This blog post was originally published by Hanan Schlesinger, founder of Roots and West Bank peace activist, on March 5, 2020.
The joyous, sometimes boisterous, holiday of Purim is approaching. Twice during the holiday, Jews will publicly read the Book of Esther, in which Hebrew Scripture recounts the events of over 2,500 years ago that the celebration comes to commemorate. Haman the Agagite, a very high ranking official in the court of the Persian king, hatches a diabolical plot to exterminate all the Jews of the immense empire and then bribes the king to adopt the genocidal plan. All would have been lost if not for the ingenuity and courage of Queen Esther, who risks her life by simultaneously revealing herself as a Jew and confronting the evil Haman, thereby convincing the king to save the Jewish People from the evil decree. Haman and his ten sons are hung, and the Jewish subjects of the Persian Empire are given free rein to wreak vengeance against their enemies, ultimately killing seventy-five thousand of those who would have killed them.
Again and again, the Book of Esther refers to the antagonist not merely as Haman but as Haman the Agagite. Why? Because Agagite is synonymous with Amalekite (See I Samuel 15:8-9), and the Book of Esther wishes to connect the events it describes to the biblical story of the evil Amalekite nation and the divine commandment to wipe out its memory.
Exodus 17 tells us that when the Israelites had just left Egypt, Amalek came out of nowhere and made war against them for no apparent reason. The beleaguered Israelites defended themselves and emerged victorious. God then declares “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven … The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”
Later on, in Deuteronomy 25, we find the following:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Incorrigibly evil, the Amalekites are to be completely eradicated. God himself makes war against them, and in no uncertain terms, the Jewish People are commanded to join God and to take up the sword against them as well.
Clearly, the Book of Esther is explaining, justifying, and vivifying this commandment. Look it says, in every generation, those wicked Amalekites rise up to kill us. The message lurking between the lines appears to be that we must arise to kill them first. We must not be lulled into complacency.
How are we to understand this commandment to exterminate Amalek?
Scripture does not have the last word in the Jewish religious system. The rabbinic interpreters who make up the chain of tradition have the holy responsibility of making sense of the commandments for their generation, thereby setting a legal precedent for the future.
The medieval work Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Education) seemingly understands that every Jew in every generation is commanded to kill any member of the Amalekite nation that he may come across.
On the other hand, Maimonides (died 1204) appears to both limit and expand the commandment. It is incumbent not upon individuals but only upon the Jewish nation as a collective in its encounter with the Amalekites as a collective. Furthermore, if the Amalekite nation sues for peace and shows that it has reformed its ways, they are to be accepted in peace and no harm is to be done to them. On the other hand, until that time we are to maintain deep and abiding enmity and antipathy towards them.
Later sources explain that according to both approaches, the commandment is not practically applicable nowadays, whether because the Amalekites are no longer identifiable as a distinct people or because the commandment only applies after the coming of the Messiah, or for other reasons.
Moving from halachic (legal) discussions to the realm of homiletics, we note that mystics and pietists throughout the generations made ample use of the theme of Amalek, transforming it into a spiritual symbol. There were those who opined that it refers to the evil impulse inside all of us that must be eradicated. Others taught that religious doubt and heresy are the inner Amalek against which we must all go to war and thoroughly uproot.
But the homiletics also went in another direction. There are Talmudic statements identifying the Roman Empire with Amalek. In the face of consistent attacks upon the Jewish People from the Church in medieval times, commentators championed the view that the Christians are Amalek. In modern times, many saw in Hitler and his Nazi henchmen as the incarnation of Amalek, and certain ultra-orthodox rabbis declared that the secularists are Amalek. What all these have in common is that they bring the identification of Amalek back from the inner, spiritual arena to the realm of the external, the concrete. At the same time, they were surely meant more to uplift the spirits of the flock and to strengthen their resolve than to incite practical action against those designated as Amalek.
In the second half of the twentieth century, and especially during the last few decades, we encounter a new phenomenon. Specifically, within the Israeli Religious Zionist camp, we find growing numbers of rabbis identifying the Arabs as Amalek. True, their statements are not usually couched in halachic language but in that of homiletics. However, their discussions are very much in the realm of the external and the concrete AND they are most certainly intended to arouse specific behaviors that are often clearly spelled out.
The Arabs – especially the Palestinians – and the Iranians are the very incarnation of Amalek, Haman, Hitler, and the Nazis. At their core are an irrational, burning hatred of Jews and Jewish values. Anti-Semitism is part of their very nature. They cannot be cured of it.
The only purpose of their war against us is to annihilate the State of Israel and the Jewish People, just like the historical Haman. They embody the antithesis of love, truth, and justice. Holiness is anathema to their inner nature. They cannot bear to see God’s holy people thriving in the Holy Land nor anywhere else in the world.
Our battle with them is that of the forces of good against the forces of evil, light against darkness, holiness against impurity, falsehood against truth.
They are not fighting us to achieve anything worthwhile or useful for themselves but only in order to destroy God’s people. They are essentially evil, a satanic horde, no better than wild dogs.
We must strive to arouse full hatred against them in our people’s hearts. No weakness, no mercy and no forgiveness must be shown towards them. So-called humanistic values and behavior have no place in this conflict. Our misplaced religious-moral doubts and qualms must be overcome. We must release the full fury of our firepower against them. It is not enough to react to their onslaughts; we must move from defense to offense and initiate a no-holds-bar full-scale war in order to totally and finally defeat the Arab Amalekite enemy. The Jewish People cannot flinch; only ruthless collective punishment against men, women, and children will deter their bloodthirsty murderous instincts.
No compromise is possible. They cannot be trusted. There is no point in trying to make peace with them.
Aspects of the worldview presented above have a great and growing influence within the Israeli Religious Zionist sector. Rabbis of the highest caliber are among its purveyors. Those rabbinic figures that take issue with it are in the minority and wield decidedly less influence.
As an Israeli Religious Zionist rabbi who deeply cares for my people and for Judaism, as an interfaith activist who counts Christians and Muslims among his closest friends, and as a religious peacebuilder with deep connections to Palestinian society who sees at least the theoretical possibility of reconciliation on the horizon, I am horrified and devastated. Those who carry the mantle of the tradition have let us down. Rabbis – my teachers and my colleagues – have allowed themselves to be taken captive by the terrible trauma of the past and of the present from which we as a people suffer, by a residual sense of victimhood from which it is so hard to shake free. We have also been blinded by a mixture of fear and power, and by the hubris of exclusivity. We have allowed ideology and theology to replace empiricism and humanity. And we have done all this after having returned to the stage of history and while wielding the political and military might to act as we wish.
What we have here is classic demonization of the worst sort, exactly what was done to the Jews for generations. For millennia we yearned for those who held power not to distort who we are, to listen to us and to understand. And now when we hold power, we distort and we refuse to listen and to understand. We have become what we have sought to overcome.
A conflict that could eventually be solved through the hard, painful, challenging groundwork of face-to-face human contact, deep listening, recognition of the other’s experience, empathy, humility, individual and collective introspection, goodwill and compromise – or even simply through the passage of time – is being turned into a conflict that by its very definition can never be and ought never be solved.
We are misreading and misinterpreting historical contingencies as unchanging metaphysic absolutes. With our mouths and with our pens we are transforming that which can change into that which shall never change.
We are absolutely guaranteeing further and greater hate and animosity, further and greater conflict and bloodshed. We are choosing violence and death, death for the Palestinians and death for ourselves. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By seeing them as these rabbis do and by acting as these rabbis demand, we are turning them into pure agents of death and we are turning ourselves into the same. In diagnosing a religious war to the death, we have helped to create one.
On the day of Purim, February 25, 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein took a break from the festivities of the holiday to go into the area of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron that was serving as a mosque, and aim his rifle at the hundreds of Muslim bowed in prayer, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding 125. In his mind and in the mind of many other radicalized Jews, he re-enacted the salvific drama of Purim and fulfilled the commandment of blotting out the memory of Amalek.
We don’t know of any rabbis whose specific guidance he was following. All of the rabbinic pronouncements that we cited above are exhortations to the collective and not to the individual. Still, the implications for the pious and the fervent are clear. At this point, the massacre perpetrated by Goldstein remains a near anomaly. But we are sitting on a powder keg and it is just a matter of time before it explodes.