A Final Word on Amalek

By Daniel Luban

I have no desire to bore the reader with endless discussion of the Amalek controversy, so I will just weigh in with one final comment on the controversy and Jeffrey Goldberg‘s response to it. First, Andrew Sullivan’s post on the controversy is worth reading, and reiterates the same basic point that both Zakaria and I made: how would Goldberg read the Amalek statement if it had come from Ahmadinejad?

An annoyed Goldberg responds that Netanyahu himself never used the Amalek analogy; rather, it was an anonymous Netanyahu advisor who mentioned it to Goldberg. This response is unconvincing. While it is true that Netanyahu’s advisor was the one who uttered the now-notorious words “think Amalek,” the advisor made this statement in response to Goldberg’s request to “gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran.” That is to say, the advisor was not stating his own opinions about the Iranian threat; rather, he was indicating that Netanyahu himself sees Iran as the new Amalek. It is, of course, perfectly possible that the advisor mischaracterized his boss’s views, but Goldberg gave no indication in his original op-ed that he sees it this way. Rather, he deliberately sought to play up the Amalek analogy and made it the centerpiece of his intellectual profile of Netanyahu. (Note his title: “Israel’s Fears, Amalek’s Arsenal”.)

Goldberg has clearly become frustrated that the Amalek debate has slipped out of his control and ultimately backfired. His op-ed deployed the Amalek reference to convince American audiences that, far from being a shallow opportunist or unthinking warmonger, Netanyahu is in fact a serious statesman whose belligerence toward Iran is deeply rooted in Jewish history, the Bible, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and so on. Readers are meant to come away with the impression (although it is never quite stated explicitly) that they should put aside their skepticism of the new Israeli government and trust its hawkish inclinations on the Iranian issue.

As it turns out, his op-ed seems to have had the opposite effect. Rather than reassuring American Jews about Netanyahu’s seriousness of purpose, all the talk of Amalek has simply reinforced their impression that Netanyahu is a dangerous zealot who should not be dictating U.S. policy towards Iran.

It is only now that Goldberg steps in to do damage control — claiming at first that there is nothing at all troubling about the Amalek analogy, next that there may be troubling aspects of the analogy but that these were completely unintended by those who used it, before finally falling back on the position that Netanyahu never espoused the analogy at all. He covers this retreat with familiar claims of expert knowledge, maintaining that anyone who draws attention to the commonsensical implications of the analogy is simply “misreading” or “misunderstanding” it, no doubt due to their lack of nuanced understanding of the rabbinic Jewish tradition. (Strangely, he does not demand that Western pundits refrain from commenting on the pronouncements of Iran’s ayatollahs unless they have a thorough grounding in Islamic law and a few years of seminary at Qom under their belts.)

In any case, the basic message throughout seems to be “defer to Netanyahu”. If the Amalek analogy increases our confidence in the prime minister, then we should focus on it; if it decreases our confidence, we should ignore it and pretend that it was never brought up.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Who is losing credibility faster here–Netanyahu or Goldberg, his failed mythmaker? How about both of them? If I ever wished I was a journalist, it would be now–so that I, too, could participate in the unraveling of these two hucksters. It’s just icing on the cake that you’re possibly saving us all from World War III.

  2. Daniel thank you again for your intrepid writing. I don’t think the Palestinians are fighting some religious jihad, though Islamic just war theory does allow an oppressed and occupied people to fight.

    We should be able to compare Islamic just war theory, Christian Just war theory, and Jewish Just war theory. We should be able to discuss these, and even reflect on their relevance to current events.

    Islamic just war theory would say that once you are occupied, attacked, unable to negotiate constructively and effectively; when you are prevented from living your life in the way they believe god has guided them.

    Christian Just war theory is more familiar to the average layman, though we should perhaps revisit such quaint conventions.

  3. I wish I could feel as sanguine as Ilene does about this. Although this site is thoughtful and chock full of info one can find virtually nowhere else, it’s reach and, more importantly, its influence should not be exaggerated — I say this while having the utmost respect for Jim and his guest bloggers. If an Israeli-Iranian war is avoided, it will be because Obama and Gates and Mullen refusal to support Israel’s preemptive pedilections, not because of Mr. Luban’s (admittedly hard and astute) work.

  4. Luban’s criticism of the Netanyahu/Goldberg Amalek analogy was picked up by Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, Roger Cohen of The New York Times and Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, among others. It also sent Goldberg into defensive spasms.

  5. Yes, Ilene, that’s correct. But will it make one iota of difference in Israeli behavior, or in the reflexive support Israel receives from the U.S. Congress and the mainstream media? It will not.

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