Elchanan Poupko

The Amalek blood libel 

The biblical story of the slaughter of innocents always has always stood as a mandate to remember and not a call for revenge
Judges hear South Africa Vs. Israel case in the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Photo from the court's multimedia gallery

Africa’s libelous and preposterous claims against Israel in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, one stands out to those with a religious and historical consciousness. The repeated quotes of Israelis referring to Hamas terrorists as Amalek are being cynically used as proof Israel was seeking a full and complete genocide of the Palestinians, based on the Biblical commandment to kill all of Amalek. This accusation turns a blind eye to the use of this term for more than two thousand years, especially since the time of the Holocaust. Even in the Bible itself, the use of the term Amalek is used primarily to implore us to remember, with no call to violence whatsoever.

We rabbis have a stronger say on this than anyone because we have all of the receipts. Every year, every Jew is obligated to come to synagogue and listen to the reading of the story of Amalek. The Sabbath Jews read the Biblical accounts of Amalek (in the book of Deuteronomy and the book of Samuel) is called “Shabbat Zachor-Sabbath of remembrance. I reflect on my own published sermon I delivered on that Sabbath in which I, too, invoked the memory of the story of Amalek and the Holocaust:

“While the Jewish people seldom have, if ever, engaged in acts of revenge, we have fervently engaged in memory. Zachor. We take the commandment to remember and the sanctity of the lives lost as means to consecrate the lives we are living.”

I am not the only one to have done this.

For centuries, rabbis around the world get up on Shabbat Zachor and speak about memory, never about violence. Not once in the past 2000 years of Jewish history – and that is a vast record to draw on – was the Biblical account of Amalek used to evoke revenge. It was always used to evoke memory. The imperative to remember the unprovoked atrocities committed against our own innocent communities.

The name of Amalek was invoked to remind us of the ubiquitous nature of antisemitism, the only hate in the world directed against people who are unknown to those seething with hate for us. People like the Houthis in Yemen who never saw a Jew in their life, yet are determined to destroy the Jewish state; Nazis in Germany who traveled hundreds of miles away from home to kill Jews in Belarus, Lithuania, Hungary, and Morocco even though they had never seen or known much about those Jews, that is the kind of evil we speak about when invoking the memory of Amalek.

In our generation, when speaking about that kind of senseless hate, we speak about the Hamas terrorists who woke up on the morning of October 7th and were willing to gable away their lives and futures to murder and burn alive people like Canadian peace activist Vivian Silver, someone who spent her life driving Palestinians from Gaza to medical appointments in Israel’s best hospitals. We invoke the memory of Amalek when we encounter something so evil it defies any logical explanation.

It is appalling to see how many people rushed to the Bible to judge Israel’s use of the memory of Amalek before looking at its use for the past 2000 years, most notably during the Holocaust.

While Germany starved to death and killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews secretly published a newsletter called Kol Hamidbar in which the emaciated Jews wrote: “Many nations waged war against the Jews and did bad unto them, but Amalek, that is something absolutely different. Amalek put the destruction of Jews as a goal, a program, a method; premeditated, in cold blood, sadistically, according to a plan, organized, and with laws… Amalek and their grandson Haman are not satisfied with the killing of individual Jews…they would like to destroy the entire nation and eliminate Judaism.”

These words ring powerfully to any Jew who has seen what Hamas terrorists did on October 7th. The senseless hate that defies any logic or pattern of human conflict is simply unexplainable. The kidnapping of grandmothers from their homes and burning of babies and little girls alive with no reason whatsoever has no other language.

Jews invoke this language of Amalek when we encounter the world’s oldest hate, acted on with cruelty no human can explain. Jews have done so countless times while remembering the Holocaust and also did so while seeing the evils of Hamas on October 7th.

Like Jews after the Holocaust, the memory of Amalek’s unforgivable horrors reminds us of the need to take action. How does that action look? Years ago, speaking to congregants in synagogue, here is what I said as I spoke of the story of Amalek, and I was not the only one:

The greatest heed to the call ‘Yidden, Nekama – Jews, Revenge’ inscribed in blood in Slabodka, Lithuania, is not going back to that town and place or to those perpetrators; it is that there are today thousands of students in Israel learning in Yeshivas named Slabodka. It is that we are undeterred in leading proud Jewish lives, laser-focused on the future while refusing to forget the past.”

Jewish revenge never looks like the acts of our enemies. We never follow in the inhumane footsteps of those who committed the unthinkable against us. This is true also concerning the horrors of October 7th.

If you would like to look for revenge for the unthinkable crimes Hamas committed against the people of Israel on October 7th, do not look to the IDF’s operation in Gaza. In that operation, they are rooting out Hamas infrastructure and dismantling the kingdom of terror Hamas has built in Gaza, seeking to bring back safety for everyone. The revenge for the horrors of October 7th can be found in Israel’s soup kitchens and shelters, where countless acts of kindness spurred by October 7th are taking place. You can go to Israel’s synagogues and see how many babies have been named Oz and Be’eri since then, memorializing the heroism and loss of Kibbutz Nir Oz and Be’eri.

If you would like to see how Jews respond to October 7th, you must go to the plowed and sowed fields around Kibbutz Be’eri or see the tens of thousands of Israelis who volunteered to harvest the produce in Kibbutzs and farms whose population was not able to do so because they have been called up to the armed reserves. If you would like to see the Jewish response to the Amalek-styled attack of October 7th, see the various websites, social media posts, and, yes, future museums that will memorialize the beautiful lives that were cut short on that horrific day.

If you would like to see the Jewish “revenge” for October 7th, see the countless Torah scrolls being written for our synagogues in memory of those victims. That is how we Jews take “revenge.” We commit ourselves to memory and build a better future. Our response to October 7th is the many couples who decided love will win and they will get married even while rockets are raining down from Hezbollah in the North, Hamas in the West, and the Houthis from the South. They are getting married, building homes, and believing in a peaceful future no matter how tumultuous the region they live in may be.

South Africa and other bad faith or ignorant actors’ misuse and misinterpretation of Jewish references to Amalek will not change reality, nor should it prevent Jews from continuing to use it when appropriate. We use the term Amalek when speaking of the unexplainable hate that brings those infected with the hate of antisemitism to the extent that they will kill our innocent brothers and sisters with blind hatred. Despite being invoked countless times, not once in the past 2500 years was the term Amalek used as a call for genocide or violence against anyone. Those who accuse Israel of genocidal intent for mentions of the Amalek narrative ignore centuries of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Holocaust history, and the use of the term Amalek by Jews baffled by the senseless hate antisemites can exercise. We will remember the senseless hate of Amalek when we left Egypt, we will remember the actions of the German Amalekites in Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno, Budapest, and everywhere else they mercilessly killed innocent Jewish children with merciless hate, and we will remember the senseless Amalekite hate Hamas terrorists showed on October 7th when they burned our children alive, kidnapped our grandmothers, tortured fathers and mothers, and inflicted unthinkable pain on a nation that has suffered too much. Invoking the memory of Amalek is not a call to action but a call to remembrance. Zachor Al Tishkach – remember, do not forget.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
Related Topics
Related Posts