In its attempt to prove that the State of Israel is guilty of genocide against the Palestinian people, in the case brought before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, South Africa cited Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s declaration at the opening of the ground operation: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you.”
What Netanyahu was referring to is an event described at the end of Parashat Beshalach that we read this week and in Deuteronomy 25:17-19. The Torah reports that Amalek, a group of marauding nomads living in the Negev and Sinai, attacked Israel as they were traversing the desert from the Sea of Reeds to Sinai. Unlike Israel’s other enemies that engaged it in face-to-face combat, Amalek perpetrated a sneak attack targeting the weak and defenseless stragglers located at the rear of the Israelite camp. In this sense, the Amalekites were the first “terrorists” and, as such, Netanyahu’s comparison between them and the Hamas terror organization seems quite apt.
The problem is that in response to Amalek’s terrorist attack the Torah (in Deuteronomy, but not in Exodus) commands the Israelites and their descendants to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19). The simple and straightforward meaning of the words to “blot out” is to “wipe out”, i.e., to kill the entire nation: men, women and children alike. That this is the Torah’s intent is clear from Samuel’s orders to King Saul later on: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:2-3). In other words, God’s command to “blot out” Amalek amounts to what, in contemporary times, is considered “genocide”.
Thus, when the Israeli Prime Minister calls upon the Israeli army to remember Amalek as it embarks upon its ground operation against Hamas, he is not merely suggesting that the two groups reflect similar patterns of behavior but that our response to both should be the same. This, South Africa argues, is clear evidence that Israel’s war against Hamas is tantamount to genocide, which leaves Israel in a serious conundrum.
Now while I cannot presume to know what the Prime Minister had in mind when he compared Hamas to Amalek, the fact is that South Africa’s allegation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the command to “blot out” Amalek has been interpreted in post-biblical Jewish tradition. Already in the Talmud, there was some discomfort with this command:
“At the time when the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to (Saul): “go and attack Amalek…(Saul countered and) said: Now, if (on account of) one life (that is taken, in a case where a slain person’s body is found and the murderer is unknown), the Torah said to bring a heifer whose neck is broken (to a barren valley, in the atonement ritual described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9), all the more so (must I have pity and not take) all these (Amalekite) lives. And (he further reasoned): If the men have sinned, (in) what (way) have the animals sinned? (Why, then, should the Amalekites’ livestock be destroyed)? And if the adults have sinned, (in) what (way) have the children sinned?” (Yoma 22b).
It was apparently due to this discomfort that different interpretations have been offered over the years to limit its applicability. For example, some say that the command is only in force after Israel appoints a king, others say that Amalek, as a nation, no longer exists today, and yet others interpret it symbolically. Rather than blotting out Amalek in the literal sense, we are expected to make noise to blot out the mention of the name “Haman”, a descendant of Amalek, during the recitation of the Megillah on Purim. Thus, what was once a call for us to take up arms and wage war against our archenemy was later understood as a call for us to lift up our arms with groggers and other noise-making devices.
Against this background, the attempt by South Africa to ground its charges of genocide against Israel on Netanyahu’s comparison between the war against Hamas and the war against Amalek is utterly unfounded.
Nevertheless, to the extent that the Prime Minister was calling for the annihilation of Hamas as an organization, rather than to the Palestinians as a people, I wholeheartedly concur. For any organization that features, in its charter, the complete destruction of another country, that targets innocent civilians while hiding behind its own, and that plants weapons in every home, school, mosque and hospital, is an organization that should be blotted out, literally and unapologetically, from the face of the earth.