Authorizing Violence

07.17.13

What Happens When We Call People 'Amalek'

'As long as there are knitted kippot, the throne [of God] is not whole. That’s Amalek. When will the throne be whole? When there is no knitted kippah. Are these people even Jews?'

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a teacher at the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva and a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, delivered this scriptural exegesis on Saturday night sitting next to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, arguably the world’s leading rabbi. Amalek, the Bible tells us, is an evil nation that is to be wiped out completely. We are not even to spare Amalek’s cattle, to say nothing of Amalekite women and children.

Throughout Jewish history, perceived enemies of the Jewish people—Haman, Hitler, Ahmadinejad and even Yassir Arafat—have all had the dishonor of being identified as Amalekites, along with the nations that they represent. But Cohen is not saying that the Palestinians, Iranians or Germans are Amalek—he’s explicitly calling out the “knitted kippot,” a term that commonly refers to the national-religious Jewish community whose members wear crocheted and colorful head coverings, in contrast to the black, velvet yarmulkes preferred by the ultra-Orthodox.

When Rabbi Cohen says that knitted kippot and Amalek are one and the same, what he means is clear: as Amalek, knitted kippot must be removed. But what have national-religious Jews—whose religious doctrine and practice are virtually identical to Cohen’s—done to deserve this pernicious label?

The answer, it seems, has to do with the plan to conscript haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth into the Israeli army. Many national-religious Jews, including their political leadership, support universal conscription. Shas, the haredi party to which Rabbi Cohen belongs, opposes it. Haredi leaders believe that forcing yeshiva students into a mostly secular army would inevitably lead to their assimilation, a fate on par with physical death. This apparently is why Rabbi Cohen was upset enough to invoke a name that is synonymous with the sworn enemy of the Jewish people.

Family members of Rabbi Cohen later clarified that he meant to attribute Amalekitism only to “the leaders of Bayit Yehudi,” a political party for which many national-religious Jews voted. But the damage has already been done: in identifying national-religious Jews as Amalek, Rabbi Cohen has authorized violence not just against “knitted kippot” but also against the growing number of haredim who enlist in the military. For many haredi Jews, the difference between national-religious and haredi is not the type of head covering one wears, but whether one serves in the army.

Already religious soldiers, both haredi and national-religious, have suffered from harassment and physical violence. Last week, a haredi soldier wearing a black kippah was pelted with stones by a Jerusalem mob. On Sunday, haredim in the Mea Shearim neighborhood punched and spat on a religious soldier wearing a knitted kippah. And on Monday, a leaflet was found in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood calling for haredi soldiers to be murdered. 

To be sure, Rabbi Cohen’s statements didn’t directly lead to these incidents. There’s no denying, however, the link between the provocative language that he used to describe his coreligionists and the violence that is breaking out in the streets of Jerusalem. The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America acknowledged this relationship in a joint statement it issued on Monday. 

Recently we have witnessed a frightening exacerbation of internal discord and an ominous intensification of inflammatory rhetoric. We have heard vile insults, offensive name-calling—including the inciteful invocation of the name 'Amalek'—and vicious personal attacks emanating from all sides on the various troublesome issues that we now confront. We have even witnessed physical violence.

Naftali Bennett, the leader of Bayit Yehudi, echoed these concerns. 

For those who don't know, 'Amalek' is the term used to describe those who need to be wiped from the face of the Earth. No less. …I will not allow this campaign of incitement against the knitted kippot population to continue.

It’s not hard to see why the Orthodox Union and Naftali Bennett so vehemently denounced Rabbi Cohen’s remarks: many members of the Orthodox Union wear knitted kippot, as does Naftali Bennett. But if a prominent Shas rabbi called another group Amalek, say Palestinians (this actually happened in 2004), would the Orthodox Union and Naftali Bennett stand up for them?

We should know that the term Amalek is bad not just because of whom it targets, but because of the violence it justifies. Hopefully, we can learn to stop saying that anyone, whether Jew or non-Jew, is worthy of extermination. Until then, it’s fair to wonder who will next be maligned as Amalek. Don’t be surprised if it’s Shas and Rabbi Cohen.