Ariel Center for
Policy Research



NATIV  Volume Sixteen   Number 2 (91)  ■  March 2003 ■ Adar II 5763 ■ Ariel Center for Policy Research





Ancient Brigandage, Jewish-Pagan Relations,
and the Contest over the Land of Israel

David Rokéah

Brigandage was rife in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There were notorious gangs of pirates based in Cilicia, who not only stole merchandise but also kidnapped people in the Mediterranean and then sold them into slavery or held them for ransom. This situation was reflected in talmudic sources, which described the Ishmaelites as following in the footsteps of their robber-ancestors.

The Sages first adopted the hostile attitude of the Torah, formed in the wake of the religious-ethnic conflict of the Israelites with the peoples that inhabited the “Land of Canaan”. Therefore, they permitted discriminating against the Gentiles, defined as the Canaanites. However, following Roman intervention, and because of their fear of possible retaliation and abuse of the name of the God of Israel, the Sages prohibited anti-Gentile discrimination. Daily contact with non-Jews, especially in the cities having mixed populations, brought the Sages to foster friendly behavior towards the Gentiles, even to providing them with economic aid directly – with the condition that this did not involve recognition or support of idolatry. The same policies and practices are exhibited by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Just as the Sages modified their stand, so we – in this age of globalization – must act so as to ensure the well-being of our fellow Jews abroad, remembering that “all Jews are responsible for one another.” 

* * * 

The rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid kingdom in the 2nd century BCE, following which the Maccabees conquered many Greco-Syrian cities on the sea coast, in Samaria, in Galilee, and elsewhere, increased the hostility of the native population. This hostility was expressed in libellous and anti-Semitic treatises (see my “Tacitus and Ancient Anti-Semitism”, Revue des etudes juives 154 [1995]: 281-294).

When confronted by Antiochus VII Sidetes’ demand that he evacuate the coastal areas, Shimeon the Maccabee retorted that this land was inherited from the Jews’ forefathers, and that its enemies occupied it unlawfully. Echoes of this dispute are found in the writings of John of Antioch and of Procopius, two Christian historians of the 5th and 6th centuries respectively. Their writings state that, after leaving Egypt, the brigand, Joshua son of Nun, led the Hebrews into Palestine, conquering the land of the Girgashites, the Jebusites, and the Canaanites. As a result, they said, these inhabitants had to flee to Africa.

This tradition is corroborated by several midrashim, in which “sons of Africa”, Canaanites, and Ishmaelites, claim that the Land of Israel was theirs and that the Israelite robbers had stolen it. These Gentiles’ claim, based on Biblical verses, was refuted by other Biblical verses cited in the midrashim.

Nowadays, the Palestinians – dissatisfied with their identification with Ishmael the son of Abraham – assert that they are the descendants of the Canaanites and the Jebusites, who preceded the Israelites in the Holy Land. Thus, they fabricate a “history” for themselves, while obliterating all evidence of the continuous Jewish historical bonds with the Land.

ACPR Contact usNativ IndexNativ in Hebrew