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FAQ: Amalek, Goldberg, Netanyahu and Iran

May 24th, 2009by Gershom Gorenberg · 10 Comments · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

When Bibi Netanyahu thinks about Iran with nukes, does he “think Amalek”? And if so what does that mean? You ask, we provide answers.

Does Bibi think Iran is Amalek? Jeffrey Goldberg set up this discussion last week in a New York Times op-ed.  The key sentence is:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

Please note: That’s not a quote from Bibi, it’s a quote from the adviser taking measure of Bibi. It could be that the prime minister would use the word “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. But I doubt it. It’s a term from a religious lexicon, more commonly used among religious Jews or those shaped by a religious education. Netanyahu sometimes tries religious metaphors before religious audiences, but without a lot of skill or conviction. It’s more likely that one of Netanyahu’s advisers used his own language for the boss’s state of mind.

Bibi tends to take his metaphors from history. Never mind his ability to warp history, that’s what the historian’s son likes to study and cite. As in this well-known example, as reported in Ha’aretz after Netanyahu spoke in Los Angeles in November 2006:

“It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” Netanyahu told delegates to the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, repeating the line several times, like a chorus, during his address.

That played well with the crowd, but I think he said it with great inner conviction. Netanyau’s vision of history is an arc from Masada through the Inquisition to the Holocaust.

Did the rabbis say Stalin was Amalek? The Crusaders?

Goldberg wrote:

“Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.

We’ll get back to the Biblical references in a moment. First for the later historical use of Amalek as metaphor.  My friend, historian Elliott Horowitz (occasional contributor to SoJo, and my companion on several West Bank journeys) is an expert on the development of the Amalek myth. (See his fine book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence). He comments that Goldberg misleads readers

…when he writes that “The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler, and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.”
…Of the five names mentioned, only Hitler – and the Nazis in general – have been widely identified by Jews with Amalek, and “the rabbis” were hardly among the first to do so. I know of no medieval rabbi who explicitly identified the Crusaders with the Amalekites, but I do know of a medieval pope – Urban II – who (in one version) of his famous 1095 speech at Clermont to Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land referred to the Muslim Arabs as Amalekites: “It is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites. With Moses we shall extend unwearied hands in prayer…while you go forth…like dauntless warriors against Amalek.”

If we look at Biblical verses, aren’t the Jews actually the existential threat to Amalek?

Amalek doesn’t actually appear for the first time in Deuteronomy. As an individual, he appears in Genesis 36, as the grandson of Esau, Jacob’s brother and rival. The tribe descended from him and named after him appears in Exodus 17, where it attacks the children of Israel and is defeated. And the end of the battle story, God promises to “erase the memory of Amalek.” In Deuteronomy 25, the story is retold in all of two verses, after which God transfers responsibility, ordering the Israelites to “erase the memory of Amalek from under under heaven – do not forget.” How to erase the memory while not forgetting has provided work for generations of commentators.

In I Samuel 15, King Saul is ordered to do the erasing, wiping out every living Amelekite and even their livestock. But he fails to kill their king, Agag, and he takes the livestock as spoils. If this all isn’t shocking enough, the prophet Samuel takes care of the leftover business of Agag, and tells Samuel that because he didn’t complete the slaughter, he has lost the right to rule. Nonetheless, if “Amalek” represented real people, we could conclude here that their story is over.

Except that in the book of Esther, they pop back up again, subtly but surely. The Jews have become a Diaspora people, scattered through the Persian empire. The evil minister who would eradicate them is Haman, the “Agagite” – that is, a still surviving descendant Amalek. In this late Biblical book, the battle of Israel and Amalek is no longer between two armed tribes; it’s between the evil face of an empire and Jews, living as a minority, who can only save themselves through their wiles. Haman’s enemy in the story is Mordechai, who just happens to be descended from Kish, Saul’s father. In this rematch, the guy from Saul’s family defeats and kills the guy from Agag’s family.

Except that now the story has really become unending. Amalek appears capable of reappearing. He is entirely evil, unreformable; to defeat him means killing him, and he doesn’t quite stay dead. He could always be present, as mythical enemy of the Jews. In later generations, Amalek would be sometimes be conflated with Esau, who became the symbol of the oppressive Roman empire, and later of Christendom.  In that mythical viewpoint, Amalek would have to be destroyed for the world to be redeemed.

The problem with such a mythological view  is that it flies in the face of the Jewish view of human beings. In the myth, Amalek is irredeemable, evil by nature. In Jewish ethics, all human beings have free choice between good and evil. This is a rather classic religious dilemma: The mythical and ethical views of the world lead to drastically different conclusions.

One solution: Other rabbis allegorized Amalek. Amalek was the urge to do evil, lurking in every person. We have to fight the inner Amalek, we should try to erase him, we can’t forget to fight. (Note the parallel to defining true jihad as an inner spiritual battle).

There are several lessons: First, don’t try to seek to understand a religion by going back to its founding text and just reading it cold. This applies to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, or any other founding text. What matters is how the text is read today, and it is usually read in several ways.

Second, looking at current enemies in mythical terms is a bad business. It dehumanizes them. It makes compromise and reconciliation impossible. It is unethical. It leads to very bad decision-making.

If there are people in Bibi’s team who think of Iran as Amalek, even one-quarter seriously, even as a mild literary metaphor, they are high-risk advisers.

OK, so Bibi thinks of Iran as the Nazis, not Amalek. Is that any better?

Not a whole lot. It means he (like some other people) have turned Nazis from a historical enemy to a mythic, always appearing one. It means he’s panicking (what a surprise, Bibi panicking). It means he can only believe in a military solution. It also means that he has, strangely enough, forgotten that between 1938 and today, the Jews have acquired a state, which not only has – “according to foreign reports” – nuclear weapons, but also second-strike capability. Hawks, such as Bibi, dismiss that difference, saying nuclear deterrence won’t work against Iranian Islamic fundamentalist latter-day Nazis etc.

Calmer heads argue that the Iranian regime can be deterred (as I explained last summer). The real danger of an Iranian bomb is setting off further proliferation in the region. This isn’t a Jewish problem with Amalek or Nazis, but an issue for the region and the world. Whichever metaphor Bibi is using, I confess to my fear that he is not the right person to explain the issues — or to deal with them.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lloyd // May 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    “Second, looking at current enemies in mythical terms is a bad business. It dehumanizes them. It makes compromise and reconciliation impossible. It is unethical. It leads to very bad decision-making.”

    I thought the above paragraph was insightful and educational. In particular: making the connnecting between myths and ethics.

    Lloyd

  • 2 Michael Zank // May 24, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Very good! — As to who else might be identified as Amalek, I remember distinctly walking through Meah Shearim (perhaps as far back as 1986) and seeing posters all over depicting mounted Israeli police attacking ultra-orthodox demonstrators. The caption: “Don’t forget what the Zionist Amalek has done to you!”

  • 3 Richard Blanco // May 25, 2009 at 6:04 am

    “The problem with such a mythological view is that it flies in the face of the Jewish view of human beings. In the myth, Amalek is irredeemable, evil by nature. In Jewish ethics, all human beings have free choice between good and evil. This is a rather classic religious dilemma: The mythical and ethical views of the world lead to drastically different conclusions.”

    Don’t forget the halakhic, as well. While only a third-generation Egyptian (“Mitzri”) convert can marry an Israelite, and an Ammonite or Moabite never can, apparently an Amalekite is freely available to, even first generation.

    Although what this says about the free will of Egyptians, Ammonites and Moabites…

  • 4 Suzanne // May 28, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    To GG: Excellent. Thank you.

  • 5 Lilly Rivlin // May 28, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Excellent piece, full of insight. Particularly the lesson of , … don’t try to seek to understand a religion by going back to its founding text and just reading it cold. This applies to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, or any other founding text. What matters is how the text is read today, and it is usually read in several ways.”
    AMEN!

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  • 7 berger // May 29, 2009 at 1:59 am

    It’s fair enough to say that one shouldn’t try to read texts “cold,” because one can’t possible do so – traditions and history always play some role in how we read (and why). But it seems to me a bit disengenguous, especially on this issue, to (at least) imply that the text is somehow secondary (particularly to something called “the Jewish view of human beings”). Texts are always read by somebody but the texts obviously play a huge role in framing this whole conversation, so they are definitely a good place to start. I think you demonstrate this quite well actually in your discussion of Amalek (and in Michael’s comments as well).

  • 8 Wonk Room » Amalek Debate ‘A Perversion’? // May 31, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    [...] discussion on Amalek to be very interesting and informative — Gershom Gorenberg’s extended treatment of the subject is particularly good. Goldberg’s attempt to short circuit the debate, however, [...]

  • 9 moron // Jun 5, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Please note: That’s not a quote from Bibi, it’s a quote from the adviser taking measure of Bibi.

    Even that overstates the relevance.

    More precisely, it’s an uncorroborated, too-good-to-be-true blind quote from a supposed advisor to Netanyahu as relayed by professional unreliable narrator Jeffrey Goldberg. Caveat suxxor.

  • 10 Racism, Amalek and Videotape // Jun 13, 2009 at 11:02 pm

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