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.