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Invoking “Amalek” Throughout History

In theory, I’ve got a story coming out in the Forward soon about R’ Jack Riemer’s recent invocation of the genocidal term, which will include bits from our interview and the one with R’ Bradley Artson, but won’t note the results of a reader poll, which ended up decidedly pro-Riemer.
This also comes just before the Jewish holiday of Purim, and all its attendant invocations of Amalek.
Presumably not coincidentally, an important book on Jewish violence is coming out this week: Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence by Bar Ilan Professor Elliott Horowitz is a thorough examination of the phenomenon.
And chapter 5 of the book explores the history of invoking Amalek, which is great additional information for understanding the news story and the period of celebration that’s about to take place.
I’ve constructed a timeline based on this chapter, which you can find after the jump. Of course, this is only a tiny part of the picture. For the full story of this timeline and much more, of course, you’ll have to buy the book.


Genesis: Amalek is listed as Esau’s grandson and the son of Eliphaz in 36:12.
Exodus: Hebrews mow down the Amalekites at Rephidim (17:8-17). God vows a war “from generation to generation” with the Amalekites.
Deuteronomy: In 25:17-19, the battle at Rephidim is presented as a defeat, with the Amalekites attacking the Hebrews “in the rear.” God commands the Hebrews to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek.”
Samuel I: The Hebrews’ army is commanded “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Saul and army “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, but imprison and later execute King Agag and keep “the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings” for sacrifices.
Circa Year 0-100: Josephus Flavius says Amalekites are the “nomadic Arabs of Eastern Idumea,” seen by some scholars as an attempt to avoid idenifications of Amalek with Rome, and to plant the claim on an enemy of Rome.
100-200: A midrash of “from generation to generation” produces the following analysis by R’ Eliezer, R’ Joshua, and R’ Yose b. Halafta:

R. Eliezer said that the period was from the generation of Moses to the generation of Samuel. R. Joshua said it was from the generation of Samuel to the generation of Mordecai and Esther. And R. Jose said it was to be from the generation of Mordecai and Esther through the generation of the king Messiah, which is to endure as long as three generations.

R’ Yose b. Halafta, then, is asserting that the battle with Amalek is ongoing, and is implicating Rome, during a period when “Amalek” was code for “Rome.”
Circa Year 600: R’ Eleazar Kallir, in Palestine, uses “Amalek” to refer to Christendom. He also uses the name “Adina” to make the same reference. A list of Amalek’s bad acts includes those committed by Rome.
Circa Year 800: Christian chronicler Theophanes calls Muslim conquerors of Palestine from the seventh century “the desolate Amalek.”
953: Yosippon declares Armenians Amalek, perhaps in part based on a notion that Haman was Armenian.
1000s: Rashi conflates Esau with Amalek, which by extension conflates Christianity with Amalek, as Esau is used to represent Christianity.
Sefer Ha-Pardes, in a Jewish world acknowledging its inability to defeat Christianity/Amalek, asserts that the kaddish prayer can be interpreted as a call for the destruction of Amalek. A similar interpretation is presented in the Machzor Vitry.
1095: Pope Urban II tells crusaders, “It is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites.”
1100s: R’ Eliezer of Metz asserts that the Biblical commandment of destroying Amalek would apply “only to the king and not the remainder of Israel.”
Maimonides, who lived among more Muslims than Christians, asserts that “we are commanded that among the descendants of Esau we are to exterminate only the seed of Amalek, male and female, young and old,” which simultaneously makes it a practical commandment, but one targeted at a very small population (as opposed to the larger claims about Esau/Christianity). And while Maimonides asserted that there were true Amalekites alive, they couldn’t be distinguished from the population in which they lived, though they’d still be descendants of Esau and thus Christians.
Rabbi Zerachia of Lunel allegorizes Amalek as the “evil inclination.”
1200s: R. Abraham Ha-Yarhi of Lunel conflates Esau with Amalek, and recalls the interpretation of kaddish from earlier works.
Nachmonides conflates Esau with Amalek, with all attendant consequences, speaking of a “final war.” He also “favored an interpretation which limited the obligation to do war with Amalek only to those periods when a Jewish monarch ruled over his people - as in the days of Saul or David,” first suggested by R’ Joseph Kara and R’ Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans.
R’ Moses of Coucy, in Christian country, commented on Maimonides’ assertion of a commandment to destroy Amalek, “this commandment applies only during the days of the messianic king, after the conquest of the land.”
Later, R’ Isaac Corbeil, whose Sefer Mitzvot Katan was “closely modelled on that of Maimonides,” did not list the commandment to destroy Amalek, listing instead “passive commandments connected with memory rather than violence.” Corbeil also asserts that the commandments aren’t to be practiced in a constant fashion, but through the annual recitation of Parshat Zachor.
R’ Joseph Gikatila “linked Amalek with the ‘primordial serpent’ of the creation story.”
1300s: R’ David and R’ Jacob b. Asher assert the kaddish interpretation.
R’ Menachem Ha-Meiri of Perignan repeats the Amalek “evil inclination” allegory.
Circa Year 1500: Abravanel conflates Esau with Amalek, calling for total destruction.
Circa 1500-1700: The assumption that Armenians are Amalekites is “quite common among Mediterranean Jews.”
1689: Cotton Mather speaks of Native Americans, saying “We will keep in the Mount with our hands lifted up, while you are in the Field with your Lives in your Hands against the Amalek that is now annoying this Israel in the Wilderness.”
1700s: Native Americans are considered Amalekites by American Christians fighting them, with some preachers calling for their total destruction.
1798: After Admiral Nelson defeats the French in the Battle of the Nile, the Rev. Avraham Jobson compares the battle with that at Rephidim, but doesn’t outrightly declare the French to be Amalek.
1800s: Jews in Palestine, Yemen Europe think of the Armenians as Amalek, as documented by Christian missionaries in the area.
A “Jewish traveller reported a bizarre practice in eastern Galicia, whereby the Armenians who did business with the local Jews would mourn Haman’s death every Purim, and light candles in his memory. If there was any truth to the latter report, it is likely that Armenians were paid to do so by the local Jews, as a form of Purim entertainment – just as elsewhere in eastern Europe Jews would often hire Christians to play the role of Haman in the Purimshpiel.”
1864: Abolitionist Reform Rabbi David Einhorn sermonized that “It is Amalek’s seed…wherever the evil and wicked rule; wherever…rude violence with cheaply bought courage makes war upon defenceless innocence, and wherever a majority in the service of falsehood directs its blows with ruthless fists against the very face of a weak minority.”
In his Shabbat Zakhor sermon Einhorn presented three ways in which God’s war with Amalek “should be carried out in our country and under existing circumstances.? The first was a “war against the Enslavement of Race, which has brought the Republic to the verge of destruction, against an Amalek-seed [the Confederacy] which is turned into a blood-drenched dragon seed.? Einhorn asked rhetorically whether it was “anything else but a deed of Amalek, rebellion against God, to enslave beings created in His image, and to degrade them to a state of beasts having no will of their own?? And he replied that “God commands no war against the black color, but against the dark deeds of Amalek.?
Einhorn stressed that it was also necessary “to struggle against Amalek? in two other respects, “the enslavement of the conscience? and “the enslavement of the spirit.? The first referred to recent attempts to introduce an amendment to the Constitution “recognizing the American nation as a Christian nation,? which Einhorn linked with anti-Semitic aspersions upon the Jews, accusing them of being merely “a nation of traders.?

In response to these new threats to American Jewry he ringingly asserted:
Well then, let us make war upon this Amalek; let us meet this newly-budding religious animosity with all honorable weapons at our command! Let us seek to crush, at its very birth, the many-headed serpent which designs to clutch the [American] Eagle in its coils and to kill him in the very hour of a hot and exhausting struggle, as Amalek attacked weary and exhausted Israel after his departure from Egypyt!

Einhorn did not fail to remind his audience, in conclusion, that “we must not, above all, forget to make war upon the Amalek in our own midst, upon the Enslavement of the Spirit,? by which he meant the “crude worldliness? that had, he believed, become so predominant among his coreligionists.

How many of us have become utterly indifferent to Israel’s sublime mission, to carry the divine truths into all parts of the earth, and to glorify the name of God in the eyes of all the nations! How many among us, driven on by a restless lust of earthly gain, have lost all sense for man’s higher destination, all desire for spiritual elevation!

1892: Ephraim Deinard publishes a pamphlet entitled “Milhama La-Shem Be-Amalek,” or “God’s War With Amalek,” which called for a boycott of Greek etrogim — the primary issue — in part by way of claiming that Greeks were descendants of Amalek, which may simply have been an expansion of the notion that the Armenians were Amalek.
1900s: R’ Joseph Hertz announced in a 1913 sermon a desire to fight “those Amaleks whose onslaught is ever directed against the innocent, the weak, the helpless.”
But in 1918, amidst World War I, he exhorted his congregation “that patriotism should not become an excuse for ’senseless malice against the weak and defenceless,’ nor should the ‘ways of Amalek’ be emulated.”
In Hertz’s very popular Bible commentary, first published 1929-1936 and very much in circulation today, “Hertz continued to connect Amalek with adverse moral characteristics.”
In 1926, Hertz referred to Soviet Jewish Communists as “Jewish Hamans.”
In the 1930s, R’ Elchonon Wasserman “asserted that Amalekites could be found among those Jews who had ‘cast off the burden of the Torah.’” Wasserman cited R’ Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, who earlier “had been certain that the Soviet Jewish Communists (known as the Yevsektzia) were ‘descendants of Amalek.’” Meanwhile, “R, Hayyim Eleazar Spira of Munkacz (1872-1937) included among the Amalekites not only the Zionists, but even the – to his mind- dangerously modern members of Agudat Yisrael.”
1931: “The Galician-born poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, referred to ‘the kingdom of Amalek on the Dniester,’ an allusion to the short-lived republic in the western Ukraine whose capital had been Lvov (Lemberg), and where in late 1918 Greenberg and his family had narrowly escaped death in a pogrom against the local Jewish population.”
1935: Simon Dubnow, referencing the Nuremberg Laws, wrote in a letter “We are at war with Amalek.”
1936: Greenberg made reference to “Amalekite eagles taking flight from the Rhine/ Heading towards the tall roof of Westminster.”
1939: Arthur Szyk publishes a Hagaddah in which the theme of Amalek is played-up, with Amalek serving as a stand-in for Germans.
1941: Hertz speaks of the war with Germany as a war with Amalek, emphasizing people’s responsibility to fulfill the commandment of eradication.
1956: “R. Joseph Soloveitchik…advanced the notion that an Amalekite was anyone, of any background, who harbored unconditional hatred of the Jewish people,” in his famous Kol Dodi Dofek speech, saying “in the thirties and forties this position was occupied by the Nazis, led by Hitler…today it is occupied by the hordes of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser and the Mufti [of Jerusalem].”
1973: R’ S.Z. Sonnenfeld says the Germans were Amalek.
1983: Blu Greenberg writes that Purim “is about remembering….Remember the Amalekites…remember that evil Haman, remember Hitler. In the midst of my laughter…I remember our enemies, past and present. The names change, but not the character or intent. Haman, Antiochus, Hitler. Arafat – all bent on destroying my people.”
1996: Mordecai Richler recounts his sofer grandfather testing his quill by writing and then crossing out the word Amalek, which he explains as “the grandson of Esau and ancestor of the Amalekites, nomads in the land between Egypt and Canaan, many of whose descendants can no doubt now be found organizing for Hamas in the Palestinian camps of Khan Yunis, Rafa, Jabalia, and Gaza Town.”
Raul Hilberg writes of his histories of the Final Solution, “I insist on delving into forbidden territory and presenting Amalek with all his features, as an aggregate of German functionaries.”
1997: R’ Shlomo Riskin writes “that the spiritual heirs of Amalek include the Nazis, the Soviet communists, and those Arabs who will not rest until we disappear from the land.”

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