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The trope of an eternal, genocidal Amalek is everywhere these days. What role does it play in the war and in our politics?

This is a segment from The “The P Word?” Edition.


And now it’s time for our second discussion.

So Brad, is the Bible getting maybe a little too topical for our own good? – Well, we may be finding out.

In just a couple of days as we record this, we’ll be celebrating the holiday of Purim, which as you know, is the holiday in which we read Megillat Esther, or the scroll of Esther, in which we meet an evil viceroy named Haman or Haman.

Haman would like nothing better than to annihilate the Jews of Persia.

And he’s described in the scroll of Esther as Haman the Agagite.

The sages interpreted this to mean that he was a descendant of Agag, whom the Bible identifies as the king of the tribe of Amalek.

The book of Exodus, chapter 17, verses eight to 16, tells how soon after the Jews crossed the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh, the people of Amalek attacked them in a place called Rephidim, with God’s help though, the Jews beat them back.

But the story of Amalek and the idea of Amalek only start there.

In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 25, verses 17 to 19, for those keeping score, the Jews are commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.

This is payback for quote, what Amalek did to you as you were coming out of Egypt.

But the Israelites never do fully blot out Amalek, and especially not that memory of Amalek, which has left a bad taste in our minds to this very day.

Descendants of Amalek returned throughout the Bible to try to destroy the Jews.

And as Noah’s pointed out, it kind of became a whole thing.

It’s one of the reasons why the Haman Purim costume depends on the year.

For example, during the Gulf War year of 1991, Haman looked like Saddam Hussein, mustache and all.

Later, Haman began to look like one of the Ayatollahs.

And this year, he’ll doubtless look a lot like Hamas leader, Yigie Sinwar.

We have never stopped living with Amalek.

The shadow’s always there.

Maimonides, in his towering compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, recounts that three of the 613 commandments have to do with Amalek.

One, do not forget their wicked deeds.

Two, exterminate their seed, which some have suggested includes men, women, children, and even livestock.

And three, constantly, actively remember and meditate on the wrongs which Amalek did us.

Since then, whenever hardcore evil and violent antisemitism have been visited on Jews, there have been rabbis, theologians, poets, and many others who see in this the hand of Amalek.

Although in their legal ruling, most rabbis have agreed that Amalek assimilated into the peoples of the world, so you can never really say of this or that villain that he is pure Amalek.

Not that this stops some people from saying it, of course.

Take, for example, Bogdan Chmielnicki, to this day, a hero to many Ukrainians, seen as a founder of Ukrainian independence.

In the mid-1600s, when Chmielnicki was active, he led an uprising in Pogrom, in which tens of thousands, and perhaps more Jews, were massacred.

Ukrainian Christians built statues to him, but Jews saw him as the sign of Amalek.

As we say in the Passover Seder, in every generation, someone rises up to destroy us.

Hitler, of course.

There were those who called Yasser Arafat a sign of Amalek, and lately, Hamas.

All of this is especially relevant at this moment.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, roughly Shabbat of Remembrance.

And what we are supposed to remember this Shabbat, the one right before Purim, is Amalek.

But it’s also relevant because Amalek is what the literary critics call a trope, has played a fairly dramatic role in this war.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a speech two weeks after October 7th, that, quote, “You must remember what Amalek has done to you,” says our Holy Bible, “and we do remember.”

This quote was referenced by a South African lawyer at the International Court of Justice as a proof text for allegations of genocidal intent on the part of the Prime Minister and on the part of Israel.

But it is not just our politicians.

You can be sure that in synagogues around the country this week, rabbis will be talking about how our soldiers are risking their lives to fight Amalek, though some, one imagines, will probably mean just plain Gazans in general, or maybe all Palestinians.

There’s a song just out by the popular singer-actor Golan Azulay called “Amalek Tis-talek,” or “Get Outta Here, Amalek,” that includes these lyrics, loosely translated.

Amalek and Aman, they are all just one.

Chmeney and Nasrallah, too.

Haniyah and Senwar, Amalek, they all are. (singing in foreign language) On social media, you can find videos of big units of soldiers outside Gaza dancing and singing “Erase the Seeds of Amalek.” (singing in foreign language) On walls of mostly destroyed buildings in Gaza City and Hanunis, you can see and spray paint the word Amalek.

Of course, there’s nothing surprising about fighters in a war viewing the thing they’re risking their lives for as a battle between good and evil, with them on the morally pure side and the other as irredeemably evil.

Moreover, when it comes to Hamas, given the massacre that started this war, it’s easy to understand seeing Hamas as irredeemably evil.

And certainly, despite the colossal civilian casualties in Gaza, especially of children, IDF soldiers do not want to risk their lives believing that this is a war of evil versus evil, or Amalek versus Amalek.

They don’t want to think about, for example, the Book of Judges in which the Amalekites intentionally caused the Israelites to suffer from famine.

Amalek links Hamas with a long historical chain of enemies of the Jews.

It also puts the war against Hamas into a very particular religious frame.

It seems to elevate the fight against Hamas from a very ugly, this-worldly affair to something more timeless and transcendent.

Noah, you’re an old yeshiva bachir, and I get that you grew up with Amalek.

What do you think about how useful the concept seems to be to so many people seeking to make sense of the war that we’re in? – Thanks, though it occurs to me hearing you say those words that to call the people of Silver Spring whom I grew up with Amalek, I really think that maybe is going too far.

They’re sometimes not the nicest, but they’re lovely people.

It’s a lovely community. – There must have been a classroom bully or two who fits into the mold of Amalek, no? – Don’t get me started. (laughing) I realize the seriousness of all this, and it’s funny because as somebody who spent all those years in yeshiva, then I’m very aware of the concept.

It’s one of the kind of foundational concepts that I grew up with at school, and in the shadow of the Holocaust, it informed the way that I think about the world so that never again for me was, in some ways I think as I was growing up, a statement about the timelessness and the inevitability of a kind of pure, almost genetic and genocidal hatred for Jews that one always needs to be aware of.

They’re out there.

And then over time I got older and I went and got a degree in history, and as a historian, there’s nothing that’s more anathema to me than a notion, any notion like Amalek, that there’s something timeless, that there’s something transcendental that affects in a deep way the course of human events that’s unchanging and unchangeable.

And I find that unnerving and I find it insulting and I find it frightening because first of all, my fundamental belief I think as a person and also as a historian is that things always change, that humans are humans and there are things that are part of human nature that repeat themselves over time, over millennia, but at the same time, we have great control over ourselves and over the world and the world changes.

Oftentimes for the better, though not always, and so the idea that there’s something out there, which is why for me it was very pleasing to see all of back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of halachic rulings by rabbis saying, “Well, Amalek doesn’t exist anymore.”

Like practically Amalek doesn’t exist anymore.

The idea is still one that we need to pay attention to, but we should know that in fact, Amalek is gone from the earth, which was this kind of optimistic moment that seemed to be freeing.

And now we see that Amalek is all around us.

So it is terrifying to me that this is a kind of conceptual lens that some of us use sometimes tongue in cheek and sometimes it seems less tongue in cheek to understand what’s going on in the war now, especially because different people, like you said, Bradley, different people draw the border around Amalek in different places.

If Amalek is just the leaders of Hamas who decided to go out on October 7th and murder as many people as they could murder in the worst possible way, then saying that they must be eliminated and that they, is something that makes sense to me.

But the borders are always fuzzy.

And so there are definitely people out there, including people with guns in Gaza who believe that Amalek is everyone they see with their eyes.

And that of course is terrible.

And so it’s unnerving in this, it’s always been unnerving to me, Amalek, but it’s unnerving in this moment that to see this concept have really, I think a pretty significant role, though I think that the people who then say, “Ah, this has become on the part of Jews, at least, “a religious war.”

And I think that that’s going too far.

That’s over-interpreting the role of Amalek in what’s going on around us right now.

But Allison, let me let you talk. – Well, I’m not neither a yeshiva buchor or a deep thinker columnist like Bradley.

And I’m just not a particularly religious person.

And it sounds a lot of hocus pocus to me, like I’m thinking Voldemort.

This is all very Harry Potter-ish when I hear these descriptions of Amalek.

But that’s, I guess, kind of my issue with religion and bringing these concepts into sort of the news and everyday life.

I’m interested in the whole issue of humanization and dehumanization.

I mean, basically we’re taking this, Amalek is a human image, and we’re implanting it into these other humans of various generations.

Like I could guess I could, if it was a spirit, a spirit of wanting to destroy the Jewish people, and then the spirit of the Jewish people wanting to stand up and fight that force, I guess I could get behind it more.

But the fact that we’re turning these real human beings with all kinds of differences and flaws and have done horrible things, I’m not saying any of them are necessarily good people, but extrapolating these sort of religious concepts into human beings is scary in the whole issue of dehumanization and not seeing them as people, no matter how much you wanna fight them, the mishmash of ideology and actual people to me is scary, scary, scary. – Yeah, I think for a lot of people, the war has changed how they look at Purim and Amalek.

I think that it’s gonna change Purim this year.

The Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther is not gonna sound the same.

Some congregations have thought about cutting off the scroll before it ends because it doesn’t end well.

The Jews wind up getting permission to kill tens of thousands of Persians.

And this year, I don’t think that’s gonna play well.

I think that we tended to think about Purim as being this really light time where you drink so much that you can’t decide which one’s Haman and which one’s Mordecai.

And we say things like, “They tried to kill us.

They failed, let’s eat.”

That kind of the old joke.

But the old joke falls flat in a way because basically what you have is, “They tried to kill us.

We killed them.

Let’s drink to excess.”

And this year, people are gonna have to come to grips with the idea that there’s something enormously dark about Purim and it’s right there in the Megillat.

And we’ve been sort of keeping it at arm’s length even let’s say since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein went into the synagogue and mosque in Hebron on Purim and killed dozens of Muslims at prayer, I think maybe something more realistic will come out of this because we have to deal with this tradition.

The tradition sits there, 75,000 deaths, and we don’t deal with it in a manner similar to the way we don’t really wanna deal with the civilian deaths that we’ve caused in Gaza. – Which I think is part of a bigger problem and issue.

Amalek, it seems to me, is a fantasy of people and of a people without any power.

And you have this fantasy of that there’s evil all around us, people who want to harm us, and we can rise up and kill them, which is one of the reasons why I think that there are very few concepts that are as firmly at odds with Zionist ideology in most of its original forms anyway than Amalek because once you have power, then your image, then you can no longer, it’s no longer responsible to have a notion of Amalek.

But, and more broadly, we have never really fully addressed the fact that in a really important way, Jews or Israel, a nation state of Jews, not just Jews, has a great deal of power, and we still view the world through the eyes of our great grandparents or grandparents who had no power and who were put in cattle cars and sent and murdered en masse.

And it’s a very dangerous combination.

I am far, far, far from the first person to say this, but it comes across, I think, very starkly in Amalek.

Like, an Israel that has the power to cause the kinds of damage that we have the power to cause and the kind of damage that in fact, we are causing right now in Gaza, should not have anything but a historical notion of Amalek once Amalek was a concept that drove us and now we have moved past that, our circumstances no longer allow it.

But it is in some circles, very much alive. – Yeah, like, sadly, and to my chagrin, it all just seems of a piece of the religious extremism.

And I just, religion and politics, when it gets all mixed up together is just so very scary.

So I just, I even hate the mention of it.

I wish I could, and I wish it didn’t rhyme so nicely, right?

Amalek, listelek?

I wish the concept of Amalek could listelek.

I wish the whole idea and this whole discussion of having an Amalek could just like go away.

The whole thing just, the reeks of some really, really scary stuff that is an element of where our country is going that, wow, just makes me kind of want to listelek and get away from here.

And I don’t feel that very often.

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