FAQ: Amalek, Goldberg, Netanyahu and Iran

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:

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Old-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.

An afterword to Haim’s post on screeds about anti-Jewish attitudes in Islam: A few months ago I wrote an article about anti-Muslim and anti-Christian prayers in Judaism. The anti-Christian prayers are medieval (I urged excising them.) The anti-Muslim prayer I cited is apparently a fake antique: It’s written in a medieval style, and it follows the midrashic convention of using “Ishmael” as a name for Muslims or Arabs. But it’s a product of the contemporary Israeli-Arab conflict, and it shows up in the liturgy of the Israeli religious right, which has dressed up militant modern nationalism as ancient theology.

There are several lessons to be learned:

First, attacks on Islam in authentic medieval Jewish prayers are almost impossible to find, as a leading historian explained to me:

Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”-looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.

There was obviously theological conflict between Judaism and Islam from the time the latter began. But Jews themselves did not perceive Islam as trying to displace and disinherit Judaism in the same way,

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