Amalek: How jihadist would God want Israel to be?

For what Israel has gone through, a degree of militarism is hardly to be wondered at. How else could it claim or defend an inheritance? But how far should it go?

Steve Apfel

Judaism Site of the Canaanite temple
Site of the Canaanite temple

The title could make the pugilistic runner for the White House, Bernie Sanders, succumb to a stroke. Jihadist? God? Israel?

Anti-Zionists with a different axe to grind have their animosity thickened by religious dogma.

Take the Rev Stephen Sizer, who looks back in anger at the return to the land of promise by God-forsaken Jews who may be permitted to survive but not to thrive. What could be more in the cleric’s face than a runaway Israeli economy, a juggernaut Israeli military, and a tsunami of Israeli yeshiva and seminary programs!    

Who would cast the first stone at Rev Sizer for telling the upstart, occupying chutzpahdik Jews that they are the Lord’s discards? Not even discards. “The Jewish people as a race were never God’s chosen people,” said the cleric in his mild-mannered way.1

We don’t have his authority to speak for God, but can speak for the Godless who assert that the Bible is Zionism’s tardy excuse for expelling the native people. If Moses did hear someone or something on Sinai, it would not have been to give his flock of runaway slaves carte blanche to thieve, occupy and lord it over hapless Canaanites who became the Palestinian Arabs. On the contrary....

I listened to a Jewish professor remind Israel to remember the Torah’s repeated warning to be kind to strangers in your midst after the Israelites were strangers in Egypt. The Bible thumping caught me by surprise. The professor and his pro-boycott panel had spent an afternoon regaling Israelis for being strangers in Palestine. In that case you’d think, why not dress down the Palestinian Arab "natives"? Remind them to be kind to strangers in their midst. Jew or Arab: how difficult can it be to give one or the other the status of a stranger with the inalienable right to kindly treatment!   

Is the muddle of such anti-Zionism the outcome of righteous compassion fronting for brutish animosity? Anyone may cherry pick humane ideals while blotting out parts where the Bible   declares that right is might. Holy war in short. Like it or not, God commands Israel to wage war – in fact to wage different types of war.

After creating dry land He earmarked a parcel for the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When the moment arrived and push came to shove, the stiff-necked people would have to kill before settling their Promised Land. They were commanded to annihilate the Seven Nations that occupy it. ‘You shall utterly destroy them’ (Deuteronomy 20:17) Anyone who chances upon one of the seven and fails to destroy them, violates a negative command. ‘Do not allow a soul to live.’ (Ibid:16) It is another command to remember to destroy the nation of Amelek.” 2 

The present tense of these commands is important. The obligation to wipe out some foes is not bound by time or by circumstance. Destroy. Period. The laws of the Old Testament are far from pacific. For what Israel has gone through a degree of militarism is hardly to be wondered at. How else could it claim or defend an inheritance? 

Maimonides, the peerless scholar, physician, and philosopher, was no zealot. Yet he is clear that the law mandates Jews to go to war, for two purposes. One is to deal with implacable foes, the other, more discretely, to expand the boundaries of Israel or to plunder wealth.

This flat portrait of cupidity is not pretty. But the law never allows the picture to be flat for long. It fences military action around and around until the soldiers of Israel take an arsenal of ethical and moral codes into battle. Here is not the time or place for them, but to give an example: before any killing starts Israel has to try for peace. If the other side agrees to the terms, commits to keeping the seven laws of Noah, and submits to servitude, the army of Israel must pack up and go home.

Jews, however, will be Jews. Give them a set of ground rules and they’ll add more on top. Set a moral bar to clear and Jews will ratchet it up a few notches – high enough to make other nations like them a bit more. War offers the chance to parade the mercy and magnanimity of Israel; to go above and beyond the letter of the law. How could the nations not like a merciful Israel? 

There lies the rub. “Be not over righteous, nor too clever.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). And, in the words of Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish: “Whoever shows mercy to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to those deserving of mercy.” 3  

Israeli wars, ancient and modern, make perfect case studies for the early warnings. They teach that trouble upon trouble comes upon Israel when it bends like a reed to be extra nice, especially to enemies that are predisposed to take mercy as weakness and to bite the hand that feeds. The Rabbis of the Talmud frown upon allowing a weaker opponent to get the upper hand. If Jews die as a result the Rabbis consider it a form of suicide. Cain killing the stronger Abel after the latter felt sorry for his brother set the precedent. Thereafter the law set boundaries for showing mercy. A foes intent on killing loses the right to life.

Jewish compassion, however, seems limitless. Merciful treatment of the enemy goes to unreasonable length. Such behaviour led the astute diplomat Abba Eban to complain sardonically after Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War: “I think it would be the first war in history that on the morrow the victors sued for peace and the vanquished called for unconditional surrender.”  4 

Nor did the world’s looked-for pat on the back happen. On the contrary: displays of mercy fed expectations and demands on Israel to act with ‘restraint.’ What other nations at war are told to hold back, time after time? 

The Jews are an obliging people. Up and up they move the self-imposed bar. “Heaven help us if our moral standard is reduced to not committing crimes against humanity. From my country I demand a lot more,” said Jessica Montell, heading an Israeli human rights NGO. 5 The Jewish Forward, gave Montell the platform, and gives it to other Jews who expect more than above-board conduct from Israel – indeed a whole lot more.

Her comments came in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the urban war that involved every hazard imaginable and every trick in the foe’s arsenal. Brought up short by a catalogue of canards, Israel came out bruised but not guilty. Yet the halo brigade is insatiable. It wants more. It sets the bar so high that it can’t be cleared. It wants Israeli forces to be cleaner than clean, and the higher the bar the better to make Israel trip. Haters wait and watch from the sideline. How high can Israel jump? A shiver of the bar transports the court of public opinion into frenzies of scorn and condemnation. And instead of a light unto the nations, Israel becomes the polecat. Even supporters will show patience only up to a point. Israel may be allowed to fight a rearguard action against all odds, but no more. Outright victory is intolerable.

What does God think about Israel at war? Is He an understanding God? It all depends. Are the Jihadists who fire rockets into Israel descended from the Seven Nations in the bible? Would they be among those whom Israel is commanded to annihilate? Or are they descendants of Amalek, the enemy of all enemies for all time? 

No one knows. Some do know that the mini wars that Israel had to fight in its backyard (Defensive Shield, Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, Protective Edge) can be traced to the original sin of treating the heritage, the Promised Land, like a hot potato. Land won in miraculous victories became land to surrender, land with which to curry favour. 

It made a victorious and magnanimous Israel hated more than a weak Israel. Mayhem and terror and international pariah status were the wages of sin.

It took Israelis a long time to learn that land for peace does not appease; it emboldens demands for more. The lesson slowly sunk in that Israelites are a people who dwell alone. “Palestine from the river to the sea” echoes in UN corridors and chambers meant to keep nation from warring on nation. 

How angry might it make the God of Israel? Once upon a time a king bestowed gifts and favours on a preferred son. The son took the king’s benevolence for granted and thought of the gifts and favours, when he thought of them, as his rightful due. To court popularity he was liberal with giving away the gifts, even to those who hated him. Some had gone so far as plotting to kill the son, yet were glad to accept his generosity. By the power of the king the son’s life had been saved many times over, but he was unmindful of this. 

Was the king angry? Angry is not the word.


1. Rosh Pina Project, June 3, 2014, 

2. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Commentary, Halacha 5. 

3. Midrash, Kohelet Rabah 7:16. 

4Stand for Israel,

5. Hadrian’s Echo: The Whys and Wherefores of Israel’s Critics, Steve Apfel, SBPRA, 2012, p. 136.