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):
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.
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.
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.
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.