Given the beginning of the holiday tonight, you could have seen the Purim references coming—Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament did on Twitter—but something about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in his address Monday night made me uncomfortable. Here’s what he said:
This week, we will read how one woman changed Jewish history. In synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Purim. We will read how some 2,500 years ago, a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people. We will read how his plot was foiled by one courageous woman—Esther. In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people.
The last line, in particular, conjures the Amalekites, the historic enemies of the Jewish people. Haman, it was said, was an Amalekite. The Babylonians were Amalekites. And the Romans. And the Christians. And the Russians. And the Nazis. And on and on. But actually, only the Amalekites were the Amalekites, and the Jews took care of them, but good, and every year, on Purim, we read Parshat Zachor, which tells of God’s instruction that Saul spare not even the Amalekite animals—something I happen to know because it was the haftorah I read when I became a bar mitzvah (which, in turn, happens to have been 14 years ago today; also, my Hebrew name happens to be Mordecai; anyway).
Bibi also gave President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther.
There are two dangers in applying this thinking to contemporary events. One is general, one is specific, and both were laid out ably 10 years ago in Leon Wieseltier’s seminal essay “Hitler Is Dead.” The general problem is that believing all enemies to be the same enemy suffocates accurate strategic thought. As Wieseltier said in an interview yesterday, “The problem with typological thinking about history is that it is the opposite of the kind of thinking that is needed for threat assessment, which has to be a solely empirical activity. It has to be solely about evidence. You don’t want military planners to operate with theories of history.” The specific problem is that, as Wieseltier put it in his essay, “Israel was created to deny Amalek.”
“The Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon has to be respected,” Wieseltier argued. “But I think that whipping the Jewish community up into a frenzy about how this is the apocalypse is bad for a number of reasons.” Netanyahu, Wieseltier added, “wants to build American-Jewish support for a strike and congressional support. But his political base is founded on a great deal of apocalyptic thinking. It’s all about the sense of Jewish victimhood—that the entire world wants to destroy Israel.”
Citing an essay about the Jews called “An Ever-Dying People,” Wieseltier argued that among the state of Israel’s greatest triumphs is—or ought to be—a sense that Jews are no longer threatened anew, in every generation, by a new form of Amalek. “There is no question that there has been this attempt, since [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, really, to find Israeli experience continuous with diaspora experience in the sense of they’re still under attack.” Soldiers who fought in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, according to Wieseltier, “said they felt they were in the Warsaw Ghetto. Emotionally, it’s easy to understand the reality. On the other hand, they were representing a very powerful sovereign state. They had tanks. And they won the war.”
This is of course part of why it is so important for Israel to feel that it has the right to defend itself. As Netanyahu put it Monday, “We are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.” And this is why it was so important for President Obama to acknowledge that attacking Iran was Israel’s sovereign decision to make.
Then again, an honest reckoning must show that it only partly is. Israeli military capability pales in comparison to the United States’. Where a U.S. strike could potentially devastate Iran’s nuclear program—and where the ultimate threat of a U.S. invasion credibly threatens regime change—Israel has only a more limited strike to offer. Even if the United States gave it better bombs—which it won’t—it will always lack the firepower of the U.S. military.
“It would be terrible if people concluded that Zionism didn’t change anything and it’s the Warsaw Ghetto again,” Wieseltier said. “Not every Jewish crisis is like every other Jewish crisis.”