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The Response to Terror

This Thursday Jews around the world will be celebrating the Festival of Purim, perhaps the most misunderstood of all Jewish holidays. I'm devoting this week's posts to contemporary insights drawn from this ancient observance.

Pogroms. Genocide. Jihad.

These are the devices our enemies have directed against us throughout the ages, for no other reason than because we are Jews. Yet for all that, the commitment to mercy and justice that defines us as a people and sets us apart from the other nations of the earth ensures that we would never seek the destruction of another people simply because of who they are.

Or wouldn't we?

You shall erase the memory of Amolek from beneath the heavens. So the book of Deuteronomy commands us — a command renewed from generation to generation across the span of Jewish history — to strike down the nation of Amolek and obliterate its memory from the consciousness of mankind.

How is such a precept defensible? How can we claim the moral high ground over our enemies if we resort to the same tactics that they employ against us?

The decree against Amolek, however, is based upon neither racial hatred, ethnic struggle, religious ideology, nor even historical justification. Many nations have differed from the Jews in belief, practice, and culture, and many of these have waged war against us and sought our destruction. But only the nation of Amolek warrants such condemnation, not only that we seek out and destroy it, but that we never forget the reason why.

Remember what Amolek did to you on the way, as you departed from Egypt: How they fell upon you in the desert, when you were tired and weary, and cut down the weak who trailed behind you.

Why did Amolek attack us? Why did they descend upon us in the desert, unprovoked, and attempt to annihilate us?

At the time of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, 3317 years ago, the entire world witnessed an event both unprecedented and never to be repeated: The miraculous destruction of the most powerful nation on earth and the even more miraculous supremacy of a small and oppressed people. No one in the world doubted the involvement of the Divine Hand behind the upheaval, nor could anyone fail to recognize the significance of this fledgling nation: the rise of the Jewish nation introduced human civilization to such ideals as peace, collective conscience, social responsibility and, above all, a standard of moral values that would become the foundation of all ethics and human virtue.

Such ideals, previously unknown to human society, did not find immediate universal acceptance. Indeed, the values of Judaism have been rejected and discarded time after time throughout human history. But in the wake of the miraculous destruction of Egypt, every nation and every people recognized what the Jewish nation represented. And every nation stood in awe of them. Every nation except one.

The nation of Amolek despised the very concept of moral standards. They would accept no moral authority, would make every sacrifice to protect their moral autonomy, and would employ any tactic to strike out against the nation who, by teaching morality to the world, threatened to render them a pariah.

Why is it important that they cut down the weak who trailed behind you? What does it reveal that they chose the moment when an unsuspecting people were tired and weary to attack? What perverse strategy drove them to embark upon a hopeless campaign of violence that had no hope of success?

In short, Amolek introduced the world to the tactics of terrorism, launching a suicide campaign against the defenseless, against the tired and the weary, just as their ideological descendants would later blow themselves up to murder women and children, waging brutal physical and psychological war upon a civilian population — not for clearly defined political gain, but to spread chaos and the moral confusion of disorder.

In response, the Torah teaches us the only possible answer to terror: Not negotiation, not compromise, not appeasement, not even military conquest and domination — none of these will ever succeed against the terrorist who seeks nothing less than the obliteration of his enemies, the terrorist driven by such singular purpose that he will sacrifice everything to achieve it and will stop at nothing until he has attained it. He will use others' desire for peace, their respect for human life, and their confidence in the ultimate goodness of mankind as weapons to destroy them; he will make any promise and offer any gesture of goodwill to gain the opportunity to take another life, to cripple another limb, to break the spirit of all who stand between him and moral anarchy.

In confronting terror, little has changed over the course of 33 centuries. Four centuries after Amolek's attack upon the Jews in the desert, King Saul showed a moment's mercy to the king of Amolek, thereby allowing both that nation and its ideology of terror to survive. Five centuries after that, when the Jews of Persia thought to appease Haman, a descendant of Amolek, they very nearly brought about their own destruction, saved only by the miracle of Purim. Similarly did the governments of Europe seek to appease the greatest criminal in modern times, empowering him to send millions to meaningless death in pointless battle and incinerate millions more in an incomprehensible Holocaust.

And today, Western governments and ideologues continue to promote negotiation with and concession to terror, even as more and more innocents are murdered and maimed.

Like King Saul, they prove the talmudic dictum that one who shows mercy at a time for cruelty will show cruelty at a time of mercy. For all its insistence upon compassion, upon virtue, upon love for our fellow man, Judaism teaches the cold practicality of confrontation with terror, that there can be no peace with those committed to violence, that there can be no offer of good faith to those who renounce faithfulness, that there can be no respect for the lives of those who devote their lives to dealing out death.

For those who live and die for the sake of terror, only one course of action exists to preserve the society that makes peace and justice possible: to erase their memory from beneath the heavens.

Originally published in 2005 by Jewish World Review

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