Hitler Is Dead

The case against Jewish ethnic panic.

BY: Leon Wieseltier


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Call me a simple soul, but it could surprise me. The Jews that I see gathered in Times Square are howling at Nazis in Mel Brooks's kick lines. Hentoff's fantasy is grotesque: There is nothing, nothing, in the politics, the society, or the culture of the United States that can support such a ghastly premonition. His insecurity is purely recreational. But the conflation of the Palestinians with the Nazis is only slightly less grotesque. The murder of 28 Jews in Netanya was a crime that fully warranted the Israeli destruction of the terrorist base in the refugee camp at Jenin, but it was not in any deep way like Kristallnacht. Solidarity must not come at the cost of clarity. Only a fool could believe that the Passover massacre was a prelude to the extermination of the Jews of Israel; a fool, or a person with a particular point of view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you think that the Passover massacre was like Kristallnacht, then you must also think that there cannot be a political solution to the conflict, and that the Palestinians have no legitimate rights or legitimate claims upon any part of the land, and that there must never be a Palestinian state, and that force is all that will ever avail Israel. You might also think that Jordan is the Palestinian state and that the Palestinians should find their wretched way there. After all, a "peace process" with the Third Reich was impossible. (Even if Chaim Weizmann once declared, about his willingness to enter into negotiations with Nazi officials, that he would negotiate with the devil if it would save Jews.) So the analogy between the Passover massacre and Kristallnacht is not really a historical argument. It is a political argument disguised as a historical argument. It is designed to paralyze thought and to paralyze diplomacy.

All violence is not like all other violence. Every Jewish death is not like every other Jewish death. To believe otherwise is to revive the old typological thinking about Jewish history, according to which every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war. This typological thinking defined the historical outlook of the Jews for many centuries. It begins, of course, with the Amalekites, the nomadic tribe in the Sinai desert that attacked the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt. "The Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.... Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it." From generation to generation: An adversarial role, a diabolical role, was created in perpetuity. And so Amalek became Haman (who actually was an Amalekite), who became the Romans, who became the Crusaders, who became Chmielnicki, who became Petlura, who became Hitler, who became Arafat. The mythifying habit is ubiquitous in the literature of the Jews. In some instances, it must not have seemed like mythifying at all. "A tale that began with Amalek," wrote the Yiddish poet Yitzhak Katznelson in the concluding lines of "The Song of the Murdered Jewish People" in 1944, not long before he died at Auschwitz, "and ended with the crueler Germans...."

But it is mythifying, and the habit is back; and so a number of things need to be said about Amalek, and about the Amalekization of the present enemy. For a start, the prescription of an eternal war with Amalek was a prescription for the Jews to be cruel. Here is Rashi's brutal gloss, in the eleventh century in France, on the commandment to "blot out the remembrance": "Every man and every woman, every babe and every suckling, every ox and every sheep. The memory of Amalek cannot be said to survive even in an animal, such that someone could say, `This animal once belonged to an Amalekite.'" This extreme of heartlessness was responsible for the most chilling sentence uttered by an Israelite in the Bible: "What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" That was what Samuel furiously demanded to know of the poignantly human Saul, the king who could not bring himself to slaughter his enemy completely. So if Amalek is waging a war of extermination against the Jews, the Jews are waging a war of extermination against Amalek. It was perhaps this pitilessness against which some (but certainly not all) medieval and early modern Jewish intellectuals revolted, when they wondered about the precise identity of Amalek in their own day, and proposed various kinds of symbolic action that would allow Jews to acquit themselves of the law about the erasure of the enemy, and deferred the application of the law to the messianic age. I wish also to record an extraordinary comment by Isaac Abarbanel, the thinker and statesman who failed to persuade the king and the queen of Spain to revoke the edict of expulsion in 1492 and promptly fled to Naples. The sin of the Amalekites, he explained, was that their aggression against the Israelites was groundless: "Amalek attacked them without reason.... For the Israelites possessed no land that the Amalekites coveted." It would appear that there is no place for Abarbanel in the Likud. For his implication is decidedly a moderate one. If the Israelites had possessed land that the Amalekites coveted, then this would not have been a war to the end of time. It would have been an ordinary war, a war that can be terminated in a peace.

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