Bibi Netanyahu's Bible lessons: How he pushes Gaza war to Jewish and Christian far right

Netanyahu deploys the biblical tale of Amalek, a story of violent revenge, with very specific audiences in mind

By Ariel Gold

Contributing writer

Published November 13, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

“You must ‘remember what Amalek has done to you,'” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admonished on Oct. 28, as he announced the “second phase” of Israel’s war in Gaza, the ground invasion that is now underway.

To many non-Jewish people around the world, the reference likely seemed obscure or meaningless. In the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, Amalek is a nation whose soldiers ambushed the Israelites as they made their way to the Promised Land. Following the attack, which the Israelites were able to beat back, God instructed them never to forget the near-catastrophe, and to wage an eternal war until no trace of Amalek’s existence remained. 

Netanyahu is notoriously secular in his private life. But he is nothing if not a shrewd politician, and scripture is the language he has chosen to sell this war both to Jewish supremacists in Israel and right-wing evangelical Christians in the U.S.

The victims of Hamas’ vile Oct. 7 attack, in which more than 1,400 Israelis died, lived within what is sometimes called the “Gaza envelope,” meaning the sparsely populated regions of southern Israel along the Gaza border. It’s an area heavy with kibbutzim — Israel’s famous intentional collectives, traditionally based around agriculture — and its residents are known for being largely secular and left-leaning.

For example, when Maoz Inon was asked whether losing his parents in Hamas’s terror attack had affected his political views, he pleaded not for revenge but for a reassessment of basing Israel’s security “on military might.” 

Likewise, Yotam Kipnis, in eulogizing his father, said, “We will not stay silent while the cannons roar, and we won’t forget that Dad loved peace. He wasn’t willing to serve in the territories. Do not write my father’s name on a missile, he wouldn’t have wanted that.”

Tom Godo, whose son lived and died in Kibbutz Kissufim, blamed Netanyahu’s government for the disaster: “The fingers that pulled the trigger and murdered, the hands that held the knives that stabbed and beheaded and slashed, were the loyal and determined emissaries of the accursed, messianic and corrupt government [of Israel].” 

Even after spending 16 days as a hostage in Gaza, 85-year-old peace activist Yocheved Lifshitz held onto her belief in reconciliation. Upon her release, she took the hand of her Hamas handler and bade him “Shalom” (peace).

Given that most evangelical Zionists believe that when enough Jews have populated modern Israel, the apocalypse will come and “a sea of human blood" will fill the land, it’s difficult to see their support for Israel as a heartfelt commitment to the protection of the Jewish people.

It’s not the families of those murdered on Oct. 7, nor the family members of hostages now held in Gaza — who have been sleeping in tents outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv, demanding the release of Palestinian political prisoners in exchange for their loved ones — to whom Netanyahu is invoking Amalek. It’s the ideological descendants of Kach.

That would be the religious-nationalist Kach party, founded in 1971 by Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who argued for “the immediate transfer of the Arabs” out of Israel and the occupied territories, referring to Palestinians as “dogs.” In 1984, the only occasion when his party won a seat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Kahane introduced legislation to ban both marriages and sexual relations between Jewish people and Gentiles, and revoke the Israeli citizenship of all non-Jews.   

Kach was so blatantly racist and supportive of violence that it was prohibited from running in Israel’s next election, banned entirely in 1994 and eventually defined as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. 

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But the Kach legacy lingers on, and in some ways is stronger than ever. Kahane himself was assassinated in New York in 1990, but nearly 30 years later his former follower Itamar Ben-Gvir formed the Jewish Power party, an ideological offshoot of Kach. After merging with other far-right fundamentalist parties last year to form Religious Zionism, they won the third-largest share of Israel’s parliament seats. Ben-Gvir, a settler in the occupied West Bank who has faced hate speech charges in the past, is now the national security minister. This is the audience Netanyahu is addressing with his talk of Amalek — but it’s not the only one. 

On Oct. 8, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, an evangelical group that claims to represent millions of pro-Israeli Christians, issued a statement in which ICEJ president Dr. Jürgen Bühler claimed that the brutal Hamas attack “was not launched due to grievances over the Israeli ‘occupation’ or any real dangers to the al-Aqsa mosque. Rather, it was driven by the ancient ‘Spirit of Amalek,’ which has always targeted Jewish women and children, and the old and weak and feeble of Israel.” 

On Oct. 24, Christians United for Israel, another right-wing evangelical group that boasts a membership of over 10 million, raised $25 million in a single night in support of Israel (and roughly $100 million that week). Standing beside CUFI’s Pastor John Hagee, who in 2008 referred to Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God “to help Jews reach the promised land,” was Gilad Erdan, Israel's ambassador to the U.N.

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Given the belief of most evangelical Zionists that when enough Jews have populated the modern State of Israel, the apocalypse will come and “a sea of [Jewish and Muslim] human blood" will fill the land, it’s difficult to see their support for Israel as a heartfelt commitment to the protection of the Jewish people. But amid clear signs of declining support for Israel among younger Jewish Americans, Israel has for years courted evangelical support. That isn’t necessarily working either: Polling suggests that support for Israel among younger U.S. evangelicals is also rapidly declining, dropping from 75% to 34% between 2018 and 2021. 

Religious nationalism may be soaring in Israel, but that’s not the trend in America. Some people of faith, like Adam Strater, the senior Jewish educator for Georgia Hillels, are even reclaiming the story of Amalek as a model for Jews to reject “the evil impulse,” described in the Zohar, and to “make the moral choice to reorient the tradition towards a shared sense of solidarity, and ultimately, liberation.” Given the rapidly climbing toll of death in Gaza — with more than 10,000 people killed to this point, including thousands of children — such changes could not be more welcome or come soon enough. 

By Ariel Gold

Ariel Gold is executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation — USA, the oldest interfaith organization in the country. Previously, she was national co-director and senior Middle East policy analyst at CODEPINK.

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Benjamin Netanyahu Christian Right Commentary Evangelicals Gaza Israel Jewish People Terrorism War