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Were Ancient Egyptians Friendlier to Immigrants Than Americans are? By Roger Algase

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In the five thousand years which have elapsed since recorded history began with the invention of writing around 3000 BC, humanity has made incalculable advances in vital areas of civilization such as science, technology and medicine, not to mention freedom (in much of the world) from superstition and various barbaric ancient practices which I will not go into here.

But have we advanced in our respect and tolerance for people who are different from ourselves in appearance, language, culture or civilization? Or have we retrogressed?

One answer to this question might be found by comparing American attitudes toward foreigners and immigrants at the turn of the third millennium AD with those of the ancient Egyptians who lived during the second and third millennia BC, i.e. around three to four thousand years ago.

According to at least one contemporary Egyptologist, Thomas Schneider. Professor of Egyptology and New Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, it would appear that the ancient Egyptians were more tolerant of and less prejudiced toward immigrants than present day Americans are. In his book Ancient Egypt In 101 Questions and Answers, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2013 - Original German edition, Munich, 2010), Professor Schneider writes:

"According to widespread opinion, in ancient Egypt there was no evidence of explicit discrimination or persecution of persons of non-Egyptian ethnic or religious affiliations. Immanuel Geiss, an expert in the history of racism, has gone so far as to call Pharaonic Egypt 'the most ancient and impressive example for refuting racist theories'."


Professor Schneider continues:

"When Egyptian sources depict foreigners as representatives of barbarism and chaos, these are always persons outside Egypt, not immigrants into Egypt, who quickly became acculturated...In the New Kingdom, if not earlier, ethnicity was even a positive trait that a person could vaunt, and which did not entail professional or social disadvantage."


He also writes:

"Such generalization do not mean that there were never tensions between established residents and immigrants, but we have so far no evidence of discrimination or persecution by the state, the priesthood, or ordinary people prior to the first millennium BCE".

(All the above quotations are from page 233 of this book.)

In other words, the Pharaohs did not have an ICE, an immigration gulag with mandatory detention of upwards of 30,000 people at any given time, or a system for breaking up families and deporting parents of Egyptian children based on immigration or citizenship status. There is no record of any Pharaoh having deported 2 million people who presented no threat to the country.

From this perspective, President Obama is quite right when he insists that he is "not a king". The ancient Egyptian kings had more humanity and compassion for the foreigners in their midst.

Moreover, based on the first two books of the Bible, at least two people of foreign origin, Joseph and Moses (whose name was the Egyptian word for "child", or "son"), rose to a very high level of power in ancient Egypt.

My good friend Dr. Chris Bryan-Brown has also pointed out to me that many of the ancient Egyptian rulers were of foreign origin themselves, and they obtained their status through peaceful means (usually by marrying the daughter of the previous Pharaoh), not military conquest.

This is not to mention a book by the modern Egyptian scholar Ahmed Osman, with the self-explanatory title: The Hebrew Pharaohs of Egypt.

Clearly, peaceful immigration and assimilation were the norm in ancient Egypt. According to Professor Schneider, even the Hyskos "invasion" was actually an uprising against the established order by native Egyptian local rulers, not foreign enemies, as some Egyptologists used to believe.

Tolerance, or at least cultural assimilation, apparently went in the other direction as well, according to Professor Schneider:

"The Hebrew of the Old Testament also displays a certain Egyptian influence in the area of vocabulary and idioms...These literary and linguistic borrowings are part of a much wider cultural influence that Egypt had on Israel..."

(Ibid, page 229)

It is true that the above picture of ethnic harmony and tolerance is completely at odds with the Biblical story of Jewish slavery in the land of Egypt in the Book of Exodus.

But, since Biblical issues are beyond the scope of these comments or of my knowledge, I will leave it up to scholars inside and outside present day Israel to debate whether this is historical fact or not. See, for example, a March 26, 2012 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz by Josh Mintz called: Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth?

www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/were-jews-ever-really-slaves-in-egypt-or-is-passover-a-myth-1.420844?trailingPath=2.

Biblical tradition aside, if the picture of racial and ethnic tolerance toward immigrants in ancient Egypt as described above by Professor Schneider is accurate, 21st century America has a good deal to learn from ancient Egypt.

Anti-immigrant bigots in the Tea Party, Heritage Action, FAIR, Center for Immigration Studies and their allies in the GOP Controlled House of White Male Representatives who killed immigration reform for last year and are showing every sign of planning to do the same in this election year, might want to crack open their history books and learn a little bit more about humanity's history of good will and tolerance, which they are now trying so hard to banish from America's shores.

President Obama might also want to bone up on the tolerance shown toward immigrants by the Egyptian Pharaohs before he sends his next daily batch of over 1,000 immigrants home. If the Pharaohs were typical in their humanistic treatment of foreigners residing within the "two lands" of Egypt (as the country was known in their time and in the Bible), maybe Barack Obama, even though he is not a king politically, should be behaving more like a Pharaoh in terms of tolerance for and acceptance of the millions of people who reside in this country and contribute to our society, but are denied legal status by America's antiquated and discriminatory immigration system.






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Updated 01-07-2014 at 06:54 AM by ImmigrationLawBlogs

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