established synagogues, observed their ancestral traditions, organized governing councils, and participated in civic life. They also studied their scriptures, probably in Greek translation, and composed novellas, prayers, and poems about these scriptures which incorporated oral traditions and elements of Greek philosophy. Many Egyptian Jews believed that they were residents―in the words of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo―of their fatherland and fully capable of participating in Roman life. At the same time, they remained devoted to their motherland, Judea.
The dual loyalty that Jews in Alexandria adopted was not celebrated by many of their Greek and Roman neighbors, who accused these Jews of separating from their society and of being disinterested in the welfare of the empire. Such accusations were not trivial. In Roman society, the conviction of disloyalty was a grave one, and the accusation that the Jews of Egypt were not true patriots percolated for decades until it boiled into violence in 38 CE, when mobs of Alexandrian residents organized a massacre against local Jews. They destroyed synagogues, assaulted and killed hundreds of Jews, and put countless others to flight. Those who survived this attack were shocked by their neighbors’ assault and enraged by their betrayal. Philo, who chronicled these events in his treatises Embassy to Gaius and For Flaccus, described the apathetic inaction of Roman officials who stood by and allowed chaos to reign as throngs of people took to the streets to kill their Jewish neighbors.
Perhaps the oddest feature of the incident in 38 CE is the fact that in its aftermath, Jews who survived the massacre stayed in the region. Their sense of home was too permanent, it seems, for the attack to have forced a demographic change. Still, there is evidence that these same Jews were not satisfied with life under Roman rule. Many supported the Jewish rebellion which took place in Judea in 66–73, which may partly explain why the empire held all Jews responsible for the rebellion and taxed them with the fiscus Judaicus after the war. This taxation probably enforced the Jews’ sense that they were outsiders with a powerful connection to Judea. A half-century later, many Jews in Egypt participated in a rebellion against Rome in 115–118 CE that began in the diaspora and later spread to Judea. The violent Roman response to this rebellion may have been the final death knell for the Jews of Alexandria. Little is known about Jewish life in Alexandria following this conflict.
When I teach about the pogrom of 38 CE to Jewish audiences, students often show little sympathy for the Jews of Egypt. Why didn’t more Jews leave the city after 38 CE, they ask? More fundamentally, why did these Jews not anticipate the violence and leave earlier? Did they not understand that Jews were unsafe, and that their persecution was a sign that they belonged in the Land of Israel? I push back against such questions.”
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