"A morte de Agag" by Gustave Doré depicts the moment before the beheading of Agag, an Amalekite king, in I Samuel.
"A morte de Agag" by Gustave Doré depicts the moment before the beheading of Agag, an Amalekite king, in I Samuel.

Comparing Hamas to Amalek, our biblical nemesis, will ultimately hurt Israel

On the evening of Oct. 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his country. Among other points, he made an argument for the war in Gaza, positioning Hamas as an iteration of the biblical Amalek. Netanyahu quoted Deuteronomy 25:17, “You must remember what Amalek did to you.”

However, Deuteronomy 25:19 continues: “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Never forget!” The Hebrew Bible later calls for the killing of the entire — and profoundly antisemitic — nation of Amalek, as well as its animals, in I Samuel.

Although Netanyahu referenced only Deuteronomy 25:17, positioning Hamas as akin to Amalek — even if undertaken rhetorically — is tactically, strategically and morally wrong-headed. The prime minister’s words are read closely and taken seriously in diverse quarters.

Netanyahu’s words can be read or, better put, misread as intended to ground and justify Jewish “holy war” in Gaza. In recent days, publications in places such as Turkey, India, the U.S. and Bosnia and Herzegovina did just that.

Netanyahu and so many of us regard the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7 as evil. However, to invoke Amalek in such a way and without elucidation now is not appropriate.

Hamas is not Amalek. Hamas is an Islamist movement, an offshoot of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Further, Hamas is a recognized terrorist organization willing to intentionally perpetrate violence against civilians.

Within the biblical text, God commands the Israelites to regard the hateful Amalekites as the ultimate mortal enemy whose annihilation they must seek for eternity. The State of Israel shouldn’t wish to be portrayed in the same way. The word in contemporary parlance for what the ancient text commands is “genocide.”

Israel is already being wrongly accused of genocide. In the history of biblical interpretation, rabbis rendered Amalek metaphorically rather than literally — as external existential threats in the ongoing life of the Jewish people, including the Romans, the Nazis, the Stalinists and others.

Public argumentation by Israeli leaders referring to biblical sources has the potential to be misunderstood by secular media outlets and audiences.

In other contexts, rabbis positioned Amalek as an internal, psychological evil that needed to be vanquished within each individual. Many contemporary rabbis, following the lead of Jewish leaders of prior generations, consider the mitzvah to destroy Amalek obsolete.

The events of Oct. 7 call for intentional language from leadership that both testifies to the horror of the massacres of that day and motivates people to take appropriate action. The pursuit of justice for victims and their families, the return of hostages, and the enabling of a better way for Israel to exist side by side with Gaza and its other neighbors would all be worthy, possible aims.

In a time when his political position is shaky, Netanyahu’s invocation of Amalek tapped into the narrative power of a dog whistle, emotionally motivating members of his religious base to action in a moment of (justifiable) pain and anger at the recent actions of Israel’s enemies.

His linguistic choice is cynical, manipulative and dangerous in a time of war when many people worldwide are listening to his words and — wrongly, to be clear — now adding this data point to their ammunition in allegations that Israel is committing genocide.

Netanyahu is a political authority, not a religious leader. Managing hostilities in an ongoing war does not necessitate giving a D’var Torah. Furthermore, public argumentation by Israeli leaders referring to biblical sources has the potential to be misunderstood by secular media outlets and audiences. The stakes for proper word choice are high.

As a Jew, as a citizen of a country that supports Israel and as a human who yearns for the wellbeing of Israelis and Palestinians, I hope the prime minister will clarify the goals of this war. In the beginning of the Oct. 28 speech, he said the goals are “destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, and bringing the captives back home.” Elsewhere, he speaks of “eradicating this evil.” Later, he refers to “destroying the murderous enemy and ensuring our existence in the land.”

Some of those goals appear at odds. Do Israel’s (and America’s) leaders know what the practical outcomes of each one will be?

Israel must be strategic in each and every component of its next steps. The State of Israel is not the ancient Israelites and Palestinians are not the Amalekites. Israel, like all countries, operates amid the reality of ongoing history — not amid a story. The state’s leaders do not have the privilege of forgetting this.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Joshua Krug

Joshua Krug is the Sommerfreund visiting professor of Jewish Studies at the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg, Germany. Between 2021 and 2023, he served as director of Jewish life and learning at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.