Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Amalek, Part 3: After the Mirror Shatters

Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, September 2007. Photo: بلال الدويك Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0
Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, September 2007. Photo: بلال الدويك Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0

In “Wiping the Mirror Clean” I explored how the commandment in Deuteronomy to Remember what Amalek did to you” was transformed by early and later rabbis to shine light on our own moral responsibilities in the face of violence.

In “Questioning Genocide” I examined the traditional linkage of that commandment with First Samuel 15 on Shabbat Zakhor, the annual Sabbath of Remembrance before Purim. I noted how ancient rabbis raised humanitarian concerns about the targeting of civilians in First Samuel—long before the recent charges at the International Court of Justice.

Now it gets personal. On February 25, 1994 I was all costumed up and celebrating Purim in south Jerusalem, with a wonderful group of developmentally disabled adults at a group residence on Hebron Road. One of the residents had recently completed the writing of an entire Megillah, or scroll of the book of Esther, in traditional calligraphy under the supervision of a local Torah scribe.

Then reports began to trickle in about terrible violence in Hebron, just an hour down the road. I went home, took off my costume and sat by the radio, listening to the news in Hebrew. My holiday celebration was over.

A Jewish settler from nearby Kiryat Arba had entered the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs, wearing his Israeli army uniform and carrying an automatic assault rifle. Like the biblical Amalek, he attacked from behind. He shot dead 29 unarmed Palestinian men and wounded 125 more, as they gathered in fasting and prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The mass murderer was known in Israel as committed to an ideology and political platform of anti-Arab racism. As audio clips of his previous inflammatory statements in Hebrew came through the radio, I listened to his accent and thought: He’s a New York Jew, like me. Somehow I also knew that he was about my age.

I have continued to trace my unavoidable connections with this terrorist and fellow Jew. Even so, I follow the example of the former prime minister of New Zealand in her response to the March 2019 gun massacre of 51 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques:

I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. 

Al-Shuhada Street, the now-shuttered main road to the Cave of the Patriarchs in downtown Hebron, November 2013. Photo: B’Tselem by Creative Commons License 4.0

The names of those who were lost in the 1994 massacre have been overshadowed by the harsh restrictions placed on the remaining Palestinians in downtown Hebron. Meanwhile, two normative lines of Jewish reaction have emerged and persisted over the past three decades.

One attributes the massacre to an otherwise exemplary physician, overwhelmed by the trauma of tending to previous violence against Jews. Without dismissing any trauma in any way, it would be best to focus on the thousands of unsung medical workers—both Israeli and Palestinian—who continue to navigate relentless trauma in the protracted violence between their peoples. The vast majority of these healers uphold their ethical commitments to do no harm.

By contrast, the physician turned gunman was known to refuse treatment to Arabs. He had pursued early paramilitary training with the Jewish Defense League before moving to the West Bank, where he dedicated himself to anti-Arab racism within the Kach political party. These have long been classified as terrorist group involvements.

The other normative line of reaction is to acknowledge the 1994 massacre—as well as subsequent horrific incidents of Jewish terrorism—but to insist that their perpetrators “simply aren’t Jewish.” Yet the grave of the Purim gunman has served as a Jewish shrine, and remains a place of religious pilgrimage for thousands of Jewish extremists.

Prominent among these is Israel’s current national security minister, a Kach loyalist previously indicted on multiple counts of incitement and anti-Arab racism. Before he joined the current ruling coalition, this minister openly displayed a photograph of the Purim murderer in his living room. Since his rise to power, boundaries have further blurred between settlers and soldiers in the West Bank.

The gunman’s own inspirations for the 1994 massacre were undeniably Jewish. Before leaving for the Ibrahimi Mosque, he listened to the same Megillah as I did further north on Hebron Road. Until that day I never paid too much attention to what follows the downfall of the infamous Amalekite descendant whose name we love to drown out. But after the 1994 Purim massacre, it is chilling to face the particulars of Esther 9.

The chapter emphasizes Mordechai’s meteoric ascent into political power and the great fear that this engenders among the masses of non-Jews. “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.” (9:5) The first 500 deaths, including the ten sons of Haman, are reported to the king.

Esther then asks that the bodies of Haman’s sons be publicly desecrated—even though they are never directly implicated in their father’s evil—and that the general bloodshed be extended to a second day. This time 300 men are slain in the capitol city. The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes….” (9:16)

It is not difficult to see how passages like these have emboldened contemporary Jews intent upon incitement and violence. Last year on Purim, what a top Israeli general described as an anti-Palestinian “pogrom” was celebrated by both settlers and soldiers in the West Bank town of Huwara. One of the instigators of the Huwara violence has now been sanctioned by the United States. Last Purim also brought the publication of survey findings that ten percent of Israeli Jews still consider the 1994 mass murderer to be a national hero.

Now more than ever, we need to realize that any minimizing or justification of Jewish terrorism only serves to minimize and justify anti-Jewish terrorism. Even Israel’s representative at the International Court of Justice voted with the majority “to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip,” as well as to enable the provision of humanitarian aid.

To rephrase an immortal parody: we have met Amalek, and he is us. On this 30th anniversary of the massacre, how can those of us who observe the Sabbath of Remembrance and Purim stand responsibly against the scourge of growing violence and hatred—especially at a time of open-ended war? Summarizing the findings of this three-part series, here are a few suggestions for consideration:

    • Reclaim the moral ambiguities of the original Hebrew commandment to “Remember what Amalek did to you” that have been obscured by English translations. Learn and share the rabbinic teachings of Hizkuni and Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev—neither of them strangers to European antisemitism—on subduing the Amalek within ourselves. 
    • Acknowledge the hazards of biblical accounts of extermination in an era of Jewish sovereignty and heightened extremism. Learn and share the rabbinic teachings of BT Yoma 22b and Israel Prize laureate Moshe Greenberg z”l—who warned shortly after the 1994 Purim massacre that

…the new empowerment of Israel stirs atavistic longings to act out what existed throughout all of Jewish history (and, on the scale depicted in the Bible, in its time as well) only in the imagination…. Jews, a people massacred systematically on the basis of an ideology that justified genocide, cannot regard as timeless torah an ideological legitimation of mass killing.

    • With explanatory introductions on the Sabbath of Remembrance and Purim, respectively, designate verses of First Samuel 15 and Esther 9 to be chanted in an undertone. This is a Torah reading tradition most commonly practiced when chanting extended passages of curses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Bringing this tradition to war passages of extermination offers us a time-honored Jewish way to highlight cautionary tales—and to commemorate the Purim massacre as we face our own shadow sides.

The Purim tradition of Ad lo yada is a state of not knowing the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. It is most familiar as a pretext for Purim intoxication (whose shadow side will be addressed in a later essay). Yet Ad lo yada also suggests a sobering—and sacred—disorientation: we can never be too sure of our own righteousness. In a world of hatred, each of us created in the image of God faces our own daily choices between dehumanization and redemption.

May we choose wisely, with full awareness of how much life is at stake.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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