/ 26 January 2024

A response to the column ‘Who are the Amalek?’

Benjamin Nethanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu. (AFP)

Last week, Philip Machanick submitted an article in which he claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invocation of Amalek was genocidal. He clearly took the view that calling a group of people Amalek is tantamount to pushing for their destruction.

He claims that the group Netanyahu was referring to was the Palestinians generally, but this is far from clear, and it is obvious to most people that the group he was specifically referring to was Hamas. Worryingly, Machanick then went on to claim that Zionists are Amalek. Is he pushing for a genocide against Zionists?

Genocide is no joke, and accusations of genocide are just as lethal. Unwarranted accusations of genocide, apart from cheapening the very notion of genocide, depict the party accused of genocide as a pariah, deserving of the very worst treatment. As an “oppressor” who should perhaps be genocidally targeted themselves. Understood in this way, a false genocide claim is itself genocidal in nature.

The world is in intense turmoil, with many experiencing great pain. Bearing in mind the incredible power, privilege and ultimately responsibility that thought leaders possess, at this most unstable of times, it is important to subject Machanick’s opinion piece to scrutiny.

In this article we will assess the merits of his genocide claim. Is it a worthy legitimate claim, or is it unwarranted? We will then analyse the article, and evaluate whether it is well intentioned and attempting to ease Palestinian pain, or is it written, rather, to hurt Israel.  We will also attempt to understand if it increases or hinders chances for peace.

Is Israel genocidal?

Machanick stands firmly behind South Africa’s assertion that Israel is genocidal.

One would imagine that something as serious as genocide should be obvious when you see it. But Machanick reminds us that “invocations of the Amalek played a prominent part in the South African case in the ICJ [International Court of Justice], which accused Israel of genocide”. Machanick is correct in this regard. This was indeed the cornerstone argument put forward by the South African legal team.

And that is the crucial point. The fact that the South African legal team have found one quote from a prominent Israeli politician, decided to interpret his intention in quoting that verse in a very specific way and to thus infer genocide speaks volumes.

Genocide is the “crime of crimes”. Ambiguous genocide is oxymoronic. A genocide charge that traditional supporters of the Palestinians, such as Ireland, have consciously decided not to join, rings hollow. A genocide charge supported by Jeremy Corbyn, expelled in disgrace from the British Labour Party, raises far too many questions.

True genocide should certainly not need to be, nor can be, “proven” by suggesting that a biblical reference in one speech, from one of many spokesmen, should be understood in a very specific way. Machanick and co are trying very hard. Perhaps a little too hard.

They have decided to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary: countless humanitarian warnings to Palestinian civilians ahead of intended aerial attacks, years of ill Gazans being treated in Israel’s hospitals and fierce and immediate condemnation from the Israeli mainstream on rare occasions when a fanatical Israeli has uttered something of an unacceptable nature.

Absence of genocidal intent is also evidenced by Israel’s use of infantry when attacking Hamas positions, when Israel could have used aerial bombardment and thus diminished danger to its own, but chose not to for fear of causing civilian deaths. The list goes on.  

If Israel has genocidal intent it is incredibly unsuccessful. Nazi genocide reduced the number of Jews in the world by one third in six years. Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza since its withdrawal in 2005 has seen the population double.

All of this has been ignored by Machanick and co.

Why did Machanick and co arrive at their genocidal conclusion and how do they support it?

In the absence of any meaningful proof of genocide, one is forced to conclude that the main factor driving intelligent people to a finding of genocide is a desire and a commitment to arrive at such a finding.

A deep-seated visceral dislike of Israel is apparent in Machanick’s article. The kind of dislike that led many of that ilk to send messages of support to Hamas immediately after they had committed their atrocities, before Israel had even commenced any military action.

This desire to arrive at, and support a conclusion of genocide, sees Machanick repeatedly decontextualise Israeli military operations. Israel claims to be engaged in legitimate self-defence. Self-defence means responding to an attack.

But by ignoring both the magnitude and severity of Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October last year, and the reality of Hamas fighters embedding themselves among the civilian population, the suggestion is that Israel is waging war on the Gazan people for no reason other than to cause loss of Gazan life. Israeli Self-Defence is thus converted neatly into Israeli Offence, which conveniently sounds much more like genocide.

Machanick’s inability to hear the Israeli narrative manifests not just with regard to current events, but also with events further back in history. He quotes a litany of Zionist “crimes” over the past 100 years, reserving particular vitriol for Mordechai Makleff.

Predictably, there is no mention of Arab violence against Jews. There is no mention of the Hebron massacre, no mention of the Mufti of Jerusalem collaboratively cosying up to Hitler, and no mention of the fact that Mordechai Makleff’s entire family was massacred when he was nine years old.

Context is everything when understanding military action. Britain bombing Dresden to rid the world of Nazil peril can be understood. Bombing Dresden for no reason would have looked genocidal.

Israel bombing buildings in Gaza where Hamas terrorists have embedded themselves can be understood — and is indeed understood by most countries with a respectable human rights record. Israel randomly bombing buildings in Gaza for no reason looks more genocidal. How convenient — let’s just strip out the context.

By disingenuous stripping away of context, Machanick again tries hard to push the genocide angle.

Machanick’s closing message

Machanick seems very sure at the start of his article that labelling a group as Amalek is a call to destroy that group. Astoundingly, he then labels “Zionists” as Amalek; 90% of Jewish Israelis would identify as Zionist. Is he calling for the genocide of 90% of Jewish Israelis?

It seems that he is concerned that that is how his words may be interpreted. He therefore generously states: “This does not mean that you deserve to be killed.”

It is fascinating that Machanick leaves no space for the vast majority of evidence coming out of Israel which suggest that it is not at war with Gazan civilians. Evidence of non-genocide is inadmissible when it comes to Israel.

However, he is permitted to label Zionists as Amalek, but to then qualify his comments.

A reprehensible double standard. He may qualify his own genocidal comment, but Israel may not qualify its comments.

And with that he concludes.

The real tragedy of Machanick’s article

South Africa, and its academic community in particular, could have offered so much hope to the Israel/Gaza conflict.

With its track record of having transitioned from a situation of incredible strife and enmity into the vibrant democracy it has now become, South Africa could have been a true beacon of light and hope to the Middle East.

But this entails being an honest broker. Being an honest broker means listening to the narrative of both sides and feeling the pain and fear of both sides.

An ill-judged, flimsily constructed accusation of genocide simply means that, at best, the accusers will have no chance to influence events and, at worst, they may be the cause of more bloodshed.

The accusers may not be bothered by this, because their genocide accusation may only endanger the side they do not really like very much.

But they are wrong.

Israel will be fine without the support of the South African government. It may need to start drying mangos domestically instead of importing them from South Africa, but it will make a plan.

The real catastrophe is that Gazans who long for change and dream of a post-Hamas era have not been heard. They have been abandoned in South Africa’s rush to accuse Israel and support Hamas.

Is there hope? 

As Machanick concluded, “it is not too late to change”. This was addressed to the Zionists he targets in his article. He would like them to find some middle ground. Hamas has said it is committed to Israel’s destruction. He would like Israel to negotiate and find some diluted version of its own destruction it could get comfortable with.

Machanick, other academics, South African government, I am willing to assume you all mean well. Group think, ignoring Hamas and settling for a simplistic “oppressor-oppressed” narrative is depriving the Middle East of the hope it deserves.

Your approach so far is helping no one — but it is not too late to change.

Daniel Beider is a former investment banker and turned his attention in recent years to the nonprofit sector, particularly in the Jewish community. He is frequently invited to share his opinions on ChaiFM and SAFM.