The response to Hamas’s attack has broken the security cordon that surrounded certain pages of the Old Testament. Judaism is also confronted with the question of religious violence

Last update: 2023-12-14 12:39:43

The moral regression sparked by the third Gaza war shifted into a higher gear on October 28 when the Israeli prime minister compared the Palestinians to Amalek, the population that Saul, the first king of Israel, was ordered to exterminate by the prophet Samuel (see 1 Sam 15). Immediately after, Netanyahu went even further back in time, explicitly establishing a link between the heroes of the 1948 independence and Joshua son of Nun, the successor of Moses, to whom the biblical book of the same name attributes the conquest of the Promised Land, 3,000 years ago. By comparison, the symbolism of Hamas, related to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, appears almost modern, given that the Islamic sanctuary was founded “only” 1,300 years ago by the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, and Muhammad’s alleged ascension into heaven—which is the main though not the sole reason why the place is sacred to Muslims—dates back just 1,400 years.


Until October 7, academic wisdom would have dismissed these remarks by Netanyahu—or those of Itamar Ben-Gvir, or Hamas and Islamist preachers calling for the liberation of al-Aqsa and the whole of Palestine, from the river to the sea—as “discourse”, that is, empty words to be ignored, focusing in its stead on a tautologically more pragmatic “praxis.” Behind the reasoning lies a not-so-subtly veiled “souk” logic: in the Middle East—so pundits say—people compete to see who goes highest before agreeing on the actual price of goods, including political ones.


It is thanks to this refined analytical grid that over the past decades most scholars have systematically got their predictions wrong: from Turkey to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, from the Syrian to the Afghanistan jihadists (remember the fleeting appearance of the “Taliban 2.0”?), up to Hamas, it has been a proliferation of “it’s not the words we need to look at, it’s the deeds.” Only to be thrown off-kilter when these movements put into practice what they had been preaching for decades.


This time again, the blinkers of wishful thinking prevent us from seeing the change taking place in Israeli society. Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has never been purely secular. Had it been so, the early Zionists would have accepted the British proposal, endorsed by Theodor Herzl, to establish a nation-state in a remote region of Uganda, at the time and to all effects almost a “land without a people for a people without a land”—unlike the Holy Land. Had it been so, the first great Arab revolt would not have broken out from the mosques, nor would the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husayni have made a name for himself during the Second World War for the creation of the Islamic SS. That is to say, the claim that at the outset the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a purely national issue should be taken with a good pinch of salt.


However, in recent decades, the religious component has constantly escalated. In an instance of bad mimesis, Israelis and Palestinians have been outbidding one another, until they turned their conflict into a clash of absolutes. Each side points the finger at the extremism of the other. But each side forgets to condemn its own, leaving less and less room for diversity in their ranks. In Israel, the political war waged by Netanyahu in order to secure his career by passing a judicial reform has long since metamorphosed into a war of culture and religion that  “will be exceptionably ugly,” as journalist Anshel Pfeffer prophetically wrote at the end of September. 


In this escalation, Jewish fundamentalist movements have long since broken the cordon of security that surrounded certain pages of the Old Testament, with the result that Islamic jihad is now confronted with Old Testament herem (war of extermination). This is one of the most worrying aspects of the current war. Even a non-believer like Netanyahu, for whom what really counts is the Israeli nation, in other words a form of secularized messianism, ends up quoting the Bible and reciting a prayer for the soldiers, although tripping up here and there because the ghost-writer forgot to fully vocalize the text.


It is evident that for a Christian, a politician who invokes an Old Testament passage to justify military action poses a much greater challenge than one who draws reference from the Qur’an. For the Old Testament is a direct part of the revelation—the early Church condemned Marcion who had tried to do away with it.


So, what can we answer? We could perhaps argue that in the verses following the one quoted by Netanyahu, the extermination of the Amalekites does not actually take place: Saul and the people did not carry out the prophetic order. But this argument would only last the blink of an eye: if we continue reading the Book of Samuel, we learn that Saul’s disobedience becomes the very reason for his fall.


Leaving the text aside, we can observe that the modern Palestinians are not the Amalekites. When the Holy Land was conquered by the Muslims, it was inhabited not only by Christians, but also by Jewish communities. Indeed, by reading late antique historians, one gets the impression that these communities were quite substantial. What happened to them? Like their Christian counterparts, they went through a process of Arabization and, in many cases, Islamization. So, by taking a closer look, Netanyahu could discover that many of the so-called Palestinian “Amalekites” for whose extermination he is pleading have Jewish blood running through their veins. This is already something to think about. In the Holy Land, history and geography are being rewritten as part and parcel of the process of dehumanization of the enemy.


More radically, the Old Testament progressively takes its leave of the practice, then the theorization of the war of extermination, opening up to a vision—after the political catastrophe of the end of the monarchy—in which nations find their place alongside the People. This vision is the message of the great prophets. Yet despite being theoretically considered part of the revelation, in Jewish fundamentalist groups the latter are almost completely ignored, in favor of the more archaic pages of Judges and Joshua. In the end, Judaism is Samson slaying the Philistines, a scene very much in fashion today, but it is also the beginning of Isaiah, in which the mountain of the Lord’s temple becomes a pilgrimage site for “all the nations,” swords are turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks (Is 2:2–4). In the Old Testament, there is a clear tendency to overcome exclusivist logic, but the process remains open, the end needs to be written. And this is precisely one of the reasons why Christians consider the Hebrew Bible as a discourse awaiting completion, a drama in search of an epilogue untangling all its knots. It has always been the point of contention between Jews and Christians.


For millennia, the political situation has rendered the most bellicose pages of the Old Testament inoperative. Now that Israel has reconstituted itself as a state and increasingly as a religious state, it can no longer skate round them, just as Muslims cannot ignore the institution of jihad. The first thing that actors not directly involved in this war should do is explaining very clearly where a pure religious conflict leads. Fortunately, some leaders in the region are well aware of it: in recent years, a part of the Arab world has strongly endeavored to find a modus vivendi with Israel. But it has got nothing back in terms of a more human treatment for the Palestinians (let alone the two-state solution, which on the ground has been dead and buried for decades). It was there that Hamas, probably directed by Iran, struck with clearheaded folly, exposing to the eyes of the whole world the fundamental contradiction of a country, Israel, that would like to normalize relations with its neighbors without addressing the problem of the Palestinians—Netanyahu’s great mantra, which collapsed miserably on 7 October.


In addition to calling for a rightful, immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Europeans could give the region’s leadership a good book on the Thirty Years’ War. To explain that when the genie is out of the bottle, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get it back in.



* This article was first written on October 30, in Italian. Rather than trying to update it, I have kept it in its original form. I believe that the main reasons of the Gaza-Israeli war have not changed since. Yet, I cannot but sadly notice that more than one month later, a serious European initiative in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza has yet to materialize.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation