Historians, especially Jewish historians, love talking about religious persecutions. But what do we mean by religious persecutions of Jews?
The other day in class, I spent a bit of time discussing a few lines in a series of inscriptions commissioned by the powerful third century Zoroastrian priest’s, Kirdīr. In the inscriptions, Kirdīr boasts of his many “good” deeds, including persecution of Jews, Shamans (Buddhists), Bramans (Hindus), Christians (perhaps Greek-speaking Christians), “Nāṣrā” (perhaps “indigenous” Aramaic-speaking Christians), “Makdags” (perhaps “Baptists” – and even Mandaeans), and “Zandīgs” (Manicheans). Many Jewish historians have attempted to connect this line to references to “persecution” of the Jews at the hands of the magi preserved in the Talmud, including three decrees attributed to Zoroastrian priests against slaughtering meat, bathing (or perhaps also ritual immersion), and regular burial. More recently, Talmudists (like Richard Kalmin) have called into question the historicity or reliability of some of the talmudic parallels to the inscription. The relevant talmudic passages are heirs to supremely complex redactional histories that muddle their usability for straightforward historical reconstructions. On the other hand, as Oktor Skjaervo has pointed out, this part of Kirdīr’s inscriptions have perhaps been over-interpreted, since most of what Kirdīr writes is couched in traditional Zoroastrian terminology (including this passage’s use of the term zad – “struck down” – to describe what Kirdīr did to these different communities). This terminology is used more to convey an idealized, mythical image of the place of these other religions in the view of a third century Zoroastrian priest than to present an accurate historical picture of real persecution. In class we also juxtaposed the inscription to a passage from the Zoroastrian compilation Šāyest nē Šāyest and saw a similar attempt at creating a catalog of other religions that expressed a certain view of the world, not an historical reality.
Even if Zoroastrian priests did actually forbid Jews to ritually slaughter their meat, can this be understood as a religious persecution, that is an act directed at keeping Jews from performing their ancestral laws? Perhaps, as Geoffrey Herman has suggested, the decrees simply reflect a Zoroastrian problem with Jewish slaughter, since the latter casts blood upon the sacred earth. The same could be said in regards to burial which pollutes the earth, and as I suggested in my dissertation, in regards to immersion after menstruation which might be seen as contaminating water. In other words, how do I know Jewish persecution, and “antisemitism” when I see it in Sasanian Iran?
A friend of mine who works in the field of modern Jewish history recently sent me the following press-release about a consortium that researches antisemitism and racism:
An international research consortium to promote the study of antisemitism is launched today (Tuesday 8 November, 2011). The International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism (ICRAR) involves leading scholars from universities and institutes across Europe, Israel and the US, who share the common goal of revitalising and reshaping the study of antisemitism. The Consortium will promote rigorous, independent research that looks to related fields and other disciplines for insight and embraces new theoretical and methodological approaches.
Co-convened by David Feldman, Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London and Scott Ury, Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, Tel Aviv University, the formation of the Consortium has been driven by concern that the study of antisemitism lags behind other fields of scholarly enquiry.
To promote and foster new thinking on antisemitism the Consortium will hold annual workshops and summer schools and produce publications of the outcomes. Its first workshop will be Boycotts: Past and Present. This will be held in London in 2012, hosted by the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism.
For more information on the International Consortium for Research on Antisemitism and Racism please e-mail: ICRAR@bbk.ac.uk.
For better or for worse, as students of antiquity we often keep our distance from these sorts of projects. I wonder, however, if the methodological findings of this consortium’s research centers will have what to teach us about antisemitism in antiquity, and for that matter in Sasanian Mesopotamia.