On South Africa's Misinterpretation of Amalek in Jewish Tradition

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Beyond the fact that the Torah does not make the call to commit genocide, the Tanach and its interpretations in fact obligate the Jewish people to abide by the laws of war. To a large extent, humanity's earliest laws of war can be found in the Bible.

Courtesy of the Supreme Court of Justice

On January 11, 2024, The South African legal team accused Israel of committing genocide in its war in Gaza before the International Court of Justice. As evidence, South Africa submitted, among other items, statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders, claiming that he is inciting genocide against the Palestinian people by invoking Amalek, a biblical enemy of the people of Israel. The arguments by South Africa represent not only a cherry-picked selection of out-of-context statements, but a fundamental misunderstanding of the place of Amalek in Jewish tradition. I do not claim to analyze the intentions of the Prime Minister or others who have made such statements, but rather to offer a clarification of the meaning of Amalek in Jewish tradition and mythology.

Under the impact of Israel's bloody conflict with Hamas that has raged for years, and certainly after the atrocities of October 7, 2023, some Israeli citizens and elected officials have undeniably voiced inappropriate and irresponsible statements about Israel's enemy. Such rhetoric is common around the world in times of war and should certainly be condemned. As the Israeli delegation argued before the International Court of Justice, defending Israel from South Africa's baseless accusation of genocide, these sentiments do not—by any stretch of the imagination—guide the actions of the combat units nor the operational commands issued to them. Nonetheless, South Africa's case quoted a long string of statements, disproportionally amplifying their influence on the policy of the State of Israel.

South Africa's error, however, went deeper than this—their focus on quotes by the Prime Minister and other leaders to remember what Amalek has done to you fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the "Amalek" terminology, which does not constitute an actual call to commit genocide.

To begin we recall that there are two key components to Jewish law—the "Written Torah" (i.e., the Bible and its commandments) and the "Oral Torah," which constitutes interpretations and adaptations of ancient texts by the sages to suit the circumstances of any given era, while sustaining the moral and ethical imperatives of the text passed down from generation to generation. Those who are steeped in Jewish culture do not hear a call for annihilation or genocide when they hear the name "Amalek," but rather a metaphor as an expression of utter psychological shock in the face of pure evil. Maimonides clarifies in the 12th century that there is no longer any ability to identify the descendants of Amalek who were scattered and therefore the commandment is nullified. Some commentators postpone the matter to a distant and unidentifiable future, while others clarify that the war against Amalek is a divine war and not a human one, subject to the laws of heaven in the hands of God. . Indeed, biblical sages have effectively removed the actual commandment to wipe out Amalek from Jewish tradition, leaving not a command of physical destruction but of a deep seeded metaphorical battle between good and evil. The word ‘Amalek’ has echoed over thousands of years any time Jews have been weak and defenseless; targeted and panicked throughout history—whispers of the word were heard in the ghettos and the concentration camps of World War Two. It is no wonder than contemporary political and military leaders use "Amalek" to refer to the murder, terrorism and injustice faced by the Jewish people, particularly on October 7.

Beyond the fact that the Torah does not make the call to commit genocide, the Tanach and its interpretations in fact obligate the Jewish people to abide by the laws of war. To a large extent, humanity's earliest laws of war can be found in the Bible, long before the Western world codified such a framework. Indeed, there are stipulations placing  limitations on plunder and the abuse of prisoners, a ban on the destruction of fruit-bearing trees unless absolutely necessary, the obligation to leave open a "fourth side" when attacking (what we call a "humanitarian corridor" today), and even mandates a duty to propose peaceful terms before launching an attack and to call off the attack if such terms are accepted.

Further evidence of South Africa's fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish tradition is in the section of their petition referring to a battalion commander who released a video on December 21, 2023, in which he reported that the IDF had entered Beit Hanoun and behaved the same way there as the biblical Simeon and Levi did in Nablus. This biblical narrative tells the story of Jacob's sons who slew all males of Shechem (now Nablus) when they were weak, in the hope that Jacob would agree for their prince to marry his daughter Dinah, even though he had abducted and raped her. South Africa's petition would portray the two brothers as biblical heroes whom today's soldiers are eager to emulate. As the current debate is inextricably tied to biblical concepts and mythology, we must consider how Jewish tradition sees this story.

Far from being viewed as triumphant heroes, Jewish tradition tells us they were judged harshly for their actions. Immediately after the massacre, and again before his death, their father condemns his sons, lashing out at them with moral censure, rejection, ostracism and a curse, not a blessing. The State of Israel does not wish to follow in the path of Simeon and Levi nor to relive their destiny. And like Jacob our biblical father, the State of Israel must also condemn immoral statements and be sure to distinguish between terrorists and the civilian population.

To conclude we must note that South Africa represented the concept of Amalek in a cherry-picked, misleading manner. Their petition fails to note that mention of Amalek—in the evil that was committed—refers to Hamas, not to the Palestinian people, and they seem to deliberately recite not the quotes that were actually said (relating to the memory of Amalek), but others allegedly supporting their unfounded claim. The dependence on the idea of Amalek to prove their claim of genocide in the South African petition is erroneous in both the context in which it has been used and in the significance of the concept in Jewish tradition.


This article was published in the Times of Israel