Remember what Amalek did to you

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
5 min readJan 27, 2024

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And so, yesterday, the International Court of Justice judges disappointed many enemies of Israel. They demand the liberation of all the hostages. They stated that there is no evidence to support the claim that in Gaza, the Israelis are committing genocide. They refused to call for a ceasefire. This will not go down well with some enemies of Israel, unfortunately Jewish, who demand a ceasefire since, I don’t know, October 9 at least.

But what a relief: at least the learned and honourable ladies and gentlemen of the International Court of Justice did not provide another rhetorical weapon to keyboard social justice warriors, woke extremists, and other annoying anti-Israel extremists.

Things are not totally good, though. Hamas’s sponsors have not been exposed, nor has it been the genocidal project of Hamas. Plus, the very fact that the right to self-defence of the Jewish State has been placed under scrutiny is worrying. And more worrying is the large number of opinion makers, militants, and influencers who look at the current proceeding (which is only at its beginning) as a Nuremberg in reverse, the place where Jewish privilege will be exposed and condemned, and Jews will publicly be forced to apologise for having established a state in 1948. The United Nations has rejected the “Zionism is racism” resolution, but enemies of Israel are constantly looking for ways to gain institutional support for their obsession

And indeed, the proceedings are a very depressive reading. To support the claim that Israel’s actions are genocidal in character, the South African lawyers have assembled a selection of declarations by Israeli political leaders, taken out of context and carefully selected to prove the purpose of Israel to annihilate the Palestinians. And among that is a quote from this week’s Torah portion.

Yes, you heard me well. Israel is accused of committing genocide against the Palestinians based on a passage in the Torah. That is ridiculous, but it’s true.

As Israeli forces prepared to launch an assault on Gaza, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible”. The South African lawyer stated that this was a “genocidal invocation … used by Israeli soldiers to justify the killing of civilians in Gaza.”

To begin with, who is Amalek, and why is it mentioned in our Torah portion? According to the Biblical text and some archaeological evidence, the Amalekites lived in the Negev region. It was a nomadic civilisation, and many lived out of robbery and looting, as is sadly customary among nomadic tribes in Northern Africa.

Our Torah portion, Beshallach, is the Torah portion of miracles. The Israelites lived through the opening of the Red Sea, then received the manna, and finally, in the last reading, they defeated the Amalekites, which is another great miracle. A group of formerly enslaved persons with no military training overcame a tribe of professional marauders used to worse fights.

The battle is described as almost supernatural. Moses looks at the battle from afar. When Moses lifts his hand to the sky (calling from Divine intervention), the Israelites prevail; when he lets down his hands, the Amalekites prevail.

Following the victory of the Israelites, God says: “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Does it look like an exhortation to genocide, as the South African activist lawyer wants the International Court to believe? Hardly. The message is rather the opposite. God is on the side of the oppressed — the Israelites and protects them in battle, even through miracles.

The injunction to remember what Amalek did against the Israelites -which can be found later in Deuteronomy- is easy to explain: the Amalekites were not ultimately defeated, and when the Israelites settled in the Land of Israel, they remained a permanent threat to Israelites cities, as many nomadic Arabs have been through the history of the Middle East.

Is this a call to genocide? If so, there are thousands of similar calls since marauders have raided African cities and settlements for centuries. Have you ever heard about the slave trade? Who did provide the European slave merchants? The rulers constantly warned their population against the Amaleks of their times. Perhaps the South African lawyers can look at the history of Africa rather than randomly quote from the Bible.

The Rabbis offer different explanations of the whole Amalek business. It is not the military strength of the Israelites that made them win the battle against Amalek, but rather their moral rectitude. When Israel sins -so teach the Rabbis- it becomes weaker than its enemies. So the injunction to remember what Amalek did is to be read as an injunction not to sin, not to become like the Egyptians, enslavers and oppressors, because when we lose our moral fibre, then we become weaker and exposed to violence.

This is the way we Jews look at the passages about Amalek, both in the Bible and in the colourful Rabbinic literature, where Amalek is associated with all the enemies of the Jewish people, like Haman (“booooh!”). In Rabbinic imagination, Amalek is the ancestor of all the antisemites and the wrong people, even the rulers of Rome.

The South African lawyers who wanted to see the Jewish State condemned (and failed) showed off an astonishing ignorance of the basis of Jewish history, and this -I believe- is genuinely worrying.

Because to those lawyers, and to many that are parroting him, Jews don’t count. To them, the Jewish perspective, the Jewish point of view, and the Jewish reading of Jewish history do not matter.

From a Jewish point of view, from our perspective, it was perfectly legitimate for Prime Minister Netanyahu to compare the antisemitic marauders of Hamas to a nomadic tribe who “attacked your ranks […] when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God”. This is precisely what Hamas did.

And it is incredibly worrying that in the courtrooms of the International Court of Justice, every narrative is listened to, and every voice is believed, except those of the Jews. It’s worrying, and sadly, it is familiar because we live in times during which “believe all women” means that Jewish women victims of rapes are ignored, and activists against racism always forget Islamic supremacism and Muslim antisemitism.

Indeed, we live in difficult times, and I would like to be optimistic, but the cultural atmosphere is deeply worrying. For the moment, the International Court of Justice has not turned -yet- into another engine of antisemitic propaganda. And that’s a relief. But sadly, we will have many of these cultural battles ahead, and we must have the proper tools. We must know better the Jewish perspective, our perspective. We cannot allow the antisemitic exploitation of Jewish history and Jewish texts. These are our history, our writings, and no one must dare to use the Bible against us Jews.

So go and study!

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.