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”.

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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. @ Saka: It could be in the middle of 2010 but I’ve heard that the Iranians are making deals to by higher tech anti-aircraft missiles from Russia (by way of Belarus) and they are due to arrive before then end of the year. Not only that but Iran is being considered for full membership (it’s now an ‘observer’) in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (like NATO but with China, Russia and some Central Asian Republics) in June. So if it gets accepted in June then if Israel attacks China and Russia will be bound to respond. They would in effect be declaring to Israel their willingness if they accepted Iran. Interesting.

  2. Some Israeli experts predict that the Iranian leadership would be willing to sacrifice 50 percent of their countrymen in order to eradicate Israel.

    Ah but by the same illogic, since some “Israeli experts” don’t predict this it must be false as well as true!
    Don’t worry though, “some Christian experts” predict the end of the world is nigh, so obviously it’s all moot anyway.

  3. David, why would the SCO fight us with military means? They aren’t stupid, nor are terrorists, you never engage the tip of the spear. Suppose you can divide your enemy from his allies as Russia nearly can with natural gas and oil. Suppose that you could become your fiercest foe’s banker, don’t you think this would be an effective way to blunt his assault? No wise foe will attack your strength, unless it holds some Grecian flaw. Our is our debt, the crippling nature of our armor has frozen us. Why ever would you think they will fight us directly, when they can cripple us without ever firing a shot?

  4. “Don’t worry though, “some Christian experts” predict the end of the world is nigh, so obviously it’s all moot anyway.”

    Based on a middle eastern war.

    Zhu Bajie

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