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Haman Is Dead

Against the Jewish belief in apocalypse

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Prime Minister Netanyahu Monday.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Given the beginning of the holiday tonight, you could have seen the Purim references coming—Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament did on Twitter—but something about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in his address Monday night made me uncomfortable. Here’s what he said:

This week, we will read how one woman changed Jewish history. In synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Purim. We will read how some 2,500 years ago, a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people. We will read how his plot was foiled by one courageous woman—Esther. In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people.

The last line, in particular, conjures the Amalekites, the historic enemies of the Jewish people. Haman, it was said, was an Amalekite. The Babylonians were Amalekites. And the Romans. And the Christians. And the Russians. And the Nazis. And on and on. But actually, only the Amalekites were the Amalekites, and the Jews took care of them, but good, and every year, on Purim, we read Parshat Zachor, which tells of God’s instruction that Saul spare not even the Amalekite animals—something I happen to know because it was the haftorah I read when I became a bar mitzvah (which, in turn, happens to have been 14 years ago today; also, my Hebrew name happens to be Mordecai; anyway).

Bibi also gave President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther.

There are two dangers in applying this thinking to contemporary events. One is general, one is specific, and both were laid out ably 10 years ago in Leon Wieseltier’s seminal essay “Hitler Is Dead.” The general problem is that believing all enemies to be the same enemy suffocates accurate strategic thought. As Wieseltier said in an interview yesterday, “The problem with typological thinking about history is that it is the opposite of the kind of thinking that is needed for threat assessment, which has to be a solely empirical activity. It has to be solely about evidence. You don’t want military planners to operate with theories of history.” The specific problem is that, as Wieseltier put it in his essay, “Israel was created to deny Amalek.”

“The Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon has to be respected,” Wieseltier argued. “But I think that whipping the Jewish community up into a frenzy about how this is the apocalypse is bad for a number of reasons.” Netanyahu, Wieseltier added, “wants to build American-Jewish support for a strike and congressional support. But his political base is founded on a great deal of apocalyptic thinking. It’s all about the sense of Jewish victimhood—that the entire world wants to destroy Israel.”

Citing an essay about the Jews called “An Ever-Dying People,” Wieseltier argued that among the state of Israel’s greatest triumphs is—or ought to be—a sense that Jews are no longer threatened anew, in every generation, by a new form of Amalek. “There is no question that there has been this attempt, since [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, really, to find Israeli experience continuous with diaspora experience in the sense of they’re still under attack.” Soldiers who fought in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, according to Wieseltier, “said they felt they were in the Warsaw Ghetto. Emotionally, it’s easy to understand the reality. On the other hand, they were representing a very powerful sovereign state. They had tanks. And they won the war.”

This is of course part of why it is so important for Israel to feel that it has the right to defend itself. As Netanyahu put it Monday, “We are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.” And this is why it was so important for President Obama to acknowledge that attacking Iran was Israel’s sovereign decision to make.

Then again, an honest reckoning must show that it only partly is. Israeli military capability pales in comparison to the United States’. Where a U.S. strike could potentially devastate Iran’s nuclear program—and where the ultimate threat of a U.S. invasion credibly threatens regime change—Israel has only a more limited strike to offer. Even if the United States gave it better bombs—which it won’t—it will always lack the firepower of the U.S. military.

“It would be terrible if people concluded that Zionism didn’t change anything and it’s the Warsaw Ghetto again,” Wieseltier said. “Not every Jewish crisis is like every other Jewish crisis.”

Netanyahu’s Speech at AIPAC [Times of Israel]
Related: Hitler Is Dead [TNR]

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Marc R says:

Well, it would be nice if Israel eliminated Amalek and all of its analogues and the Jewish people were no longer threatened. But did anybody really expect that?

Wieseltier is closer to the mark when he says that the creation of Israel has made it so there’s no Warsaw Ghetto anymore. There isn’t, or at least not in Israel. Unlike in that forsaken place, the Jews can now fight back successfully.

ahad ha'amoratsim says:

Marc, you and Wieseltier must have a real problem with the Pesach Haggadda, too. No one is saying that you deal with every enemy in every situation in the same way. Certainly nothing in Netanyahu’s speech suggests ignoring differences between the situations. But it’s also folly to ignore the similarities. And it takes a particular arrogance for Wieseltier, or you (or me, for that matter), to sit here in Chutz L’Aretz and lecture Israel against what you and Wieseltier see as an overreaction.

Right on, Marc. The events depicted in the Scroll of Esther are a fantasy, a metaphor, a literary object lesson. For a democratically elected leader of a supposedly secular Jewish state to represent them as fact is deeply disturbing. The Iranian threat is real enough without bringing in apocalyptic visions based on fiction.

Simon Rawidowicz’s “Israel: The Ever-Dying People” is one of the most important historical essays to emerge from the modern period. Here you can find it:

Nechama says:

Perhaps Mr. Tracy and Mr. Wieseltier should devote some time to contemplating the important difference between being a victim and being a surivor. The point of the Megillah (or Exodus, in fact) isn’t our victimhood; it’s that we overcame. We survived. We won despite all odds; now let’s eat!
Also, many philosophers of language and thought have talked about the important place that narrative, metaphor, myth, and symbol have for creating meaning and enabling communication. Mr. Wieseltier may not like the inescapably semiotic nature of thought and communication, but, well, too bad. Metaphor and myth are as much a part of the human experience as spoken language. Again, the two are intimately connected, in fact.
It doesn’t mean that Israel is going to attack anyone without military experts having done extensive ’empirical’ strategic analyses. I don’t pretend to have the kind of military or strategic training to make the call on Israel’s behalf. Why should some guy with a grudge against a Jewish history he very negatively mis-reads and misconstrues be somehow more ‘objective’? Since when did a penchant for lit-crit make one more able to analyse and pronounce judgement on complex geopolitical situations than those with actual military and political experience?

Carl says:

Is this a joke? In the 1930s Hitler told the world exactly what he wanted to do to the Jews and everyone pooh poohed him. The Iranians have pledged to do the same and I should point out, through their proxies in Lebanon and Gaza have already killed many Israelis. It would be highly irresponsible of the Israeli government not to take the threat seriously. I also trust the Israeli military and political leadership is able to make rational judgments based on the facts.

close reader says:

Mr. Wieseltier is a good and thinker.

Where he and many others go off the rails on the subject of Israel, and the Middle East in general, is that they impose secular-humanist aesthetic critiques on the very messy and violent world of geopolitics.

Their opinions are interesting to read but worthless as political enlightenment.

The Nazis and the Ayatollahs certainly share an inordinate passion for power and a fixation on Jews whom ideologically they simply cannot ignore. Given the Ayatollahs’ race to the bomb and their proclaimed intent to destroy Israel, what standard of proof should satisfy the Israel government before deciding to act to prevent or delay this imminent danger? President Obama’s entirely inappropriate criminal law standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” with any doubt resolved in favor of the Ayatollahs? Or should it be the normal civil law standard “on the balance of the probabilities”? Or, should Israel’s decision to strike rest on something like environmental law’s “precautionary principle” that demands early action before all the evidence is in? Where the consequences of waiting are likely to be irreparable and catastrophic, the precautionary principle is the appropriate test. And, when it comes to the vital interests of states and deep national security, governments have for centuries regularly made such decisions on a basis very much like the precautionary principle. PM Netanyahu was therefore entirely correct in telling AIPAC that he would not risk the lives of 6 million Jews. Make no mistake, the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East loved the Nazis during the 1930’s and 1940’s and today are every bit like the Nazis in being willing to kill 6 million Jews, if only they could. Think not? Go run for PM of Israel and then make your own decision. But for sure, Israel Jews would be too smart to ever select as leader a writer who produces such a confused article that seems to whitewash the Ayatollahs. Sometimes things are simply the way they seem to be. The Ayatollahs are indeed every bit as bad as the Nazis.

Gsarry says:

Wieseltier wrote” On the other hand they were representing a very powerful sovereign state. They had tanks. And they won the war. ” Did Israel really win the six day war or the Yom Kippur war? Did Israel ever impose its will on the Arabs? Was there ever an act of surrender? was an Arab capital ever occupied by Israeli forces? Of course the answer is four no’s. Do you remember the three no’s of Khartoum?
Israel has not won its wars and has been prevented from winning by Amalek-in the form of the UN which is the major obstacle to peace in the middle east. Not to take Iran seriously may be fine for liberal apologists and UN defenders, but the threat is real. Call them Amalek or whatever you wish to sooth your anti religious and anti historical attitudes, but the threat is real and is the same.

For Zlota says:

It’s all very well to criticize Netanyahu’s apocalyptic metaphors, there’s no shortage of apocalyptic metaphors in the region. Of course, the only real refutation would be that he’s crying wolf, and that’s a tough sell.

A relative, a survivor, visited NY about 20 years ago from israel, she was terrified walking around because, “they put Jewish names, big, on hospitals, on buildings, don’t they know they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves?”

Interestingly, that side of the family are zealous leftists in Israel. Guess she might have been onto something about the buildings, but I’m not getting the leftist angle.

I got an F in first grade for failing to participate in class discussion. I was afraid to speak, my mother had whispered in my ear when she sent me off to school, “keep your head down, and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

So, they might kill us, shhhh….?


Mazel Tov on your Bar Mitzvah anniversary! It’s somehow unjust that a 27-year-old should be such a fab and insightful writer. This may be the only injustice that I relish!

David Zohar says:

Paranoia is not a good policy.

David Zohar
(Retired Israeli diplomat)

Laurie Weinberg says:

The threat is still there, both in weapons and in the minds and hearts of those who continue to see jews as the other. The difference is that now we are better armed.

Great article. CHeck out “Politics vs. Purim: Getting Wasted With Your Enemy” for a Canadian spin on things.


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Haman Is Dead

Against the Jewish belief in apocalypse

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