Jewish Thought and History

Diaspora Identity in the Wake of October 7th

This fort was built where it was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. There are traces of the ruin and stones used to build the fort.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.

Malka Z. Simkovich

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. Jews were unlikely to view their suffering as a product of their own sins, I respond, for the simple reason that the pattern of integration and suffering experienced by the Jews of Alexandria broadly paralleled what Jews living in the Land of Israel experienced at around the same time. In 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey invaded Jerusalem with brutal force and began the process of incorporating Judea into the empire while killing thousands of Jews in the process. This catastrophe initiated a period marked by debilitating taxation, neglect, and ultimately a response to rebellion so harsh that it was memorialized in the city of Rome with triumphal parades and two arches: The Arch of Titus on Palatine Hill, and another arch on the Circus Maximus. Sixty years later, a Judean who called himself Simeon Bar Kokhba (after the verse in Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come out of Jacob (דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב), and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”) led hundreds of thousands of Judean Jews into rebellion against the Roman Empire, and again, the Romans responded with astonishing force. The Babylonian Talmud memorializes the cruel Roman response to this rebellion, which was even more harsh than its response to the rebellion of 66–73:

“He cut off in fierce anger all the horn of Israel” (Lamentations 2:3). Said Rabbi Zeira, said Rabbi Abahu, said Rabbi Yohanan: “These are the eighty thousand officers bearing battle trumpets in their hands, who entered the city of Betar at the time it was captured. And they killed there men, women, and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. Lest you think it was near, it was a Roman mile away.” (Gittin 57a)

The Roman quelling of Bar Kokhba culminated in the Jews’ expulsion from Jerusalem and their forced migration to the Galilee.

This sad history reminds us that we cannot critique the Jews of Alexandria for not seeing the writing on the wall without similarly condemning the Jews of Judea. We are left with two choices about how to understand the difference between the experiences of Jewish suffering in Judea and the experiences of Jewish suffering in Alexandria. One is to argue that Jewish suffering in the Land of Israel has a kind of constructive cosmic significance in the history of Judaism, which makes it more meaningful than Jewish suffering outside the Land of Israel. The other choice is to argue that Jewish suffering has no relationship with where a Jew is, since the Jews’ connection to the Land of Israel is unrelated to their physical safety. After all, Jews might suffer at the hands of their enemies wherever they are.

I am wary of the impulse to attribute meaning to any Jewish suffering. If there is anything to be learned from October 7th and its aftermath, it is only that God endowed human beings with the capacity to commit acts of incomprehensible evil, and the capacity to commit spectacular moral failure by refusing to condemn such evil. Still, I have been thinking about the relationship between anti-Jewish violence and the notion of homeland in the wake of October 7th. After the massacre, a number of friends in Israel shared their conviction that rising antisemitic violence in America should serve as a reminder that all Jews belong in the Land of Israel. In their view, diasporan Jewish suffering is distinctive from suffering in the Land of Israel because it is a sign that Jews are meant to return to their homeland. Jewish suffering in the Land of Israel, meanwhile, is not taken by these friends as a sign that Jews should leave Israel. Many of my friends in Israel believe that the events in their country signify the beginning of a new era, one that is shuttling the Jewish people toward a significant moment in Jewish history which will culminate in an ultimate restoration.

In view of the history of Alexandrian and Judean Jewry in the early Common Era, I would note another possible lesson arising from the global rise in antisemitic violence. This lesson has little to do with where the Jews should be and more to do with who the Jews should be. With the understanding that Jews will always be perceived as outsiders regardless of whether they are, Jews are leaning into the fact that the cultivation of a distinctive religious identity is not a liability but a strength. This perspective has contributed to increased Jewish self-identification in the diaspora in recent months. Faced with murderous and genocidal hatred, an increasing number of Jews are wearing Star of David necklaces in public, putting kippot on their heads at airports, and adding Israeli flags to their social media profile pictures.

As in the Hellenistic era, the connections that Jews cultivate with their homeland today are most effectively grounded not on safety but on existential connection. The founders of modern Zionism understood this. If escaping the threat of violent Jew-hatred was the sole priority of establishing a Jewish state, they would have chosen to settle in Uganda or Argentina. The Jewish connection to the Land of Israel transcends the desire for mere survival. It is grounded on the notion that the Jews’ historic roots are deeply implanted in the land that God sanctified by appearing to our ancestors and by residing in the Jerusalem Temple. Now, as in the Hellenistic era, Jews cannot flee from this ancestral heritage. Regardless of where they live, Jews identify with a distinctive heritage that highlights both covenantal particularity and universal concern for the wellbeing of all people. Like Jews who lived in the Hellenistic era, Jews today are forever connected to the sacred land that their ancestors called home.

Malka Z. Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016), and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (2018), which received the 2019 AJL Judaica Reference Honor Award. Simkovich’s articles have been published in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal for the Study of Judaism, as well as on online forums such as The Lehrhaus and the Times of Israel. Her upcoming book, Letters From Home: The Creation of Diaspora in Jewish Antiquity, will be published in June 2024.