Posted by: sean | May 18, 2009

Iran as Amalek

Jeffrey Goldberg has penned a piece for the Times about Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in an attempt to explain Israel’s fears about Iran. In it, he waxes psychological and theological, talking about the effect of Netanyahu’s father’s research on the Spanish Inquisition and about the Amalekites of the Hebrew Bible:

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.

Here, with a slight of the hand Goldberg sugar coats the severity of the Amalek epithet. According to Goldberg, Netanyahu is bound by Jewish history to destroy Amalek’s arsenal, but that’s not a very honest reading of the text. Amalek comes up often in the Old Testament, but I’ve selected some of the more serious appearances (all quotes here are from the King James translation, and all emphasis is mine):

Exodus 17:

13 And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14 And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

Numbers 24:

20 And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.

Deuteronomy 25:

17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; 18 How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. 19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.

Judges 5:

2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. 3 Now 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. 4 And Saul gathered the people together, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah. 5 And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley. 6 And Saul said unto the Kenites, Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them: for ye shewed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. 7 And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur, that is over against Egypt. 8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

So when Netanyahu and Goldberg say that Iran is Amalek, the metaphor cuts both ways. Not only are the Persians considered to be the mortal enemies of Israel, but the Israelites are bound by God’s law to eradicate them, to “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.” What we’re talking about here is genocide by divine decree. So unless Goldberg just doesn’t know his scripture, it seems that fearing that this reading might not go over too well on the op-ed page of the New York Times, he leaves out the scarier part of the biblically sanctioned massacre.

Now of course I don’t think that Goldberg and Netanyahu actually want to eradicate the Persians, but the fact of the matter is that in the West, this sort of rhetoric is given a free pass, whereas if an Iranian head of state were to liken the Israelis to the Banu Qurayza you can bet that we’d be hearing all kinds of indignant cris de coeur from Washington and Tel Aviv about the genocidal intent of those fanatic Muslim nutjobs.

UPDATE: Matt Duss has a similar take on this here.



  1. Well. This is nonsense. Bibi does not even wear Kipa, the most minimum attribute of a religious Jew. He is not a religious person. I would like to know the name of this advisor who instructed Goldberg to think Amalek to fathom the depth of Bibi’s preoccupation with Iran. But lets say it happened. How from Amalek as Hebrew for exitential threats, this has grown into the biblical Amalek and Netanyahu as a Jewish fundamentalist? Let alone that Bibi explained pretty well why he is worried. Because Iran’s president first called on Israel to be wiped off the map and then started a nuclear program. Is it that irrational to start getting worried when such things happen? As a totally secular person, Bibi does not use ” metaphysics and biblical exegesis”, as Goldberg admits himself. In fact Goldberg could not pull one single quote of Bibi speaking in this sense.

    I especially liked this:

    So when Netanyahu and Goldberg say that Iran is Amalek, the metaphor cuts both ways. Not only are the Persians considered to be the mortal enemies of Israel, but the Israelites are bound by God’s law to eradicate them, to “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.

    Man, you’re really something. And then you are talking to us about a binational state. People like you should be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward to receive an extensive anti paranoia treatment and prevent them from spreading their madness across society. Who do you think can want to live with psychos like you in one state?

  2. Hi Sean.

    “Amalek” is NOT Hebrew for “existential threat” (Iyum kiyumi). It is a traditional symbol, Yungian archetype if you like, of a mortal enemy of the people, which is totally inconsolable. Think about the movie “terminator”. So, being a player in the collective Jewish paranoid psychology, Amalek always had a role. But saying “Netaniahu thinks that Iran is the biblical Amalek so he’s gonna kill them all”, well, it’s ridiculous. With that sort of paranoia. You should be awarded with honorable automatic conversion to Judaism:)

  3. Hey Shalom, it’s nice to hear from you.

    My point is not that Bibi thinks that all Iranians should be exterminated but rather to point out that the terminology his advisers are using is pretty “out there” and includes coded language that your average American probably doesn’t understand. The other point I’m making is that the west is willing to give Israelis the benefit of the doubt when it comes to such rhetoric, but not to Iranians…

  4. There is no such rhetoric. Bibi has never said it. It’s something that some adviser said to Goldberg in some private conversation and which Goldberg reinterpreted according to his liking. Hardly equivalent to calling for Israel to be wiped off the map from every possible public tribune.

  5. Exactly my point. Ahmadinejad was quoting Khomeini who actually never said anything about “wiping Israel off the map,” but rather having the occupying regime in Jerusalem disappear from the pages of history. But of course, nuance only suits you when it’s to your favor. But you’re right, we don’t know if Bibi ever said that or not, but one of his advisers did in order to explain what he thinks about Iran…

  6. Wrong too. This is what appears in the article.

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

    He did not ask him what Bibi thinks about Iran, but how worried he is. Bibi naturally does not believe in Amalek since is a secular MIT and Harvard educated technocrat. As to Ahmadinejad, he was singing various improvisations on his wipe Israel off the map theme on just about any occasion.

    Anyway, personally I am not preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear bomb. It’s mainly the Arabs problem, not ours. Bibi has a point that Iran may escalate its support for various resistance groups, if it gets a nuclear technology. But the thing is that as Hezbollah is taking over Lebanon, it has become transformed from a resistance group into a semi state and full state that relies on guerrilla tactics to fight conventional wars. As such it cannot defend Lebanon’s infrastructure or critically endanger the Israeli one while it has largely lost most advantages underground resistance groups have over conventional armies. So the most grave implications of Iran’s nuclear bomb are for the Arabs themselves and in particular for Lebanon.

    Iran’s nuclear umbrella will not be extended to Hezbollah and Lebanon and without it Hezbollah will hardly dare to openly start another war with Israel, in particular as part of the future government. On the other hand, its ability to resist and bully other Lebanese groups may be enhanced by increased support from Iran protected this time by its nuclear umbrella from a possible US or even joint US Arab strike.

    I bet most of what I am saying is completely lost on you. But I mind this no more than I mind Iran’s nuclear program. Keep cheering on mr. Ahmalalah.

  7. By the way, though I don’t share this anti Persian paranoia, I have to notice that it’s absolutely not unique to Israel. Six or seven Arab states are now planning nuclear reactors and the question is of course why now? The answer is simple: despite all this Bibi Amalek blah blah blah, the Arabs know jolly well that Israel’s territorial ambitions, even at their most, don’t extend beyond the West Bank. The Arabs are much less sure about Iran, or rather they are quite sure about the opposite. Let alone that, unlike Israel, Iran is led by a person who claims to have overnight visits and receive his inspiration from no other person but the Mahdi himself.

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