(RNS) — “Genocides are never declared in advance,” Adila Hassim, the South African lawyer, said in her presentation to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, in opening arguments in the case her country has brought that Israel’s retaliation against Hamas in Gaza is genocide.
But comments by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Oct. 28, three weeks after the Hamas attack, come very close. As Hassim’s colleague Tembeka Ngcukaitobi recalled in his presentation, Netanyahu urged troops preparing to enter Gaza by saying, “Remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible,” a reference to a biblical command in which God gave the Israelites permission to entirely destroy an enemy known as the Amalekites. “And we do remember,” said Netanyahu.
“The destruction of Palestinian life is an articulated state policy,” Ngcukaitobi told the court. “They are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world.”
After the arguments were made, Netanyahu staffers tried to argue that the Amalekites in this situation are Hamas fighters, not the Palestinian people in Gaza as a whole. They also noted in a statement that the phrase “Remember what Amalek has done to you” can be found in Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, and other Holocaust memorials.
The problem with this response is that the point of the Amalek episode is that Yaweh directs the Israelite army to avenge an attack by the desert tribe by leaving nothing living in their territory. In the Hebrew Bible’s First Book of Samuel, Moses is commanded to “go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and academic dean at the Bethlehem Bible College, rejects the application of the text to modern warfare. “It is horrifying,” he said, adding that “religious texts should be used to promote peace and justice, not genocide. This is ISIS-like.”
Suheil O. Madanat, former head of the Baptist Convention in Jordan and a well-respected theologian, told RNS that Netanyahu’s comment paints the situation in the Middle East in stark terms that misrepresent both the people in the Holy Land and contemporary understanding of Scripture. “Israel of today is not the theocratic state of the Old Testament, and the Palestinians of today are not the Amalekites of the Old Testament. This is an intentional confusion of facts and a bizarre misinterpretation of the holy Word of God.”
Citing the Bible for political purposes is nothing new. Aidan Orly, writing in Truthout, noted that for centuries, Christian leaders have used the Amalekite passage to justify genocide, from the genocide against Native Americans to the attempt to erase the Tutsis from Rwanda.
Right-wing Jewish groups have also employed the trope. When Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, in 1994, he was almost certainly influenced by the Kahane movement’s regular use of the Amalekite story.
Nor are Christian theologians the only ones who have rejected using the Amalekites’ story as a justification for violence. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who heads T’ruah, a Jewish human rights organization, said that rabbis generally agree that references to the Amalekites don’t provide a morally acceptable justification for attacking anyone. Besides the fact that the Amalekites are no longer a distinct people, “the overwhelming history of Jewish interpretation is to interpret it metaphorically,” Jacobs said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine.
Thinking of the passage metaphorically, Jacobs explained, Jewish theologians often view the Amalekite story as a call for believers to stamp out evil inclinations within themselves. It’s something that Netanyahu could take to heart.
(Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is publisher of a Christian website, milhilard.org. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)