Let’s be clear: I don’t think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deluded, fanatical, or stupid. I think there are perfectly rational explanations for what he said last week in the Bible Circle he leads. Discussing regime change in Syria and Egypt and warning that “Hamas could take over the Palestinian Authority,” Netanyahu cited a verse from last week’s Torah portion, Exodus 1:8, “Now There Arose a New King Over Egypt.” But I cannot help thinking how livid right-wingers would be if a Palestinian were tossing around incendiary allusions to ancient religious texts.
Because, let’s face it, Netanyahu’s analogy is lousy and borderline offensive. For one thing, the verse describes a world in which the Israelites are subject to, and then the slaves of, Egyptians. To use that to refer to the Palestinians—who, you know, are sort of under an occupation—is to fundamentally confuse power roles. But more than that, if what Bibi’s suggesting is that the old regime (like the old, pre-slavery Pharaoh, who respected Joseph and his people) was good for the Jews, then why exactly, for the last few years, has he taken every opportunity to attack Abbas? Why call his speech before the United Nations “defamatory and venomous… full of mendacious propaganda?” And, given the continuation of the Exodus story, is Bibi prophesying hail and boils striking Ramallah? What about the slaying of the firstborns?
Now as I said, I do not think Bibi intends all of these implications. I don’t like his fitting current events into a mythic history of Jewish victimization, but I don’t think he carefully thought out the allusion—it’s probably mostly literary playfulness. Just as, when one of Bibi’s advisors called Iran “Amalek” in 2009, I didn’t think he was calling for ethnic cleansings (though that’s what the Bible does). I judge Bibi and Lieberman by their policies, which, though lousy, are plainly not genocidal—and I ignore the religious clothing.
But here’s the thing. Chuck Hagel cannot even—once, four years ago—confuse “Jewish” for “Israel” without Abe Foxman suggesting he’s anti-Semitic. God help, say, Mahmoud Abbas, who, for calling Israel “the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, peace be upon him” and neglecting to mention Jewish history in Israel, got the Simon Weisenthal Center’s “anti-Semitic slur of the year” award for 2011. Or take a more recent example. Last week, the right-wing watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch published an extensive, carefully researched article about the “Palestinian leadership’s falsification of history by presenting Jesus as an ancient Palestinian.” So Bibi can conflate the Arab Spring with the enslavement of the Israelites, and that’s just local color—but even the most parve (i.e., bland) religious references from Palestinians elicit condemnation?
The fact is, as the great scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem warned in 1926, mythic vocabularies are always dangerously overflowing with meaning. When secular leaders draft them to make a point, excess—and often toxic—meaning also leaks out. It doesn’t thrill me that, at Israeli army swearing-in ceremonies, a rabbi reads the first chapter of Joshua (Spark Notes summary: Greater Israel, brutal campaign of conquest). But I also accept, as a non-hysterical observer, that we shouldn’t judge the army’s chosen text by its worst possible interpretation. I just wish we could be as temperate with everyone’s religious allusions.