By Daniel Luban
Since my original post on Netanyahu and Amalek, the Amalek analogy has become the subject of a fair amount of attention. Fareed Zakaria and Roger Cohen have both chimed in, arguing that Netanyahu’s identification of Iran with Amalek demonstrates a dangerous strain in the Israeli prime minister’s thought. Now Jeffrey Goldberg, whose New York Times op-ed was the source of the Amalek quote, has responded with a series of posts (here, here, here, and here) defending the Amalek analogy and attacking anyone who might be troubled by it.
Adopting his usual supercilious tone, Goldberg explains that the critics “misunderstand” Amalek and its role in Jewish thought. Although he does concede that the Bible calls for the extermination of the Amalekites, Goldberg maintains that “this is a Jewishly inoperable commandment, never carried out, and never to be carried out.”
As I showed in my previous post, this claim is simply factually wrong. King Saul did in fact “utterly destroy all the [Amalekite] people with the edge of the sword” in response to God’s command; his only failure was that he spared their king Agag and the best of their livestock (1 Samuel 15). (Agag’s good fortune proved to be short-lived; shortly thereafter the prophet Samuel himself “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord”.) Later, King David did in fact “smite the land, and leave neither man nor woman alive” when he attacked the Amalekites (1 Samuel 27).
Similarly, Goldberg claims that no one takes the injunction to exterminate Amalek seriously; rather, Amalek signifies a more anodyne commitment to never again let the Jewish people be victimized. But as I wrote, in recent decades many on the Israeli right (including prominent rabbis such as Israel Hess and Schmuel Derlich) have given the convincing impression that they take the exterminationist undertones of the Amalek analogy very seriously indeed, and that they view the Palestinians as the new substitute for the Amalekites.
Regardless, Goldberg et al’s main point is that there is no comparison between the messianic rhetoric coming from Israel and the messianic rhetoric coming from Iran. After all, everyone knows that Israel has no desire to exterminate the Iranians, just as everyone knows that Iran’s highest desire is to exterminate all Jews, even at the cost of their own certain annihiliation. (I myself am not so sure how everyone “knows” this alleged fact, but if Goldberg is to be believed it is utterly obvious to all right-thinking and serious foreign policy analysts.)
As I wrote earlier, I do not doubt that Netanyahu has no desire to exterminate the Iranian people. But it is notable that the commentators who are most eager to downplay the literal implications of Netanyahu’s rhetoric are, almost without fail, the same ones who are most eager to play up Iranian rhetoric in its most literal (indeed exaggerated) form. (See, for example, Goldberg’s compilation of Ahmadinejad’s bellicose statements against Israel, in which he concedes that the “wiped off the map” formulation may have been a mistranslation before straightfacedly repeating that mistranslation again and again without correction.)
More broadly, it is obvious that political leaders — particularly demagogues of the sort currently in power in both Israel and Iran — are prone to rallying popular support through violent nationalist rhetoric that bears little relation to either their capabilities or their intentions. The Iran hawks have demonstrated in their discussions of Amalek that they are perfectly aware of this fact, so it would be nice to see them apply this knowledge to their Iran analysis instead of engaging in continued hysterical fear-mongering.
Finally, Goldberg prefaces his attack on Zakaria with the disclaimer that “I write this — I feel a need these days to make this point over and over again — as someone opposed to a military strike on Iran, either by the U.S. or Israel, because I can’t see how such a strike would be in the American national security interest.” His wounded insistence that he has no idea how anyone could view him as a hawk is a bit rich, considering that in recent months his primary focus has been drumming up paranoia about the Iranian nuclear menace and reassuring American Jews about the Netanyahu government’s alleged seriousness and pragmatism. However, I suppose this is the true mark of a Serious Liberal. Just like those Jews who profess their devotion to the two-state solution and to ending the occupation, but in practice spend most of their time attacking anyone who makes a serious effort to further these goals, Goldberg is a supposed supporter of engagement with Iran who appears determined to undercut anyone who proposes any serious measures to make engagement work.