Netanyahu abuses Bible to impress US evangelicals

Two men shake hands

Shaking hands on genocide? Antony Blinken meets Benjamin Netanyahu on 3 November.

Ben Gershom Polaris

In his press briefing on 27 October, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cited a biblical reference to “Amalek” in the context of the “destruction of Hamas” and to “eradicate this evil from the world.”

This pseudo-religious spin may have confused all but his ultra-right religious followers, both Jewish and Christian Zionists. Netanyahu continued: “We remember, and we are fighting … our soldiers are part of a legacy of Jewish warriors that goes back 3,000 years.”

What appeared bizarre to many was a highly intentional religious justification for Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Gaza’s Palestinian men, women, and children.

The “annihilate Amalek” theme invokes support from the divine in this modern crusade to exterminate the Amalekites, interpreted today as every Palestinian. Netanyahu’s base of political support among militant settlers finds inspiration from these violent biblical texts.

Another base of Netanyahu’s support is the international Christian Zionist movement, rising in the Global South, southeast Asia, and North America. Netanyahu can count on these friends to provide political, economic and media support despite a dramatic decline in his popularity at home and abroad.

Shortly after the 7 October attacks, a letter of support for Israel’s war on Gaza was issued by 60 conservative evangelical leaders in the United States, including two former presidents of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – Russell Moore, now editor of Christianity Today, and Richard Land.

Several pastors from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical Christian denomination in the United States, signed the letter. Many of the supporters, but not all, embrace the “annihilate Amalek” war mentality, while others draw on just war theory.

The letter was delivered to the White House and every Congressional office on Capitol Hill, lending support for the Israeli aggression on Gaza.

Eternal enmity

What is the source of the eternal enmity between the Amalekites and the Jewish people?

The first biblical reference to enmity between the Hebrew tribes and the Amalekites, which may be more mythical than historical, is found in the book of Exodus (17:8-16). The passage refers to a clash between the Amalekite tribe and the Hebrew tribes who were leaving the Sinai peninsula and entering Canaan.

Moses told his chief of staff Joshua to lead the battle while Moses stood on a hill lifting up his arms as he did when the waters parted and his people crossed the Red Sea on dry land.

When Moses became tired and lowered his arms, the Amalekites prevailed, clearly a reenactment of the Exodus narrative. When he lifted his arms, the Hebrew tribes prevailed.

The passage ends with this: “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

A second incident is recorded in 1 Samuel 15:1-35, where the prophet Samuel told Israel’s new king Saul to attack the Amalekites as a test of his loyalty. In this gruesome narrative, Samuel’s instructions are: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

However, King Saul did not complete the massacre of every Amalekite. Instead, he spared their king and took some sheep and cattle for himself.

The passage concludes with the Prophet Samuel rejecting Saul because he spared the king and some livestock.

From that moment the divine blessing fell from King Saul. The passage ends with the Prophet Samuel hacking the Amalekite king to death.

It is highly unlikely these primitive, mythic stories are grounded in history. They should be dismissed for their perpetuation of the cycles of violence and what the biblical scholar Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.”

While the Zionist movement and its Christian Zionist supporters have utilized the narratives of redemptive violence since Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, they are not alone in their embrace of the “annihilate Amalek” tradition.

The first governor of the Puritans in the so-called “new world” used the Amalek theme and applied it to the native Americans who endured a genocidal war of settler colonialism for the next 300 years.

The Tutsis invoked the Amalek mythology in their genocide of the Hutus in Rwanda. And today we find fundamentalist Christians, Jewish Zionists and moderate Democrats embracing various narratives of the myth of redemptive violence when applied to the Palestinian people.

What’s the end game?

Benjamin Netanyahu may be the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history but his future is fragile and his reign could end as soon as hostilities end.

Prior to 7 October, Netanyahu was already facing massive demonstrations against his leadership in the wake of his move to weaken the Israeli high court. Israel’s image as the only democracy in the Middle East vanished as more moderate Israelis and the Jewish diaspora in the West expressed their opposition.

And while large demonstrations against his takeover of the Israeli judiciary were dissipating, Netanyahu’s popularity continued to decline after the 7 October attacks.

Israel’s security lapses were exposed and Netanyahu’s concern for the captives seemed weak to nonexistent. Political analysts have continued to wonder if Netanyahu had an end game in the Gaza hostilities.

Reports surfaced in late October pointing to a possible end game that was just beginning to see the light after a few weeks of the assault on Gaza. There is nothing new in these reports as the ideas have been discussed for several decades, but the timing is a matter of serious concern.

Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, an official government institution though not in direct charge of any intelligence agency, produced a report suggesting an end game that could be under discussion with the Netanyahu government and US officials. According to the document, leaked to the online Israeli + 972 Magazine, the current hostilities provide the perfect political cover for the expulsion of Gaza’s Palestinians into the Sinai desert.

The report has credence in as much as the intelligence ministry is headed by Gila Gamaliel, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. It also suggests some Palestinians can be settled in Canada, Spain, North Africa and Greece.

A report from the Israeli think tank, the Misgav Institute, headed by Amir Weitzmann, a close associate of Netanyahu, had already emerged. The subtitle of the report made its intentions clear: “There is at the moment a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government.”

The expulsion plan proposes to send the Palestinians of Gaza to new buildings in Egypt for which the Israeli government will pay the Egyptian government. The report estimates the cost of this to be in the billions of dollars, offering an “innovative, cheap and viable solution.”

This comes as the Biden administration is requesting the US Congress for $106 billion to be largely divided between Ukraine and Israel. It includes $9.15 billion for Israeli, Palestinian, and Ukrainian civilians impacted by recent hostilities.

A portion of this package could be used to resettle Palestinians in the Sinai. Various Arab governments will no doubt be solicited to pay for the balance.

The intelligence ministry report has been verified by independent Israeli sources. It recommends three phases to the Gaza campaign, two of which match the war cabinet’s declared strategies – intense bombing and destruction of northern Gaza; an intensive ground war in the north while driving the remaining Palestinians from the north to southern Gaza.

These phases should be understood as ethnic cleansing operations. They constitute genocide and war crimes.

The final stage, which could be the exit strategy for Netanyahu and the Biden administration, is emptying Gaza of all Palestinians and declaring they will never return. The suggested rationale for the horrific genocide is its necessity.

As the report states, an ” immediate, realistic and sustainable plan for the resettlement and humanitarian rehabilitation of the entire Arab population in the Gaza Strip is required which aligns well with the economic and geopolitical interests of Israel, Egypt, the USA and Saudi Arabia.”

While not discussed in this document, one can assume a plan already exists for the violent expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria as evidenced by the settler violence against Palestinians that has been ongoing and intensifying for months.

Grassroots hope

The above strategy may appear to be highly speculative and conspiratorial but we need to be reminded that this scenario happened just 75 years ago in the Nakba, the 1947-9 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. When the lessons of history are not learned, history will repeat itself.

Israel seems to have the unqualified military, political, and economic support of the Biden administration and the US Congress, which stand ready to support whatever Netanyahu proposes.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in the United States, the European Union, and Israel, but, with a few minor exceptions, we have seen no evidence of this. A regional war involving Hizballah and other militias from Syria, Iraq and Yemen could delay the expulsion of the Gaza Palestinians or it could elevate the plan, depending on how the war plays out.

There is some hope on the horizon, but it may take too long for it to make a difference. I refer to the rising resistance from the grassroots, spreading across cities from New York to London, Paris, Ramallah, Amman, and even to southeast Asia.

The power of mass protests, civil disobedience, and citizens demanding a ceasefire and end to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine has put the Palestine case at center stage, much to the chagrin of Netanyahu, Biden, and the “moderate” Arab regimes. Palestine is once again front and center in the public eye where it belongs.

Will mass protests impact decision makers in Washington and Israel? We are at the crossroads for a response to that question.

If the mobilization of civil society takes more aggressive strategies demanding Israel (and the US) pay a political and financial price for this genocidal war, we may see changes in US policy regarding Palestinian justice. However, it took the movement against the Vietnam War at least seven years to have an impact and the anti-apartheid movement even longer to end the white supremacist South African regime.

In each case, the United States was the last country to change position.

If there is renewed demand for sanctions on Israel, including countries withdrawing financial aid and isolating Israel, then we may see political change begin in the United States. If the emerging coalition of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, secular, Black and brown justice movements increases its demands and impact, including cutting US military aid to Israel, only then will there be meaningful change on the ground in Palestine.

Massive demonstrations must lead to civil disobedience and various forms of nonviolent direct action, including disruption of the supply chains of weapons, tanks, fighter jets and other delivery systems.

Another important political strategy in the United States is to organize Arab and Muslim voters, alongside progressive Jewish and Christian voters, to withhold their vote for Joe Biden and moderate Democrats in 2024, until they (we) see significant policy changes in relation to US military and economic support for Israel.

This too will be a long journey and an increasingly urgent one if the Israeli and US endgame is the genocidal forced expulsion of the Palestinians. If the “annihilate Amalek” vengeance continues to be the guiding vision for the present leadership in Israel and the United States, the world will witness another genocide as it unfolds day by day in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestine case can be a turning point for justice in the Middle East or a lost opportunity for everyone.

A wise sage once said: “Where there is no vision, the people will perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

How long will we put up with leaders who offer no vision while the people of Gaza perish before our very eyes?

Rev. Dr. Don Wagner is a retired member of the Presbyterian clergy, professor and a human rights activist. He is the author of the memoir Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land (Interlink, 2022).

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