City of Brass

City of Brass

Iran as Amalek: Netanyahu pulls an Ahmadinejad

The threat is painted in stark terms: a rogue nation, flouting international law and human rights of its minorities, with nuclear capability, led by an ultra-nationalist leader who invokes religious symbolism and who makes existential threats against its regional neighbor, tapping into deep racial and religious paranoias. Iran? yes, – but Israel is following close behind:

It is true that Mr. Netanyahu would prefer to avoid hard decisions concerning the Palestinian issue, for reasons both political (he is not, let us say, sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian self-determination) and strategic (he believes the Palestinians, divided and dysfunctional, their extremists firmly in the Iranian camp, are unready for compromise).


Nevertheless, the prime minister’s preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear program seems sincere and deeply felt. I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

This is an astonishing statement. To understand what Amalek signifies, see Jonathan Edelstein’s landmark essay at his (now on hiatus) blog The Head Heeb about the parallels between Amalek and Jihad (reprinted with his permission). Much like jihad, Amalek’s nuances can be interpreted widely, from liberal struggle against evil to outright violent war. But in the context of how Netanyahu is invoking it, there is no doubt by what he means: Iran, as Amalek, is the implacable enemy of the Jewish people, and therefore Israel is bound by God’s command to seek Iran’s total destruction.


Netanyahu is a politician first and foremost – I personally doubt he really has the will to publically advocate genocide. But what he is doing – exactly as Ahmadinejad has done – is to emply the most inflammatory possibly religious symbolism in achieving a political end. Just as Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric against Israel incites the more extreme elements and fosters an atmosphere of hate, so too will Netanyahu’s statement about Amalek be taken to heart. Ironicially, Netanyahu has long clamored that Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel should be taken at face value, though he expects his own statements to be seen through a political lens. As Jeffrey Goldberg describes him, Netanyahu has earned a reputation for “conspicuous insincerity.” What Netanyahu has done by invoking Amalek is to peer across the void and imitate the very thing he claims to be against.


The truth is that Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu are brothers, in need of each other to further their political fortunes. They deserve each other, but the people of Iran and Israel alike deserve better. Unfortunately, the people of Israel have made their choice in choosing Netanyahu; hopefully the people of Iran will choose more wisely in the Iranian elections in less than three weeks. If the Iranians choose a refomist like Mir-Hossein Mousavi (who was endorsed by former reformist president Mohammad Khatami), then Iran and Israel will have, in a strange fashion, switched places. Fundamentally, then, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapon tecchnologic capability has indeed become a true matter of Iranian security their only bulwark against eliminationist rhetoric from an implacable enemy – who already possesses the nuclear threat.


Naturally, Obama’s position that Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons under any circumstances amounts to a double standard; especially since the various Arab states are also seeking the same nuclear technology as well. It’s too late for non-proliferation – the simple truth is that there already is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East – and Israel’s security from full-scale attack by virtue of its possession has proved that nukes work as an effective deterrent. The Arab states and Iran have every right to pursue the technology for their own defense, not just from each other but also against Israeli aggression which has increased steadily over the past few years, including the Lebanon war in 2006, airstrikes on Syria in 2007, and the Gaza war in 2008.


Related: Daniel Luban writes more about the implications of Amalek at Jim Lobe’s blog for the IPS News Agency. It should be noted that Ahmadinejad’s supposed statement about “wiping Israel off the map” were mis-translated. Arguably, Netanyahu’s equating of Iran as Amalek represents a more genuine threat than what Ahmadinejad has said.

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Mike C

posted May 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Comparisons between Iran and Amalek are beyond ridiculous. Persia was one of the most revered foreign powers in Hebrew scripture and had nothing to do with the Amalekites. This is the empire that was founded by Cyrus the Great. He and his successors, Darius the Great, Xerxes (Ahasherus) and Darius II encouraged and facilitated the reconstruction of the Jewish state after the first diaspora, and donated to the building of the second temple.
That Persia has recently become an enemy towards the second reconstruction of Israel is ironic and unfortunate. However, to cast them as our eternal enemies is imprudent in addition to theologically and historically incorrect. We must not forget the good that Persia extended towards us in the Past, and decry their current calls for genocide rather than mirror them in their hatred.

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Kevin Kennedy

posted May 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Mr. Poonawalla acts as if Netanyahu said the words “Think Amalek”, then ascribes to those words a most extreme interpretation, i.e., “But in the context of how Netanyahu is invoking it, there is no doubt by what he means: Iran, as Amalek, is the implacable enemy of the Jewish people, and therefore Israel is bound by God’s command to seek Iran’s total destruction.” (Fareed Zakaria has gone even further in making this association.) However, read the quote again. Netanyahu didn’t say those words. Moreover, if you read the entire New York Times column from which that passage is taken, you will see that Netanyahu has nothing whatsoever in mind like this extreme view of “what Amalek signifies.” Mr. Poonawalla is utterly irresponsible in this blog post.

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