One of the frequent memes in the vexing debate about how to restrain Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb is the religious figure of Amalek. My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, in trying to explain Israeli sensitivity to a regional foe being able to match Israel's nuclear firepower, has cited Amalek as important to Netanyahu's thinking:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.” “Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit. If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.

I take all this at face value. After Hitler, it would take an extraordinarily numb skull not to see why Israelis fear such a figure; and after many of the rancid pronouncements from the mullahs in Tehran, one 110504_1g_b can see precisely why Israelis feel that way about Iran under its current regime. Just because the Israelis are paranoid doesn't mean the Iranian leaders aren't out to get them.

But the story of Amalek is an unfortunate one for Netanyahu. It is unfortunate because the bulk of the literature in the Jewish scriptures points to massive Jewish over-reaction to the Amalekites - to the point of religiously commanded genocide. In fact, the existential threat in legend is from the Israelites against the Amalekites, not the other way round. Wiki's full treatment is here - and since I am not schooled in this, please let me know if I am misreading Wiki and other Googled sources. Legend and scripture have it, so far as I can glean, that the Amalekites - originating near Mecca - harassed and killed Jews cruelly and indiscriminately as they fled Egypt. But the response of the Israelites was "a sacred war of extermination." The Amalekites were deemed so dangerous they had to be annihilated entirely. Yahweh commanded:

Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

The command to use disproportionate, genocidal force against the Amalekites - to kill every single one of them, including children - was a serious one. Saul failed to be ruthless enough against the enemy - and was shamed for it. Jeffrey notes that

It is true that the Bible calls for the smiting of Amalek. It is also true that this is a Jewishly inoperable commandment, never carried out, and never to be carried out.

But, according to scripture, it was carried out, by David:

"8 Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. 9And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish."

Well, he spared the farm animals because he stole them. Any sign of moderation was lamented by Yahweh. Josephus writes:

"[David] betook himself to slay the women and the children, and thought he did not act therein either barbarously or inhumanly; first, because they were enemies whom he thus treated, and, in the next place, because it was done by the command of God, whom it was dangerous not to obey"

Sound familiar? Maimonides later circumscribed the call to genocide thus:

Maimonides explains, however, that the commandment of killing out the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to peacefully request of them to accept upon themselves the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse is the commandment applicable.

So it's a version of submission or genocide - not exactly an inoperable commandment even for the great and wise Maimonides. Now, I do not for a moment believe that this is Netanyahu's intent or belief.

I do not for a second believe that he wants to kill every Iranian man, woman and child, and steal their cattle and clothing. I think he wants to erase every single aspect of the nuclear program out of a genuine security concern for his country. I do think, however, that the understandable Jewish fear of another Shoah sometimes obscures how some statements can be read or interpreted by others - and this cluelessness can hurt Israel. I mean: does Netanyahu believe invoking an ancient religious commandment to annihilate a regional rival is the best way to move diplomacy forward in the Middle East? If Ahmadinejad had cited a command by Allah for the genocidal annihilation of every single Jewish man, woman and child, and if he brought up this religious text to explain his attitude toward Israel in the current moment, do you think Norman Podhoretz would explain it away as unserious or inoperable?

Jeffrey can easily regard Netanyahu as unserious in the literal resonance of his words. So can I, after finding out what on earth he was talking about. But after the carnage of Gaza, with the ethnic cleanser Lieberman at his side, sitting on a massive stockpile of nukes, does Netanyahu really not see why others might be alarmed, if not terrified, when they hear this analogy? Muslims are human beings too. Up against the military might of the US and Israel, they can feel like permanent victims. And when one side has over a hundred nukes, is threatening a strike, and the other is trying to get material for one, the fear is legitimate on both sides.

The danger of religious fundamentalism is everywhere - hence my insistence on the term "Christianism" to distinguish this will to politico-religious power from power-phobic genuine Christianity. The invocation of scripture to justify war has infected the US military and is obviously the main force behind global Jihad. But it is also a dangerous element in Israeli politics and culture. After all, the West Bank settlements are often a function of religious zeal, and often defended for religious reasons, and Netanyahu is far more indebted to his religious nut-jobs than even Bush was to his. You cannot avoid a religious war by invoking a religious genocide to explain your intentions. Not if you hope to win friends and sustain alliances.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to