Goldberg and the Amalekites

by Daniel Luban

Jeffrey Goldberg‘s latest op-ed in the New York Times contains the following interesting passage:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

“Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.

If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.

Strangely, Goldberg does not mention what is perhaps the most striking and well-known fact about the Amalekites: they were the targets of divinely sanctioned genocide. As related in 1 Samuel 15, God instructed the Israelite king Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Saul “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword,” but spared their king Agag and the best of Amalek’s livestock, for which he was punished by God. When Saul’s successor David attacked the Amalekites (along with the Geshurites and Gezrites), he “smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive.” (1 Samuel 27:9).

Unsurprisingly, these passages have been the subject of a great deal of commentary in the millenia since, and a number of rabbis have offered interpretations that seek (with varying degrees of success) to mitigate the apparent brutality of God’s command. But as Christopher Hitchens noted a few months ago, Amalek has also in recent decades become a rhetorical touchstone on the right-wing fringes of Israeli society, as rabbis such as Schmuel Derlich and Israel Hess have promoted the idea that the Palestinians are the new Amalekites and must be dealt with accordingly. Apparently Netanyahu has altered this line of thinking to identify the Amalekites with the Iranians rather than the Palestinians.

Goldberg clearly does not wish to rattle his right-thinking liberal New York Times audience, so he conveniently omits all this from his account of Amalek. However, if Netanyahu’s advisors are right to say that Bibi sees Iran as the new Amalek, this is a fact with profoundly disturbing implications. After all, the biblically ordained way to deal with the Amalekites is not through “smart but tough” diplomacy, “crippling” sanctions, or even precise and targeted military strikes. Rather, it is through root-and-branch extermination — that is, wiping Iran off the map. Goldberg writes that “[i]f Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.” This is not quite accurate. If we take God’s command and the Amalek analogy literally, then an Israeli prime minister would be bound not to seek “its [the Amalekite arsenal’s] destruction,” but rather “their [the Amalekites’] destruction.”

I do not in fact believe that Netanyahu wishes to exterminate the Iranian people, but the Amalek analogy is nonetheless an alarming indication of the tenor of his thought about Iran. Furthermore, this is the sort of rhetoric that, when uttered by someone like Ahmadinejad, is taken quite literally and held up as proof of genocidal intent. When Netanyahu does it, however, we are supposed to understand that of course he doesn’t really mean what his advisor’s statement implies, and that this bloody rhetoric is simply evidence of his hard-nosed and serious approach to the Iranian threat.

As for Goldberg, he appears to be using his platform to try to whitewash Netanyahu’s views and render him acceptable to an American audience. Goldberg’s principal fear about the new Israeli government’s extremism is not that it might result in substantively objectionable actions, but rather that it might lead American Jews to demonstrate more skepticism about Israeli policies. In this respect, he is much like other hardliners in the Israel lobby, who have been going to great lengths to try to bolster their dovish credentials and sell the American public on Netanyahu’s supposed “pragmatism”.

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. Yes well it would appear that Netanyahu is sliding down that well worn, and generally entirely imaginary, path from ideologist to pragmatist that all Israeli prime ininisters take in the eyes of the US press. Such a path is, however, entirely closed off to Arabs, who must always be judged by positions that they had two decades or more ago which are held to reflect their true agenda regardless of anything they may say now.

  2. Scott is pleased. I feel my job is to expose the religio/racial elements of the Israeli/Zionist madness. Once successful, my job will be to redeem the Jews of that country. Thank you Daniel for exposing the Religious fanatics in this struggle.

    It is simply projection to term the Palestinians as the religious fanatics. There is no Quranic claim to that land. But there are books and books of the old Testament that show the people of Joshua to be among the most repugnant in history.

    The stories in the Quran where Jews are criticized and condemned it is according to Jewish betrayal of their own rules. The judgment that Mohammad must execute is reluctant and he tries to pass this off.

    These critiques don’t present a condemnation of Judaism largely but reveals a delicate trap that can ensnare the lazy, vicious and heartless. Those are three fair adjectives that could describe most politicos.

    It is so easy for Americans encouraged by Jews and neo-cons to condemn Islam, a faith they are wholly ignorant of. Sadly, these critics fail to understand their own older and more anachronistic traditions. The Quran was a latter edition and is arguably more carefully written. The Bible, particularly the old Testament is rife with cryptic and gory tales. We could all benefit from better learning our own traditions and critiquing them.

  3. This is not quite accurate. If we take God’s command and the Amalek analogy literally, then an Israeli prime minister would be bound not to seek “its [the Amalekite arsenal’s] destruction,” but rather “their [the Amalekites’] destruction.”

    Could this be linked. Mirror images. It’s not Israel wanting to destruct the Amalekites but it is rather that Iranian leaders want to sacrifice 50% of their people.

    Michael B. Oren

    A Nuclear-Armed Iran.

    The principal sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran is inextricably linked to the terrorist threat. But when the Islamic Republic achieves nuclear weapons-capability—as early as this year, according to Israeli intelligence estimates—the threat will amplify manifold.

    A nuclear-armed Iran creates not one but several existential threats. The most manifest emanates from Iran’s routinely declared desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” and from the fact that cold war calculi of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction may not apply to Islamist radicals eager for martyrdom. Some Israeli experts predict that the Iranian leadership would be willing to sacrifice 50 percent of their countrymen in order to eradicate Israel.

    Beyond the perils of an Iranian first-strike attack against Israel, the possibility exists that Iran will transfer its nuclear capabilities to terrorist groups, which will then unleash them on Israel via the country’s porous ports and border crossings.

    A nuclear Iran will also deny Israel the ability to respond to terrorist attacks: in response to an Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah, for example, Iran would go on nuclear alert, causing widespread panic in Israel and the collapse of its economy. Finally, and most menacing, many Middle Eastern states have declared their intention to develop nuclear capabilities of their own once Iran acquires the bomb.

    Israel will swiftly find itself in a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood prone to violent revolutions and miscalculations leading to war. As former Labor Party minister Efraim Sneh says, under such circumstances, all Israelis who can leave the country will.

    Do people like Michael B. Oren secretly think that its all about supremacy in the ME, but that it is not wise to let the plebs know?

  4. The logical and sensible interpretation of this discussion, given all of the above analysis, leads inexorably down a path to nuclear war in the ME, albeit that one side may not have nuclear weapons delivery capability when it starts. The time frame would appear to be the middle of 2010 at the latest.

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