Jeffrey Goldberg’s Jewish Exceptionalism

by Brien Jackson

Apparently the criticism of Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Amalek defense” of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has gotten to the Goldblog, because his latest defense is somewhere between shrill and absurd. In short, the criticism “perverts” the story of Judaism’s obsession with Amalek because, well, because apparently it’s just not possible for Judaism to do/condone bad things:

In any case, this whole debate is a perversion, and not only because genocide is the specialty of other religions, and not Judaism. Iran has called for the elimination of the Jewish state, and seems to be building nuclear weapons that could make that a reality; Israel simply seeks to protect itself from a country that wants to exterminate it. If Israel does strike Iran, it would bomb military targets while trying to minimize civilian casualties. Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, already has a long and distinguished record of murdering Jewish children. There’s simply no equivalence here. Yes, Israel does various idiotic and immoral things. But it isn’t, even on its worst day, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s rare to see this much deplorable nonsense rolled into one paragraph, so let’s unpack it point by point. First of all, and most obvious, is Goldberg’s overt resort to an argument of tautology. Apparently Jews do not commit genocide in the same way that Americans don’t torture; if we do it, it’s by definition not bad. But this is just, well, odd. God commanded Saul to kill every single Amalekite, man, woman, and child, as well as killing all of their livestock. Saul was removed from his kingship for taking the livestock for spoils instead of killing them, and for letting the Amalekite king live. That’s a genocidal order any way you slice it, and a divine punishment for not carrying out the order murderously enough. It would be one thing, I suppose, if Goldberg were taking the orthodox position that this was ok because it was commanded by God, but that would sound rather ridiculous, especially in the context of complaining about religious terrorists who believe they’re carrying out divine orders. So Goldberg resorts to pure Bushist tautology; Jews don’t commit genocide, so if Jews do something, it’s not genocide. And he doesn’t just leave it at that because, instead of just saying “Judaism does not specialize in genocide,” he adds the modifier “unlike other religions.” This begs the obvious question; which religions do Goldberg feel “specialiaze in genocide?” 

What’s really odd about this whole string of posts from Goldberg though is how he’s basically trying to argue that the Amalex reference is irrelevant, even though it was his column that brought it up. Yes, it was an “aide” to Bibi, not the Prime Minister himself, who invoked the specter of Amalek to describe Bibi’s mindset, but it stands to reason that Goldberg thought there was something to that when he put it in the original column. And given this factor, it simply doesn’t make any sense to blithely declare that Israel doesn’t want to harm Iranian civilians; God’s commandment to Saul was not to kill the Amalekite king, but take care to spare everyone else, it was to kill every single Amalekite. There’s not really any way around that. Which isn’t to say that I think Israel does intend to wage some genocidal war against Iran (I don’t), it’s merely to point out how stupid the analogy was, and continues to be. Goldberg is trying to have it both ways; on the one hand, he wants to invoke the ancient bane of the Jews who, in Jewish tradition, epitomizes evil to describe Iran in maximally favorable terms, but at the same time he wants to disavow the implications of that comparison, based on a reading of the scriptures. Shorter, Goldberg is trying to invoke “Jewish tradition,” while at the same time trying to pretend the scripture says something other than, well, what it says. And the increasingly shrill tone being taken more or less belies that Goldberg knows there’s no way out of this for him, short of implied accusations of anti-Semitism, which is all the above quote represents.

Finally, as Matt Duss points out, Goldberg’s off-hand comment that Iran “seems to be e building nuclear weapons” is completely unsupported by facts, as it is the official position of the US intelligence community that Iran has not restarted its weapons program since halting it in 2003. But of course, over-hyping threats based on completely unsupported, sensationalist claims would be par for the course with Goldberg. 

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