Sunday, May 17, 2009

Goldberg: Will Netanyahu smite the "Amalekites"?

Jeffrey Goldberg has done us a service by opening a terrifying window into the mind of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rejecting the hypothesis that Netanyahu's saber-rattling over Iran is a negotiating ploy, Goldberg explains:
...the prime minister’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.
How do you deal with an "undying enemy"? Here's the divine answer in 1 Samuel 15:3:
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
God meant business. He rejected King Saul, who led the Israelite assault, because while wiping out the Amalekites he spared their king and some of their livestock.

Netanyahu is not a religious fundamentalist per se, but he too means business. Goldberg usefully recounts that his personal ideology was shaped by his father's scholarship, which
suggests a belief that anti-Semitism is a sui generis hatred, one that is shape-shifting, impervious to logic and eternal. The only rational response to such sentiment, in the Netanyahu view, is militant Jewish self-defense.
That militancy is now focused relentlessly on Iran. Drawing on his March 31 interview published some weeks ago by the Atlantic, Goldberg reports that Netanyahu
said that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons represented a “hinge of history.” “Iran has threatened to annihilate a state,” he said. “In historical terms, this is an astounding thing. It’s a monumental outrage that goes effectively unchallenged in the court of public opinion. Sure, there are perfunctory condemnations, but there’s no j’accuse — there’s no shock.” He argued that one lesson of history is that “bad things tend to get worse if they’re not challenged early.” He went on, “Iranian leaders talk about Israel’s destruction or disappearance while simultaneously creating weapons to ensure its disappearance.”
It is not strictly true that Iran has "threatened to annihilate a state." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quoting and channeling Khomeini, has expressed the wish and forecast that Israel "vanish from the page of time," that the "Zionist regime" will collapse, and that Muslims should unite to make this happen. He and other Iranian leaders have been careful, however, to avoid saying that Iran will bring about these results by military means. Ahmadinejad has disingenuously called for a single referendum of all the people in "Palestine" -- which would indeed make the Jewish state "vanish from the page of time." His long string of forecasts, disgusting vitriolic insults, and incitements are threatening enough, expressing a hatred, like that of Benzion Netanyahu's Spaniards, "impervious to logic and eternal."

But for the leader of a Jewish state to cast a current adversary as "Amalek" presents almost a mirror image to this deadly, irrational hatred. It suggests a leader haunted by ancient commands to wipe out the accursed of God. It stands off Isaac versus Ishmael, each with rival claims to being chosen of God, each viewing the other as the accursed.

To my mind, it's dead dreams of divine command that are the existential threat. The world is held at the point of the terrible swift sword of scriptural monotheism.

Related post: The Amalek connection: Goldberg protests too much

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