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.

But the real problem with typological thinking about history is that it is not historical thinking at all. It is ahistorical thinking. It obscures and obliterates all the differences between historical circumstances in favor of a gross, immutable, edifying similarity. It is an insufficiently worldly way to judge the world. For this reason, such thinking was overthrown in the modern period by Jews who decided that their myths would not ameliorate their misery; that there was not only one question and only one answer; that the entire universe was not their enemy and their enemy was not the entire universe; that the historical differences mattered as much as the historical similarities, because a change in history, progress, normality, tranquillity, was possible; that historical agency required historical thinking, that is, concrete thinking, empirical thinking, practical thinking, secular thinking. All these notions amounted to a revolution in the Jewish spirit, without which the Jewish national movement and the Jewish state could not have been brought into being. A historiosophy is not a strategy. The Jews taught themselves to attend not only to their fates, but also to their interests. That is to say, they taught themselves no longer to regard themselves as the last Jews. The lesson was called Zionism. The last Jews have nothing to do but fight or die; but Zionism has more to do. Israel was not created to destroy Amalek. Israel was created to deny Amalek.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus