In yesterday’s New York Times, Jeffrey Goldberg gave voice, and some historical context, to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s fears about Iran:
[Netanyahu]’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.
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. In a 2004 New Yorker article on the Israeli settler movement, Goldberg asked Benzi Lieberman, the chairman of the council of settlements “if he thought the Amalekites existed today.” Lieberman responded:
“The Palestinians are Amalek!” Lieberman went on, “We will destroy them. We won’t kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism.”
It seems like an adviser to the Israeli prime minister deploying this historical metaphor against Iran is just the kind of thing that might encourage a rational Iranian regime to try and obtain some sort of a deterrent. It’s also interesting that Goldberg — who has been one of Israel’s chief Iran alarm-bell ringers here in the U.S., always noting with great concern the various utterances of Iran’s leaders against Israel — should have no problem conveying it. Just as with Rick Warren’s comments about biblical support for assassination, it’s the kind of thing that Americans and Israelis tend to freak about when it comes from the other side, but downplay or apologize for when it happens in our own political-cultural context — when we even notice it.
Clearly, Iran presents a challenge for both the U.S. and Israel. But I’m not sure what purpose is served by casting Iran as such an unreasoning, irrational, and undeterrable foe, other than maybe frightening people in order to short-circuit attempts at diplomacy.