‘You must not forget what Amalek you has done, says our Holy Bible. We remember that and we fight!’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this during a press conference about the starting ground offensive in Gaza. He added that the Israeli soldiers invading Gaza today are part of a tradition dating back to ‘Joshua ben Nun’. What does Netanyahu mean by that?
According to the Bible, thousands of years ago a weak, wandering Israel was attacked without provocation by the cruel Amalek. Under the leadership of Joshua ben Nun, the Amalekites were defeated and Israel continued its journey to the promised land. Later, Yahweh admonished his people never to forget what Amalek did.
That is what Netanyahu referred to in his speech. He compared Hamas’ war crimes on October 7 to the Amalekites’ attack thousands of years ago. What Hamas did should never be forgotten.
What Netanyahu did not say, but which everyone who knows the Bible immediately thinks of, is chilling. After Yahweh’s admonition never to forget Amalek’s crimes, he added that Israel must “destroy Amalek, so that later no one will know that Amalek existed.” Later, Yahweh makes his retaliation even more explicit: ‘Go now and destroy Amalek. Kill everything and everyone: men and women, children and babies, cows and sheep, camels and donkeys.’
When Netanyahu compares the Palestinians to Amalek, this is the unspoken context. The implication is that not only Hamas soldiers, but also all Palestinian women, children and babies are to die. Although Netanyahu emphasized again in his speech that Israel’s only goal is to destroy Hamas, his rhetoric is still dangerous because it suggests much more than that. Especially when you know that three-quarters of Israeli Jews indicated in a survey that the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza should not be taken into account, or only a little, in the conduct of war.
Amalek as inner enemy
However, there is a long tradition within Judaism that nonviolently reinterprets the passages about Amalek in the present. Chabad, for example, one of the largest Jewish Orthodox movements in the world, argues that Amalek is an enemy within today: “That little voice inside each of us that mocks, belittles, and attacks truth and goodness; our irrational tendency to mock those who act morally, to be cynical when we see altruism, to doubt our own sincerity or that of others—these are the Amalekites of today.”
Yet after the Six-Day War in 1967, Jewish extremists began calling the Palestinians the modern Amalek. Among them Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 praying Palestinians in 1994 and is today a hero of the Israeli far right. In 1980, Rabbi Israel Hess published the article Genocide. A commandment in the Torahin which he also compares the Palestinians to Amalek and ends with the ominous words: “The day will come when we will all be called upon to fulfill the commandment of the divinely ordained war to destroy Amalek.”
That day has now come, Netanyahu seems to suggest. And not just him. MK Galit Distel-Atbaryan wrote: ‘Gaza must be exterminated.’ Minister Amihai Eliyahu said: ‘There are no non-combatants in Gaza (…) a nuclear bomb is an option.’ MK Tally Gotliv wrote: ‘A doomsday weapon (…) Flattening Gaza without mercy.’
Fortunately, those voices also face serious opposition in Israel, because their rhetoric approaches the level of that of Hamas. Although the Hamas charter has not explicitly mentioned the destruction of Israel since 2017, spokesman Ghazi Hamad recently stated that the attacks of October 7 would be repeated until Israel is completely destroyed. And Hamas scholar Saleh al-Raqab recently led a prayer: ‘O Allah, destroy the Jews completely.’
Abuse of religion
Both extremist Israelis and extremist Palestinians dare to use their religious traditions for genocidal rhetoric. Hamas dresses its terrorist resistance struggle in jihadist terms while Netanyahu mythologizes his war crimes with references to the Torah. And yet, as mentioned, those religious traditions also have peaceful interpretations of their texts. The inner Amalekite. The inner jihad.
It is questionable how sincerely religious Netanyahu is. He probably abuses his religion for political purposes. However, a call for genocide – religious or political – is absolutely reprehensible. Hamas’ actions on October 7 were an attempt to make good on their genocidal rhetoric. Now it is Netanyahu’s turn and the question is whether he believes in his rhetoric. He is obviously not out to kill every Palestinian, but the international definition of genocide does not set the bar that high.
It is sufficient to want to kill, injure or subject part of the targeted group to inhuman conditions on the basis of their nationality. And if intent is judged by action, then Israel appears to be targeting more than just Hamas. The excuse that Hamas uses civilians as human shields does not justify the thousands of civilian casualties. That is why both the UN and almost 900 experts in international law, conflict and genocide studies are warning of a genocide in the making in Gaza.
Just as Hamas’s genocidal rhetoric must be countered by Muslim scholars and Arab states, it is up to Jewish religious leaders to condemn Netanyahu for his abuse of the Torah, to Israeli politicians to reject his rhetoric and keep the war proportionate, and to allied powers to hold him accountable under international treaties.