Friday, March 06, 2009

Elliott Horowitz - Modern Amalekites From Adolf to Avigdor

In a previous post at the Seforim blog, Prof. Elliott Horowitz of Bar Ilan University and co-editor of Jewish Quarterly Review, described Isaiah Berlin on Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and Saul Lieberman [see here].


This is his fourth contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.


Modern Amalekites: From Adolf to Avigdor

by Elliott Horowitz

Well before the outbreak of World War II the Nazi regime in Germany came to be associated by many Jews with Israel’s ancient arch-enemy, Amalek. Perhaps the first to do so was the noted historian Simon Dubnow who in a 1935 (Hebrew) letter from Riga to his disciple Simon Rawidowicz bemoaned the recently promulgated Nuremberg Laws, and then prophetically exclaimed “We are at war with Amalek!” During that same decade some ultra-Orthodox European rabbis were using the epithet of “Amalek” with reference to their more secular coreligionists who adhered to such modern ideologies as Communism or Zionism. This was true, for example, of the great Talmudist R. Elhanan Wasserman, one of the leaders of Agudat Yisrael, who like Dubnow was to meet his death in 1941 at the hands of the Nazis. Wasserman, who had studied in Volozhin and Telz before joining the kollel of the Hafetz Hayyim (R. Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, 1838-1933), cited the latter’s confident opinion that the Soviet Jewish communists (known as the Yevsektzia) were “descendants of Amalek.” Ironically, his even more ultra-Orthodox Hungarian contemporary R. Hayyim Elazar Spira of Munkacz (1872-1937) included among the ranks of modern Amalekites not only the Zionists, but also the members and leadership of Agudat Yisrael.[1]


In September of 1941 Joseph Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of (what was then still) the British Empire, delivered a thundering sermon at a public “intercession service” held on the ruins of London’s Great Synagogue, which had just been destroyed by German bombs. Drawing upon the previous week’s scriptural reading from Deuteronomy 25, which is also the “additional” reading for Shabbat Zakhor, Hertz referred to Nazi Germany as “Amalek’s latest spiritual descendant; he fears not God; he closes the gates of mercy on those who cannot resist his might.” The Chief Rabbi stressed that God’s war with Amalek was not to be left in divine hands, but was to be “carried out by…men and nations filled with an endless loathing of Amalek and all his works and ways.” He also praised those Jews who had shown support for “our beloved country in her struggle to blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens of the Lord.”[2]


Hertz, who had studied at New York’s City College (where he received a gold medal for English composition) before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (of which he was the first rabbinical graduate), was not the first British clergyman to portray the Germans as contemporary Amalekites. Early in October of 1939, shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem to serve as chaplain of St. Andrew’s Scottish Church (and a month after Germany’s invasion of Poland), Dr. Norman Maclean chose as the text for his Sunday sermon the account (in Exodus 17) of Amalek’s attack at Rephidim. The prayer by Moses on the adjacent hill-top, asserted Maclean (1869-1952), who had earlier served as minister of St. Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh, “described our duty in the grim conflict now being waged.” Then as now “the nations which abolished God or reduced Him to a tribal deity confronted the nations that held fast to the faith of their fathers.” In the balance, both at Rephidim and in the present, lay nothing less than “the fate of the world’s soul.”[3]


The connection between the world’s soul and the Jewish people had concerned Rev. Maclean (to whom I hope to return in a future post) well before his arrival in Jerusalem, which he first visited in 1934. During the First World War, while still serving at St. Cuthbert’s he contributed a foreword to Leon Levison’s The Jew in History (1916) which opened with the words: “The world owes its soul to the Jews.” In consonance with that position Maclean shared the hope of Levison, his Safed-born brother in Christ,[4] that the war’s end “may be the restoration of the Jews to Palestine,” which Maclean saw as “the only lasting reparation that Christendom can make for centuries of wrong,” adding that “it was a disgrace that the holy places of Christianity should be in the hands of Mohammedans.”


Not surprisingly, Rev. Maclean, whose views were not quite in consonance with those of Britain’s Mandatory representatives, did not last very long at St. Andrews in Jerusalem. Early in January of 1941 the Palestine Post laconically reported that “Dr. Norman Maclean and the Hon. Mrs. Maclean are planning to return to Britain shortly.” Several months later he completed his tenth book, His Terrible Swift Sword: On the Problem of Jewish Immigration to Palestine (1942), which he had begun writing “on the summit of one of the hills of Judah looking down on Ain Karem,” but completed in Portree on the Island of Skye. As the Palestine Post reported, it was prohibited for importation into Palestine by the High Commissioner (Harold MacMichael) who may not have approved of such passages as: “Nine months after we declared war on Hitlerism, victims of Hitlerism are still in Athlit (p. 16).” Shortly after the book’s publication Maclean spoke at an event sponsored by the Jewish National Fund at London’s Dorchester hotel.[5]


At that event he may well have met Chief Rabbi Hertz, who was a fervent Zionist - a position of which not all prominent British Jews then approved. Had Maclean crossed the ocean to visit New York City he could, of course, have met many rabbis who shared his criticisms of British immigration policy, including Israel Levinthal of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. The Vilna-born and Columbia-educated Levinthal, like many of his coreligionists and fellow clergymen on both sides of the Atlantic, saw Hitler as a modern-day Haman and the Nazis as Amalekites, but by 1947 he was also willing to add others to the list. In a sermon delivered on Shabbat Zakhor of that year (and later published in his collection Judaism Speaks to the Modern World) he asserted that the British, who earlier “pretended to be friends of Jewish Palestine” now “suddenly reveal themselves as the modern Amalek,” and that Ernest Bevin, the Labour government’s foreign secretary, “is just like Haman himself.”[6]


It is unlikely that such ardent religious Zionists as Hertz and Levinthal were able to imagine that in the Jewish state they hoped and prayed for chief rabbis would emerge who would hurl the epithet of “Amalek” at fellow Jews, including members of parliament. Yet as many readers will recall, less than a decade ago R. Ovadia Yosef compared then-education minister Yossi Sarid to Haman, adding that “he is wicked and satanic and must be erased like Amalek.” Although the office of then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein pursued a criminal investigation on grounds of possible incitement to violence the redoubtable Rishon le-Zion was never charged. He was thus understandably less reluctant to make use of the same rabbinical WMD during the recent elections, when many Shas supporters showed signs of leaving the Sephardi Sage of Har Nof for the Russian Rage of Nokdim. At the same Saturday night live broadcast at which R. Ovadiah had in 2000 asserted that Sarid “must be erased like Amalek” he turned his rhetorical rifle to the right and aimed it at MK Avigdor Lieberman, announcing that “a vote for Lieberman was a vote for Amalek."


[1] See Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 140-41, and the sources cited there.


[2] See Joseph H. Hertz, Early and Late: Addresses, Messages, and Papers (Hindhead: The Soncino Press, 1943), 67-69.


[3] Palestine Post, 2 October 1939. Maclean’s imminent arrival, together with that of his wife, was reported in the same publication on 9 May of that year. The couple had previously been living on the Island of Skye.


[4] On Levison see Frederick Levison, Christian and Jew: The Life of Leon Levison, 1881-1936 (Edinburgh: The Pentland Press, 1989).


[5] idem., 4 June 1942, 17 September 1942.

[6] Israel H. Levinthal, Judaism Speaks to the Modern World (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1963), 77-84. On Levinthal see Kimmy Caplan, “The Life and Sermons of Israel Herbert Levinthal (1882-1982),” American Jewish History 87:1 (March 1999): 1-27.


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