Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, January 29, 2024

Amalek, the original Antisemites

"Davidster" (Star of David) by Dick Stins is a Holocaust memorial in The Hague. The text at the side (in Dutch and Hebrew) is from Deuteronomy 25:17, 19 – "Remember what Amalek has done to you ... do not forget."


            I remember when most American Jews thought that antisemitism was a marginal problem in our day. In the 1960’s, we knew about the neo-Nazis and about the anti-Israel Leftists, but they were at the extremes of the political spectrum. Israel was reflexively hated in the Arab world and the Soviet bloc periodically turned up the heat on its unending antisemitism…. But we were hopeful that things would improve.  The Camp David accord of 1979, the peace with Jordan 15 years later…. The hopeful first year or so after the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians… we thought that those were the dots that we could connect.
            Now, that seems like a lifetime ago.
            Who would have thought that in the USA, both Right- and Left- wing voices would dare to say that the October 7 massacre of Israelis was not what we should be thinking about, but only Israel’s response to it? Who would have thought that in America…. Not the Arab world…. Some would actually justify the brutal large-scale murder, rape and kidnapping spree as so-called “resistance” to Zionism?

            To me, it feels as if we are in a reprise of Germany after Kristallnacht, or the attacks on Jewish communities in Ukraine from Reds, Whites, and Poles in the many-sided Civil War after World War I, Tsarist Russia after the Kishinev Pogrom, or the Ottoman Empire after the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840… Open violence against Jews, at a time when we had dared to think that such violence was a relic of pre-modern times, and too much of the world either stands idly by, or loses interest in aiding Jews long before the threat has even begun to abate.

Battle with the Amalekites, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860), representing Exodus 17:8–16.
            This past Shabbat, the Torah introduced us to the hereditary enemy of the people Israel, the nation of Amalek.  In the classic narrative of our national origins, we learn that they committed an unprovoked attack upon us as we were leaving Egyptian slavery.  
            “Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua: Pick some men for us and go out and do battle with Amalek… Joshua weakened the Amalekites in battle.” (Exodus 17: 8-9, 13).
            Unlike the boastful propaganda of the Pharaohs, the Bible reports truthfully when Israel failed to win a total victory.  Note that Joshua forced the Amalekites to withdraw but did not end their threat. The conclusion of this passage acknowledges, soberly, that there would be conflict with Amalek “from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16).
            Today, all of this feels not only prescient, but terrifyingly relevant. 
            On Oct 7, the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, committed the worst atrocity against Israel in our homeland’s modern history.  In one day, they murdered 1200 Israelis and kidnapped 240 others. In response, Israel declared war on Hamas. It stated that its objective is to end the reign of terror that Hamas is exercising. 
            I fear that Israel will be as successful as Joshua, but not more…  that it will weaken Hamas, but that the hatred that fueled the success of Hamas in the first place will allow it, or its clone, to rise up from the rubble of Gaza and continue the cycle of murder and destruction from year to year, from generation to generation.


Illustration: Illustration from Phillip Medhurst Collection depicting Joshua fighting Amalek (Exodus 17).
            I hope that I am wrong, in having this fear. If Hamas endures, we will simply know that Amalek is alive and continuing its evil work, and that Hamas is its latest incarnation. But if it can be eliminated, and if the Palestinian citizens who now support it can come to realize that it does not represent any way forward for them, then at last the conditions for a better future, for both Palestinians and for Israelis, can at last be accomplished.