The Dangerous History Behind Netanyahu’s Amalek Rhetoric

His recent biblical reference has long been used by the Israeli far right to justify killing Palestinians.

Abir Sultan/AP

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On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israelis were united in their fight against Hamas, whom he described as an enemy of incomparable cruelty. “They are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew. He then added: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”

There are more than 23,000 verses in the Old Testament. The ones Netanyahu turned to, as Israeli forces launched their ground invasion in Gaza, are among its most violent—and have a long history of being used by Jews on the far right to justify killing Palestinians.

As others quickly pointed out, God commands King Saul in the first Book of Samuel to kill every person in Amalek, a rival nation to ancient Israel. “This is what the Lord Almighty says,” the prophet Samuel tells Saul. “‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

The Amalek reference is one of many comments by Israeli leaders that serve to help justify a devastating response to the brutal Hamas attack on October 7 that took the lives of more than 1,400 people in Israel. A member of the Knesset has called for a second Nakba, in reference to the expulsion of Palestinians that Israel carried out in its 1948 war with Arab neighbors. A military spokesperson said about Israel’s initial airstrikes that “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

More than 9,000 people in Gaza have now been killed, including more than 3,700 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. A spokesperson for UNICEF now says that Gaza is a “graveyard for thousands of children” and a “living hell for everyone else.” Forty-seven percent of Israeli Jews said in a poll conducted last month that Israel should “not at all” consider the “suffering of the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza” in the next phase of fighting. Casting the enemy as Amalek reinforces that attitude.

Joshua Shanes, a professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, explained that the biblical animosity toward the Amalekites stems from what is described as the merciless ambush they launched against vulnerable Israelites making their way to the promised land. The attack leads God to tell Moses to wipe out Amalek. Hundreds of years later, Saul nearly fulfills the command by killing all Amalekite men, women, and children. But he spares their king, who keeps his people barely alive by having a child. Many more generations later, one of his descendants, the villain Haman, goes on to develop a plot to kill all the Jews living in exile under a Persian ruler. The lesson, when read literally, is clear: Saul’s failure to kill every Amalekite posed an existential threat to the Jewish people.

Jews traditionally hear the story of the Amalek ambush and God’s decree that they be eliminated on the Shabbat service before the holiday of Purim. Shanes said it is perhaps the most important of all Torah readings. Rabbi Jill Jacobs—the head of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organziation—said that rabbis generally agree that Amalek no longer exists, and that references to it do not provide a morally acceptable justification for attacking anyone. “The overwhelming history of Jewish interpretation is to interpret it metaphorically,” Jacobs said, explaining that one common approach is to see it as a call to stamp out evil inclinations within ourselves.

Nevertheless, Jacobs said that it remains common for Israeli extremists to view Palestinians as modern-day Amalekites. In 1980, the Rabbi Israel Hess wrote an article that used the story of Amalek to justify wiping out Palestinians. Its title has been translated as “Genocide: A Commandment of the Torah,” as well as “The Mitzvah of Genocide in the Torah.”

In his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew, celebrity attorney and Harvard professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz made a point of expressing his disgust about the article and the idea that Palestine was Amalek. He asked, “How can anyone distinguish this incitement to murder from similar incitements by Muslim fundamentalists who quote the Koran as authority for genocide against Jews?”

The Brooklyn-born extremist Baruch Goldstein also saw Palestine as Amalek. In 1994, he slaughtered 29 Muslims praying at a mosque in Hebron, a city in the occupied West Bank that is sacred to Jews and Muslims. Goldstein carried out the massacre on Purim, one week after he would have heard the biblical retelling of the command to wipe out a rival nation. As the journalist Peter Beinart and others have written, the timing was not a coincidence.   

Goldstein’s grave has become a pilgrimage site for the Israeli far right. His tomb says he died of “clean hands and pure heart.” Goldstein’s admirers have included Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s current minister of national security. For Purim, a holiday on which Jews sometimes wear costumes, Ben-Gvir dressed as Goldstein on multiple occasions in his youth. He kept a picture of Goldstein in his living room until 2020. He has an extensive criminal record that includes convictions for supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism.

Shanes said that it was “incredibly dangerous and irresponsible and deliberate” for Netanyahu to invoke Amalek, given the ongoing war and it how is understood by the far right. He added that calling the enemy Amalek will make it more difficult for people who try to defend the position that Israel is not “involved in a crime against humanity or a genocidal act.”

Beinart, an Orthodox Jew who previously edited the New Republic and now writes on Substack, expressed similar concern. “The wisdom of rabbinic tradition was to declare that we no longer know who Amalek is because that restrains the genocidal plain meaning of the Biblical text,” he wrote in email. “So in claiming that he knows who Amalek is, [Netanyahu] is undoing the moral scaffolding created by Jewish tradition and asserting a Biblical literalism that is alien to the Judaism of the last two thousand years and, given the military power at his disposal, is frankly terrifying.”

Jacobs stressed that Netanyahu saying Amalek does not mean that Israel is carrying out genocide. She said that while Hamas and Israel have committed war crimes, Israel’s actions do not meet the international standard of genocide. “It’s not a term that should be thrown around casually at all,” she explained, particularly against a people that have experienced genocide. Instead, Jacobs sees Netanyahu, who she described as “totally right-wing and incompetent,” referring to Amalek as yet another case of him “being irresponsible and inciting.” (Netanyahu has previously compared the prospect of a nuclear Iran to Amalek.)

In a brief phone call, Dershowitz told me this week that he supported Netanyahu “100 percent” to the extent that the prime minister was equating Hamas with Amalek. When I mentioned the command to kill Amalekite women and children, Dershowitz responded, “There are other parts of the Bible that say the opposite; that you can’t even destroy a fruit tree.” That is true, but Netanyahu did not cite those parts of the Bible. Instead, he turned to something that the far right has long used as a justification for genocide during a war in which some argue Israel is committing genocide. (On Thursday, a group of United Nations experts said that Palestinians are at “grave risk of genocide.”)

Shanes was not convinced by Dershowitz’s defense that Hamas is Amalek. For one, he said, Amalek is clearly described as a nation, not a political party. “If someone says, ‘I just mean the bad members of the Palestinians. I mean Hamas…,’ that’s not the effect it has in the body politic,” Shanes said. “The effect it has is, We have to wipe these people out.”

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