Jewish Word | Amalek, Then and Now

By | Jan 11, 2024
Highlights, Jewish Word, Winter 2024

In a televised broadcast on October 28, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the citizens of Israel about the October 7 Hamas terror attacks. In a speech littered with allusions to good and evil, humanity and barbarism, one line in particular inspired dread in many listeners: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you,” he proclaimed. “And we do remember.” Netanyahu’s invocation of Amalek, an ancient people whom the Israelites were commanded to wipe out, has caused many observers to fear for the inhabitants of Gaza.

The word “Amalek” first appears in Genesis as the name of one of Esau’s grandsons. Later, in Exodus, his descendants, a nomadic Canaanite tribe known as the Amalekites, attack the Israelites soon after they flee Egypt and cross the Red Sea. The cruel attack, targeting children and elderly stragglers, results in the specific prescription in Deuteronomy to “remember what the Amalekites did to you along your way from Egypt.” 

Generations later, the Amalekites appear again in the first book of Samuel. Here God commands King Saul through Samuel to “go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Maimonides later designated the commandment to wipe out Amalek as one of the 613 mitzvoth. However, the idea of killing every single member of a nation, and even their livestock, has disturbed Jewish scholars for centuries. Most could not countenance this idea and chose to interpret it metaphorically. Jack Bemporad, a rabbi and professor of interreligious studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, for example, notes that because this command appears in the book of Samuel rather than in the Torah, it is best understood as a description of tribal warfare, rather than a timeless and universal instruction.

For Bemporad and others, Amalek is not a specific people but rather a type of enemy with whom no agreement can be made. These have included the Romans, the Inquisitors and the Nazis. Even Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is said to have descended from the Amalekites. Amalek “is an enemy that is intractable, that doesn’t play by the rules and basically is intent on destroying the Jewish people or Israel,” says Bemporad. It is in this context that Netanyahu linked Amalek and Hamas. 

However, many have interpreted Bibi’s remark as a call to action against all Gazans. “On its face, it’s a statement of genocide,” says Peter Beinart, editor-at-large with Jewish Currents. “What the children of Israel are supposed to do to the Amalekites is very clear…It’s very frightening and I think it’s a betrayal of Judaism.” Many in the Arab community who have looked up the biblical reference are likewise distressed, seeing Netanyahu’s words as a direct threat to Palestinians, says Robert Eisen, a professor of religion and Judaic studies at The George Washington University. 

Inside Israel, however, Netanyahu’s motivation is seen more as self-serving rather than genocidal, says Guy Ziv, a professor of international relations at American University. “This is all about domestic politics,” he argues.“Netanyahu is appealing to his base, which is all he has left after the debacle of October 7.” But Ziv is skeptical that this strategy will prove successful, with most polls indicating broad support for Netanyahu’s ouster following the war.

And while the invocation of Amalek may be a first for Netanyahu, religious appeals are nothing new in Israel’s political landscape. Saul Newman, an American University political scientist, notes that “even David Ben-Gurion relied heavily on stories from the Prophets. And ever since Menachem Begin became prime minister, Israeli politics has become steeped in religious rhetoric from the Five Books of Moses.” 

Right-wing and religious politicians have long invoked Amalek to attack their political adversaries. In 2013, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas party, called national religious politicians “Amalek” over their push to end Haredi draft exemptions. Similarly, in 2019 MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism compared opposition figures to Amalek for the perceived culture war they were waging against the Haredim. And two months before Hamas’s assault, MK Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party compared the Palestinian Authority to Amalek. Until now,  however, Netanyahu has stood out as a politician who spoke in secular terms.

While the rhetorical efficacy of such religious allusions is unclear, with regard to Hamas, Netanyahu’s goals appear to be consistent with the biblical prescription of total elimination. According to Bemporad, “Netanyahu was saying…we cannot destroy Hamas without destroying it completely.” Whether such a feat is possible remains to be seen.

Opening picture: The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites by Nicolas Poussin.

4 thoughts on “Jewish Word | Amalek, Then and Now

  1. Charles Saydah says:

    Jacob Forman ignores an element of the Amalek story that has equal applicability to the current situation as Netanyahu sees it. It’s also found in I Samuel. One of God’s first assignments to Saul, a very reluctant first king of the Jewish people, was to wipe out the Amaleks for their predations of the Jews way back when. Saul dutifully responds, but during the carnage he reconsiders the utility of wiping out every living thing in the Amalek settlement. In what might be considered an opportunistic bit of economics, he spares some domestic livestock (and maybe some women, for use as slaves and other purposes) — why waste such assets? This, according to the writers of Samuel, was Saul’s sin — a violation of God’s order. His descent into madness and the eventual ascent of David stem from this major lapse.
    In a way, Netanyahu faces the same problem. He’s responding not just to an immediate attack but a general threat that, by his thinking, no longer be ignored, papered over, swept under the rug in ways that had been done for the better part of a century. It must be dealt with summarily and completely. I suspect somewhere in heart Netanyahu believes that God has told him to respond as he has. To ignore that order would be to sin and to ensure his own destruction.
    Just a thought.

  2. Sheldon Finkelstein says:

    Quite obviously, when he made his remark, Netanyahu was referring to Hamas and not to all the residents of Gaza. Any suggestion to the contrary is patently absurd. And whether it’s Amalek or another group, as we say at the Seder, “B’chol dor vador, om’dim aleinu l’chaloteinu, v’HaKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu mi-yadam.”

  3. Sandra Fryer says:

    I certainly hope Netanyahu was referring to Hamas and not to all the residents of Gaza. Anything beyond that would be counter to Jewish Ethics and moral teachings.

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Agree with these two gentlemen! P.M. Netanyahu understands, both Biblically and logically, that Hamas must be destroyed completely and also he certainly might have heard from God on this issue. After all, He is the same today, yesterday, and forever. This act does not refer to the Palestinian people, though the truth is clear that Hamas has had great influence on this group, and there seems to be a need to find a more satisfactoral solution for the whole issue…the people of Gaza have been brainwashed by Hamas considerably.

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