This began with a Jeffrey Goldberg piece in the New York Times.
Nevertheless, the prime minister’s preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear program seems sincere and deeply felt. 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. In our recent conversation, Mr. Netanyahu avoided metaphysics and biblical exegesis, but said that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons represented a “hinge of history.”
The wikipedia entry for Amalek
Matt Duss at Think Progress
There’s a bit more to the significance of “Amalek” here than Goldberg lets on. It’s true that the biblical role of the Amalekites is essentially to harass and persecute the Israelites, but that’s only part of it. The other part is that the Amalekites — men, women, children, and livestock –get destroyed in huge numbers by divine command (I Samuel 15:3) — something we would probably refer to as “widespread atrocities,” if not outright “genocide” in a modern context.
Interestingly, as Goldberg himself has reported in the past — but for some reason neglects to mention in his article — invocations of “Amalek” are a feature of extremist Israeli settler propaganda against Palestinians and Arabs, something which I’m sure is not lost on Israel’s more right-wing American supporters.
Goldberg responds to Duss:
The shorter answer to the question of why I left out this aspect of Amalek in the op-ed is lack of space. The longer answer is, I should have included it. The existence of Amalek is empirically true: Hitler certainly filled the historical role of Amalek. But the idea of Amalek can be abused, as I have noted. In the case of this op-ed, I was trying to provide a window into the thinking of Netanyahu and his people. But I should have mentioned the danger of what we could call, for lack of a better term, Amalek-abuse. In the case of Ahmadinejad, by the way, I think the analogy is appropriate. He preaches of a “world without Zionism,” which means, essentially, a world in which Jews are not granted their right to exist as a nation.
And Dennis Yedwab, via Goldberg, responds to Duss.
Now, this bounces to Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:
Iranians aren’t suicidal. In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as “a messianic, apocalyptic cult.” In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary. The Iranians allied with the United States and against the Taliban in 2001, assisting in the creation of the Karzai government. They worked against the United States in Iraq, where they feared the creation of a pro-U.S. puppet on their border. Earlier this year, during the Gaza war, Israel warned Hizbullah not to launch rockets against it, and there is much evidence that Iran played a role in reining in their proxies. Iran’s ruling elite is obsessed with gathering wealth and maintaining power. The argument made by those—including many Israelis for coercive sanctions against Iran is that many in the regime have been squirreling away money into bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland for their children and grandchildren. These are not actions associated with people who believe that the world is going to end soon.
One of Netanyahu’s advisers said of Iran, “Think Amalek.” The Bible says that the Amalekites were dedicated enemies of the Jewish people. In 1 Samuel 15, God says, “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.” Now, were the president of Iran and his advisers to have cited a religious text that gave divine sanction for the annihilation of an entire race, they would be called, well, messianic.
Goldberg responds to Zakaria:
I’m not questioning Fareed Zakaria’s Newsweek piece this week because he lifted quotes from my articles without attribution (though this sort of behavior is certainly ungentlemanly), but because some of his interpretations and assumptions strike me as obviously wrong. And 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. As I’ve stated before, I don’t think a nuclear-armed Iran is in America’s best interest either, but the costs of a strike clearly outweigh the benefits.
In any case, two quick points about Zakaria’s piece. First, his misunderstanding of Amalek. He writes, “One of Netanyahu’s advisers said of Iran, ‘Think Amalek.’ The Bible says that the Amalekites were dedicated enemies of the Jewish people. In 1 Samuel 15, God says, “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.” Now, were the president of Iran and his advisers to have cited a religious text that gave divine sanction for the annihilation of an entire race, they would be called, well, messianic.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper in HuffPo:
So when Bibi’s aide says : “Think Amalek”, he means — remember that we Jews have learned the hard way that unthinkable evil can quickly become a reality; that those who call for Israel’s destruction have to be taken seriously. Israelis do not regard the Iranian people as Amalek, or entertain any notion of incinerating millions of innocents in a nuclear holocaust. But the once and future threat of Amalek won’t let us forget that pure evil does exist — and left unchallenged it can manifest in a scope greater than we can anticipate or are prepared to recognize.
So Fareed — we all have reasons to lose sleep over a Middle East leader driven by a messianic vision — but it ain’t Bibi — it’s Ahmadinejad and those Mullahs who are chasing their fanatical vision of Armageddon
Then it bounces to Roger Cohen in NYT:
But the world has not come to an end, for all Netanyahu’s dangerous, mythologizing attempts to liken Iran to Amalek, the Biblical enemy of the Jews that the Israelites were told to destroy, every “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Andrew Sullivan, like us, turns to Wiki and other sources and tries to get into the story of Amalek.
Goldberg says he will respond to Sullivan later, but responds to Cohen:
[…]there’s one technical point that needs to be cleared up here, and that is that Netanyahu himself has never, to the best of my knowledge, invoked Amalek in talking about Iran. He’s invoked Hitler, of course, but not Amalek. In his column today, Roger Cohen condemns Netanyahu’s “attempts to liken Iran to Amalek, the Biblical enemy of the Jews,” except that Netanyahu never likened Iran to Amalek. I don’t know if this is sloppiness on Cohen’s part, or something worse, but in the op-ed I wrote that got this particular meme started, it was one of Netanyahu’s advisers who invoked the specter of Amalek, not Netanyahu himself. So far as I know, Netanyahu has never mentioned Amalek. If he has, would someone please let me know?
UPDATE: Sullivan responds to Goldberg
UPDATE #3: Duss responds to Goldberg