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.