by Peter Beinart. March 2023
I wanted to talk about the events in the West Bank about a week after what happened at [the village of] Huwara. And what I want to suggest is that understanding that event in context requires us to recognize that what we need is . . . not a revolution against Benjamin Netanyahu to save democracy for Jews, but a revolution for legal equality rather than Jewish supremacy. But that deeply connected to that, for those of us who are Jewish, is a kind of revolution inside Judaism itself. Not a revolution in terms of halacha, Jewish law, Jewish practice, but a revolution about the notion of the Jewish potential for evil, to take moral responsibilities for our capacities to do evil. And I think there is something fundamentally broken, something fundamentally wrong, in the way that many, many Jews around the world, Jewish institutions, think about Judaism that erases our capacity for evil and prevents us from fighting it.
I want to start with the words that you may have already heard, the words of Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, who—G-d help us—is also in charge of civil administration in the West Bank. He responded to the Huwara attack by saying that the village should be “wiped out.” Now, I don’t think it is coincidental, if you understand Jewish history, that his comments came so close to the holiday of Purim, which will start on Monday night and go into Tuesday, and to the Shabbat that proceeds Purim every year, which is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of memory, because those words “wipe out” are very reminiscent of the language that runs through those holidays.
So, on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat that always precedes Purim, traditional Jews read a section of the Book of Deuteronomy, which instructs us to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Well, who or what is Amalek? The Amalekites, in the Book of Exodus and then again later described in the Book of Deuteronomy, are a tribe that attacked the children of Israel in the desert after they had left Egypt. And they were so evil in the way they did it—and there’s debates by commentators about what it was that made them so evil—that they become a kind of symbol of internal, transcendent evil, and which plays out throughout Jewish texts.
So, in the Haftarah, in the section of the prophetic books that Jews read on Shabbat Zachor just before Purim, we read of the story of King Saul, who’s instructed by the Prophet Samuel to destroy all of the Amalekites of that time in the Book of Samuel, and Saul does not fulfill this command fully enough. He kills all the people, but he leaves the flocks, and he doesn’t kill the Amalekite King, King Agag, and therefore forfeits his kingship because he has defied G-d. And in the period before King Agag is then killed by the Prophet Samuel, according to Jewish tradition, Agag is somehow able to create descendants. And among those descendants is Haman, who is the villain of the Book of Esther that Jews read on Purim. And in the Book of Esther near the end in chapter eight—and, again, notice the similarity of the language here—after the Persian King Ahasuerus has turned his favor from the villain Haman to the Jewish hero Mordecai, the text writes: “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives. If any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” And then, in chapter nine, we read, in fact, that the Jews in this story killed 75,000 of their enemies, of Haman’s people. And actually, by the time this happens, the Jews were not actually really in any danger from Haman’s people, if you read the text carefully.
So you have this tradition of the idea that there is an eternal evil represented by Amalek, which Jews are commanded to wipe out, to destroy, and this has particularly historically been activated on and around Purim. So, for instance, Baruch Goldstein—the settler from Brooklyn who in 1994 walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Ibrahimi Mosque, and massacred 29 Muslims who were at prayer—did it on Purim, which was not coincidental. The settler leader Hanan Porat, when he was asked about Goldstein’s massacre, was said to have replied, “Happy Purim.” You may know that Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s public security minister had for many years hung a picture of Goldstein in his home.
Purim has historically been a time of Jewish violence because it is a time in which Jews are instructed to destroy the Amalekites. Now, it’s important to say that many, many Jewish commentators, including Maimonides and others, have said that we do not know who the Amalekites are, that we cannot identify the Amalekites with any living group of people. And that was an effort to kind of blunt the force of this exterminationist text in Jewish history. But if you look at what’s happened today, you see, in fact, that there are Jews in Israel-Palestine who are interpreting these texts in very literal ways. And not just in Israel-Palestine but across the Jewish world. And what has happened is that these texts, which are exterminationist, if you read them in what Jews call “peshat,” the plain reading of the text, were a kind of, you could say, gun that was sitting there in Jewish tradition. The commentators tried to defang them to some degree, but also Jews did not have power. Jews didn’t have armies and militaries. In some sense, even if you read them as plain texts of vengeance and extermination, they weren’t that dangerous. But once you have a Jewish state—not just a Jewish state, but a Jewish supremacist state, a state that gives Jews legal supremacy over Palestinians, a state that’s born with a mass expulsion of Palestinians—these texts become far, far more dangerous.
I’m not by any means claiming that all Jews or all Orthodox Jews equate the figure of Amalekites with Palestinians or other supposed enemies of the Jewish people. But this tradition is very, very much alive among the kind of people who—if you may have seen the horrifying pictures of people davening Ma’ariv, saying the evening prayer, as Huwara was burning around them, the village they had set in flames. So, this is a rabbi named Dovid Katz. He’s a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore. I actually listen to his podcast sometimes because actually he’s very deeply learned in Jewish texts and often has quite interesting insights into the weekly Torah portion and other things. This was his commentary on the Haftarah of Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, the reading for the Book of Samuel about Saul and King Agog and the Amalekites. He says, “based on the perspective of the year 2023, when we have Bedouins in Israel in the Negev settling down and taking over the country, that’s how I understand it”—meaning how he understands the Book of Samuel. “The Amalekites are moving in and while we’re fighting the P’lishtim”—by which he means the Palestinians—“which is a fight, no question about it, you’re going to lose the whole south, OK, because that’s who Amalek is. They’re moving in slowly but surely”—by that he means the Bedouins who are Amalekites— “and they’re just settling down and taking over areas, and there’s no way to deal with them, and they’ll never stop and they hate you anyway because that goes back to Amalek.” And then he later says, “the command by G-d is to go Old Testament on them.” [Since this newsletter was initially published, Rabbi Dovid Katz has clarified that he’s “not equating that [the story of Saul and the Amalekites] with the current situation in Israel . . . We don’t say that because King Saul or Joshua or any of those people you know went Old Testament thousands of years (ago) that we do that today because we do not.”]
Something has been unleashed by the creation of the state of Israel, which has created the power and also the religious fervor and the Jewish supremacist racism to take these texts, which are profoundly dangerous—and actually many commentators recognize and try to explain away that they will become less dangerous—to take them literally, especially because Jews are now in power in this territory in what Jews call the land of Israel, and then act on them. And this tendency, again, which is blatantly exterminationist, must be fought militantly by all Jews around the world. The problem is that most Jews and most Jewish institutions are not really fighting it.
And the reason, I think, that we are not really fighting it is that for many, many, many other Jews in the world, not those who are taking these texts literally and using them to do and support horrible things, but the larger group of relatively more secular, liberal Jews in Israel or the United States, they don’t reckon with these texts at all. Because the way so many Jews have been taught to think about Judaism, and to think about Jewish history is the story of our victimization, right? So if you ask many American Jews, I think, about the story of Purim, they would say, “Oh yeah, I think I know that story. There was this bad guy Haman. He tried to kill the Jews, but the Jews survived.” And that’s kind of how the story of a lot of our holidays are, they would say. Like Passover too. In fact, there’s this joke which says that every Jewish holiday has the same plot. They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat. But this is a profound and very dangerous misreading, because what it does is it ignores the fact that our tradition is not just a story of victimization and of the evil done by others. Our story is very much also a story of the evil that Jews can do ourselves, and that must be acknowledged to be battled against. But Jewish institutions in the United States and around the world have created this narrative that essentially insulates us from this idea of the Jewish capacity for evil and almost suggests that Jews are not capable of that.
So, I’ll give you a couple of examples. Yossi Klein Halevi is a prominent Israeli American who made aliyah to Israel. He’s a prominent commentator, his politics are not mine, but he’s someone who I used to know personally, and is a lovely person kind of one-on-one, and to his credit, someone who was very deeply pained in the podcast conversation he did for the Hartman Institute by what happened in Huwara, as he should have been, of course. But one of the things that you see Klein Halevi say in the, in the conversation was that what happened in Huwara was “inconceivable.” And . . . he actually said it was the first kind of pogrom like this in Jewish history. But it’s not by any means the first, right? Israel was built on the expulsion of 750,000 people in 1948. There were other large-scale expulsions in 1967. If you read the history of what happened in 1947–1948, you see that there were many Huwaras: plunder, looting, killing of totally innocent civilians, rape—terrible, terrible things, not just by Zionist militias and the IDF, but by ordinary people under those conditions. So, we are not, we have never been, immune from this. But when you call it “inconceivable,” the implication is that somehow Jews don’t act like this.
Another example: Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a book recently called, It Can Happen Here. His point was, in the wake of Donald Trump, that something like Nazism could emerge in the United States. Americans are not immune. And I think he’s right. But if Jonathan Greenblatt had written a book called “It Can Happen There,” meaning that Nazism was possible in Israel-Palestine, not only would he have never written that book, but that book would actually be considered an example of antisemitism under the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA definition of antisemitism that the ADL is pushing quite successfully along with other establishment Jewish organizations, which has now been endorsed by the US government, many state governments in the US, many European governments. Because it says that it is an example of antisemitism to accuse the state of Israel of acting in a Nazi-like fashion. As if, somehow, Israel is immune. Americans could act in a Nazi-like fashion. Anybody else could. But Jews could not, right? Even in a country that holds millions of Palestinians without basic human rights, a country with blatantly, frankly, racist leaders, that any suggestion that Jews could have Nazi-like capacities—and remember the Nazis were in power for almost a decade before the Final Solution, so you could make comparisons to how the Nazis were behaving in 1933, 1934—but that’s antisemitic because Jews, unlike other peoples, are not capable of that.
And I think this is the moral revolution that we need inside Judaism to end this Jewish exceptionalism, which says somehow that Jews are not capable of these things, that what happened at Huwara, or what Bezalel Smotrich, or what Dovid Katz says is not Judaism. That’s not true. It is Judaism. It’s not all of Judaism, but it’s one part of Judaism. Just like there are terrible, horrible texts in traditions in Islam and Christianity, in every religion, this is part of Judaism just like beautiful, sublime celebrations of human dignity are part of Judaism. And the only way to fight it is first by acknowledging it. And then to try to take this conversation about Amalek, not to pretend these exterminationist texts aren’t there, but to acknowledge them, and then radically redefine them while recognizing that they can be sources of terrible, terrible violence and horror committed by Jews. And there are two ways that I would suggest. One—and this is not original to me, and has been suggested in past years, it was suggested after the Baruch Goldstein massacre, but I think particularly would be appropriate again today—is that Purim is a very festive, kind of carnival-like holiday, very joyous, and I think, especially after Huwara, to read these exterminationist texts in chapters eight and nine of the Book of Esther, in a festive way, with kids in costume shaking their groggers, and all dancing . . . there’s something profoundly wrong and dangerous about this.
By the way, one of the most dangerous days every year in Hebronfor Palestinians is Purim when the settlers get dressed up and drunk and attack Palestinians. But if we pretend that Huwara didn’t take place, that chapters eight and nine are not exterminationist texts, and just read it in this joyous way, I think we all are failing our moral responsibilities. What has been suggested is that for those parts of Megillah, we actually change to the trope of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, a book of mourning that we sing in a tone of mourning because it’s the holiday where we mourn the destruction of the Temple. To read these texts, we should not pretend they don’t exist. We should read them in the trope of Eicha in a tone of mourning, and then we should talk about them and engage with them, and figure out how we respond to them, and we respond to the people who are acting in this spirit.
And I want to end with an example, I think, of how to do that that I was lucky enough to hear just over Shabbat myself. And it’s a quote from Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, who was a prominent rabbi in the 18th and early 19th century, in his text, Kedushas Levi. And listen to how he reinterprets the figure of Amalek not as something out there, not as our enemies, not as G-d forbid the Palestinians, but the Amalek inside of us. Levi Yitzchok says, “Every person in Israel needs to erase the evil part that is concealed in one’s heart, that is known by the name Amalek.” That Amalek is within us as Jews. Of course, it’s within other people as well. It’s within all people, within all religious traditions, but especially now in the wake of Huwara, with virtually exterminationist figures like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir in power, in the shadow of a of a Jewish supremacist state, created through an act of mass expulsion, which has the capacity to do that again, we need to talk about Amalek. We need to challenge the way these texts are used, and we need to invert them by saying that if we are to blot out, to wipe out Amalek, that means blotting out, it means wiping out, it means fighting against not Palestinians, but the evil inside ourselves.