World

‘Holy war’: Biblical detail in PM’s speech

Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of declaring a “holy war” against Gaza by supporters of Palestine, with the right-wing leader continuing to invoke religious themes in the escalating battle against Hamas.

Critics say the tactic shows the leader is intentionally appealing to the Orthodox faction of his cabinet and drawing on “old time” ideas of religious battles to rally support.

In a televised address on Saturday night announcing the ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli Prime Minister likened Hamas to the nation of Amalek — the biblical arch-enemy of the Israelites.

“You must remember what Amalek has done to you,’ says our Holy Bible — and we do remember, and we are fighting,” he said.

Mr Netanyahu was quoting from Deutreonomy, the fifth book of the Torah — which is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

In a news conference on Monday, Mr Netanyahu again invoked the Bible as he insisted there would be no ceasefire.

“The Bible says, ‘There is a time for peace, and a time for war.’ This is a time for a war,” he said, referencing Ecclesiastes, another section of the Hebrew Bible.

Israel has intensified its air and ground operations against Hamas in Gaza following a bloody attack by the Palestinian terror group more than three weeks ago that Israeli authorities say killed at least 1400 people, mostly civilians.

More than 220 hostages are still being held in Gaza by Hamas after being captured in shockingly violent raids across southern Israel.

Since the October 7 attack, the Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip claims more than 8300 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s relentless retaliatory bombardments, half of them children.

Those numbers have not been independently verified.

Not a ‘true believer’

Professor Joe Siracusa, Dean of Global Futures at Curtin University, said Mr Netanyahu’s Biblical references were likely an appeal to the right-wing Orthodox arm of his cabinet, and a reflection of the influence of his father, Benzion Netanyahu, a renowned biblical scholar.

“I think he’s going back to his taproots — he’s drawing up this aura of battle,” he said.

“Words mean a lot to him, so he’s going back to that old-time religion.”

The “big problem” facing the PM, Prof Siracusa argued, was selling the war to the public. “Even Jesus and Moses had to sell the program, right? We’ve got TV screens, we can see what’s happening,” he said.

“His 300,000 reservists, they’re professional soldiers. They haven’t been trained to kill children. They’re way outside their comfort zone.”

Professor Siracusa explained this has left Mr Netanyahu needing to invoke “mighty images” for Israelis, and is trying to “give the guys something to think about”.

He described it as “part propaganda and part biblical injunction”.

“They’ve all read the Bible,” he said. “Israelis, no matter how secular, have to listen to this stuff in synagogue. I don’t think he’s a true believer. He doesn’t strike me as a particularly sensitive guy … [but] he’s surrounded by people who are true believers.”

Dr Jessica Genauer, senior lecturer in international relations at Flinders University, agreed that Mr Netanyahu’s recent biblical references were “intended primarily to appeal to constituencies within the Israeli domestic political landscape”.

“Netanyahu is in a governing coalition with religious and nationalist political parties for whom biblical references are likely to resonate,” she said.

Dr Genauer explained that the leader was coming under increasing criticism and pressure from domestic opposition for his response to the October 7 attacks.

“In particular there are questions regarding whether Netanyahu is sufficiently focused on the release of hostages from Gaza as a priority objective,” she said. “Netanyahu is attempting to shore up his own political base within the Israeli domestic context.”

But Prof Siracusa said the other key audience for the comments was America.

“He is a Zionist, he knows that the support he has out there in the world, particular in the US, comes from Christian Zionists,” he said.

“Zionism and Christian Zionism have a lot in common, in that they’re anchored to the Bible. We’re not talking about New Testament, turning-the-other-cheek stuff, these guys are all Old Testament.”

The evangelicals in the US “believe that according to Revelation, Israel must be standing on the last day so they can be converted”, he explained, saying this belief in Biblical end-times prophecy was concerning.

“I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about nuclear weapons,” he said.

“Guys like [former US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, who are born-again Christians, don’t give a s**t about speeding up the end of times. They’re not afraid.”

Who are the Amalek?

In his speech on Saturday, Mr Netanyahu said Israeli soldiers fighting Hamas were joining a chain of Jewish heroes.

Describing a history that “started 3000 years ago”, he compared today’s combatants to Joshua ben Nun, who succeeded Moses in leading the Israelites, as well as to “the heroes of 1948, the Six-Day War” of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.

“Our heroic soldiers have one supreme goal — to completely destroy the murderous enemy and to ensure our existence in our land,” he said.

“We have always said ‘never again’. ‘Never again’ is now.”

In the Bible, the Amalekites were the “first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and they are seen as the archetypal enemy of the Jews”, Chabad.org explains.

Jewish tradition contains commandments, or mitzvot, derived from the Hebrew Bible, to “obliterate the nation of Amalek” and to “never forget the evil deeds Amalek did” — in reference to Deuteronomy.

London-based pro-Palestinian not-for-profit Middle East Monitor (MEMO) claimed Mr Netanyahu had “[declared] holy war against Gaza, citing the Bible”, writing that “critics have highlighted that the text in the Hebrew Bible which addresses revenge on the Amalek constitutes a narrative of ‘genocide’”.

The passage from Samuel referenced, in which the prophet commands King Saul to wipe out the Amalek, reads, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

But Breitbart senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak argued the Israeli PM was being misquoted and that he “specifically quoted Deuteronomy, not Samuel”, which urges, “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.”

Pollak said on X, “No particular group today is ‘Amalek’ but it is a familiar Jewish idea to fight those who, like the Nazis and Hamas, attack the most vulnerable.”

The story of the Amalek is the subject of a special Shabbat — holy days which have specific Torah readings associated with them — called Shabbat Zakhor, the Hebrew word for “remember”.

“The reading for Shabbat Zakhor is very troubling for many Jews: a passage commanding us to remember the treachery of Amalek and to blot out their memory,” writes Tracey Rich from Judaism 101.

“Many find this commandment troubling because, in ordering us to ‘blot out the remembrance of Amalek’, it appears to advocate genocide, killing people because of their race.”

But she explained that “the sages have long understood the commandment in Parshat Zakhor as a command to blot out the type of people that Amalek represents: those that prey upon the weak, those who do not believe in justice, those who hate without reason”.

“The sages use the term ‘Amalek’ as a shorthand for vicious, evil people who behave like mad dogs, in much the same way that many people today casually toss around the term ‘Nazi’ to refer to anyone they disagree with rather than to Germans or members of the National Socialist Party,” she said.

“It is these evil people that we are commanded to destroy, the sages say, not any specific ethnic group.”

‘Prophecy of Isaiah’

The latest comments come after Mr Netanyahu last week invoked an apocalyptic Old Testament prophecy often linked to the Second Coming of Christ in a televised speech about the war against Hamas.

In a night-time address last Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu described the war as a battle of “light” versus “darkness” and said Israel would “realise the prophecy of Isaiah”.

“Our war against Hamas is a test for all of humanity, it is a struggle between the axis of evil of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the axis of freedom and progress,” he said, according to a translation by Israel’s i24 News.

“We are the people of the light, they are the people of darkness, and light shall triumph over darkness.”

The PM said his responsibility was to guarantee the future of the country and lead Israel to an “overpowering victory”. “It is now a time to come together for one purpose, to storm ahead to achieve victory,” he said.

“With joint forces and a profound belief in our justness, a profound belief in the eternity of the Jewish people, we shall realise the prophecy of Isaiah.”

Isaiah was an Israelite prophet who lived in the 8th century BC.

In addition to foreshadowing the coming of the Messiah, interpreted by Christians in the New Testament to be Jesus Christ, Isaiah’s prophecies cover the worldwide persecution of Jews and the restoration of Israel.

Mr Netanyahu has previously quoted the Book of Isaiah in public speeches, telling the United Nations in 2017 that Israel is “a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth”.

Writing for Bloomberg last week, Professor of History at the University of Georgia, Stephen Mihm, noted that many American evangelical Christians see the Israel-Hamas war as “part of a prophecy” linked to the Second Coming of Christ.

“Israel first became central to evangelical eschatology four centuries ago, when Protestant theologians, especially those of a millenarian bent, seized upon very specific passages about the end times,” Prof Mihm said.

“For example, in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicted that God ‘shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth’.”

This was interpreted “to mean that the return of Christ would take place once the Jewish diaspora returned to Palestine”. “Eager to put God’s plan in motion, these Christian Zionists — not an oxymoron — began to push their governments to take active steps to get Jews back to Palestine,” Prof Mihm said.

‘The final conflict’

Faith-based Christian Zionists, who “seek to influence American policy toward Israel, fervently believe that Christ cannot return until biblical prophecies in books such as Zechariah, Daniel, and the Book of Revelation are fulfilled”, former senior Australian military officer and author Adrian d’Hage wrote in 2015.

“Such prophecy includes the return of all of the Promised Land (including Gaza and the West Bank) to Israel. Many Christian Zionists believe we are now in the end times and awaiting the Second Coming of Christ.”

This group follows the biblical tenet from Genesis that God promises to “bless those who bless Israel and to curse those who are against Israel”, meaning “if America supports Israel, then God will support America”, d’Hage added.

According to Prof Mihm, following Israel’s triumph over its neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967, evangelicals “felt increasingly confident” that Israel embodied the “final countdown” to Armageddon.

“All that remained was for Israel to secure a final victory over its enemies and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem,” he said.

“And then, if the prophets were right, some pretty unpleasant things would happen — a false messiah known as the Antichrist would take over Jerusalem and install himself as the saviour before inaugurating the Tribulation, a seven-year period of death and destruction, with most Jews perishing.

“Finally, Jesus would return to earth, overthrowing the pretender and inaugurating a thousand-year reign of peace on earth.”

Prof Mihm said for decades the two groups had formed an unusual alliance with a “shared ambition to see Israel conquer its enemies” — for rather different reasons.

“The Israelis had practical aims, hoping that American support would preserve their embattled nation,” he said. “The evangelicals, by contrast, prayed that aid would trigger the apocalypse and set the stage for the coming of Christ.”

Baptist preacher and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress recently outlined what he saw as the connections between the current war and biblical descriptions of the end times, NPR reported earlier this month.

“The Bible predicts the final world conflict will happen on the plain of Megiddo in Israel when the superpowers assemble together to do battle,” he told Fox News. “Well, I think we can see now how a regional conflict could quickly escalate into a worldwide conflict. And that is going to happen one day.”

Speaking to a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas on Saturday, newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson said it was “not an accident” that the first resolution he brought to the floor was showing the chamber’s support for Israel, “and my first trip was to come and be with you”.

“I assured [Mr Netanyahu] of our unwavering support of Israel and her people and I assured him that our Congress … under my leadership, we will be there until the end of this conflict,” he said.

“As a Christian, I know and we believe that the Bible teaches very clearly that we’re to stand with Israel — that God will bless the nation that blesses Israel.”

frank.chung@news.com.au




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