An Irresponsible Comparison

02.27.13

Iran as Haman: Jeffrey Goldberg’s Dangerous Analogy

In his column “Iran Intensifies its Violent Campaign Against Jews,” Jeffrey Goldberg links the Purim story and its villain Haman to present-day Iran and its leadership. Not only is this analogy dangerous and unproductive; it also misconstrues the Purim story. There is no doubt that for a Jew today Iran is an easy, and justifiable, empire to hate. Its anti-Semitic rhetoric is vicious, its absolutist anti-Israel position is unjustifiable, and its “war” against the west is a destructive force in the world. There is little doubt that Iran constitutes an enemy. But in Judaism there are various kinds of enemies. There are enemies with whom one can, and should, try to achieve co-existence. And then there are enemies who can only be destroyed. The Torah considers most enemies as constituting the first category. In Deuteronomy 26:17-19 we are told of the Amalekites, a people so heinous, so evil, that their memory should be “blotted out.” In Exodus 17:8-16 we read of God’s command to commit genocide against the Amalekites. It is common knowledge among those familiar with the rabbinic tradition that Haman was considered a descendant of the Amalekites. Haman is called an Agagite in the Book of Esther and Agag was the Amalekite king who was slain by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:8,9. 

What is so striking about Goldberg’s essay in which he links Haman—and thus Amalek—to modern-day Iran is that he wrote an article in The New Yorker ("Among the Settlers: Will They Destroy Israel?” from a May 2003 issue) where he documented Israeli settlers claiming the Palestinians were Amalek. That essay contained numerous errors regarding the Amalekites in the Jewish tradition that were corrected by Elliot Horowitz at the beginning of his Reckless Rights: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. In his latest essay, Goldberg seems apparently unaware of the linkage between Hamas and Amalek, a linkage that, if taken seriously, would mandate genocide.

Goldberg conflates, consciously or not I do not know, an enemy and the Amalekites/Haman, that latter of which must be annihilated by divine decree. The difference is clear on one point. Jews, like all peoples, have every right to defend themselves against an enemy. Regarding Amalek/Haman, however, Jews are mandated to destroy them even if they are not a threat because they are considered, in the rabbinic imagination, an ontological threat, an eternal ticking bomb. In theory, if a Jew could positively identify an Amalekite walking harmlessly down the street, he would be mandated to kill him in cold blood.

Unlike Goldberg, the rabbinic sages were acutely aware of the danger of such a command and thus made it largely inoperative. While the sages maintained that, unlike the seven nations indigenous to the land of Canaan, Amalekites still exist, identifying them genealogically is impossible. Thus, the commandment of genocide is arguably laid to rest even as Jews periodically tried to link contemporary enemies with Amalek. While genealogy may be obsolete, analogy is another tool of identification. As Goldberg shows in his New Yorker essay in 2003, many settlers had no problem identifying, via analogy or behavior, the Palestinians as Amalek and thus fit for annihilation. There Goldberg writes of the danger of such an analogy. And yet in 2013 he falls victim to the same dangerous error. It is, of course, much easier and more politically correct to analogize Iran to Amalek (through Haman) than the Palestinians. But that is beside the point. If Goldberg takes his analogy seriously—he concludes his essay with “Haman is trying to get a nuclear weapon”—he should advocate dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire country as the fulfillment of a divine command. In the biblical tradition, all Amalekites must die; men, women, and children. In the Israelite war against the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, King Saul was removed from his throne for daring to save the captured Amalekite Agag until the prophet Samuel steps in and dramatically cuts him to pieces “before the Lord.”

There is no doubt the Jews, and Israel, have had many enemies throughout history. And there is no doubt that a people must defend itself against those who wish to harm it, destroy it, or annihilate it. But suggesting an analogy to Amalek is of a different order. Whether Goldberg knew about the rabbinic linkage of Haman to Amalek I do not know. He should have. Biblical analogies are like fire. One should not play with them haphazardly. In any event, biblical analogies to our contemporary geopolitical reality are unproductive. Sadly they too often still fill our churches, mosques, synagogues, and sometimes even our political discourse. They serve no constructive purpose other than rallying the already converted troops. I do not think Goldberg wants to introduce genocide as an option on the geopolitical table. Such haphazard, ill-informed, volatile and unsubstantiated linkage is unworthy of what we should expect from a journalist as accomplished as Jeffrey Goldberg.