Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics
Forgetting Amalek
Konstanty Gebert


"You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven—you shall not forget." [1] Thus the Torah (Deut. 25:19) enjoins the Jews. Amalek is the name of a nation which, during the exodus from Egypt, had attacked Israel from behind, murdering the stragglers and the weak, at a place called Rephidim (Deut. 25:17-19; Exod. 17:8-16). What concerns us here is the contradictory nature of that commandment: it is not possible to "wipe out the memory" of an event, and simultaneously "not forget." Traditionally, Jewish commentators (for example, Maimonides) have resolved this issue by pointing to different modes of memory: Amalek's memory is to be wiped out from the written record, while his treachery should be orally remembered. This, however, begs the issue, for even if this kind of split memory was possible, the enemy's name would still remain—in several separate passages—in the Torah. The Torah commands us to do that which it itself refuses to.

The case of Amalek is significant in that it is a relevant example of a community trying to deal with a traumatic experience. Remembering seems to grant immortality to the perpetrators, forgetting would be disloyal to victims and cruel to survivors, depriving them also of experience and knowledge, and thus making them vulnerable again. Beyond that, the story of Amalek addressesPage  184 the crucial question of radical evil in history, its specificity and the reactions it elicits. Both issues surface each time a community is confronted with a particularly violent and treacherous attack. How to remember the victims without immortalizing the perpetrators? How to have the understanding of their motives, which is necessary if they are to be resisted, without creating a semblance of an understanding for such, which would betray the memory of the victims?

The dilemma of memory/oblivion is not the Torah's alone. We all remember the perpetrators of evil, thus granting them a functional immortality, much better than we remember the providers of good. Our memory is populated by Amaleks; indeed, they may at times become the founding-stones of our identity. Emil Fackenheim's "614th Commandment" (to supplement the 613 contained in the Torah) states this with terrible clarity:

Jews are forbidden to grant Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape either into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. [2]

Apart from the first sentence of the quote, there is nothing in it—if one substitutes "evil" for "Auschwitz"—which could not have been said by any earlier Jewish teacher, including Moses himself. What Fackenheim does is to introduce Hitler, and not God, as the prime reason for obeying God's commandments.

It is not difficult to understand why the Canadian theologian resorted to this extreme measure. The experience of the Shoah [3] had made many Jews turn away from their religion, any religion, or even any Jewish identity—in protest against the seeming indifference of the God of Israel to the murder of His people. By formulating his 614th Commandment, Fackenheim puts them in what anthropologist and psychiatrist Gregory Bateson tagged a "double bind" and Joseph Roth's Yossarian would call "catch-22." In brief, Fackenheim tellsPage  185 the Jews that if they reject their identity, they will not be punishing God, but rewarding Hitler. [4] Even if you no longer can believe in God, Fackenheim seems to be saying, you still have to keep believing in Him; even if you no longer want to be Jewish, you still have to retain your identity. Otherwise you will place yourselves on the side of those who were responsible for your suffering in the first place. For Fackenheim, then, "remembering Amalek" becomes the central commandment—and thus, of course, is Amalek immortalized.

The Torah's Narrative

It is important to note that Amalek alone is singled out for eternal memory/oblivion from among all of Israel's enemies, because of the singular evil of his acts. Amalek had, without provocation, attacked the Jews from behind, killing the stragglers and the weak. The victims were unable to defend themselves, and their deaths were therefore certain once the enemy's decision was made. Furthermore, the attackers' goal was to kill all, or as many as possible, of the victims, not to capture or enslave them, which would give some victims some chance of survival. Finally, the victims' fate was not a consequence of their prior actions, but only of result of being at a certain place at a certain time. [5]

It is only about this particular enemy that the Torah says: "[God] maintains a war against Amalek, from generation to generation" (Exod. 17:16). The special emphasis put on Amalek singles out his evil among the many other evils encountered in the Torah's narrative: there is no other commandment similar to the one concerning him, not against the Pharaoh, not against Jewish idolaters, not against the destroyers of the Temple. Amalek's evil is radically different, in the sense that it leaves its victims no chance of survival.

Let us take from the Torah's narrative elements that might prove to be useful in analyzing human reactions to evil. First, then, there is in the Amalek story the intimation of an evil so radical, that it assumes a character different from "ordinary" evil. The distinguishing trait is the impossibility of avoiding it, once the perpetrators had made up their mind. When Amalek's decision to attack the Jews from behind was made, the fate of the weak and stragglers was sealed. Second, this evil is indiscriminate, and affects all its victims regardless of their actions: they cannot choose to avoid it, either by having taken anticipatory action, or by giving in to their persecutors. Both characteristics are also typical of victims of huge natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes, but suchPage  186 calamities are not willed, while radical evil is always an act of intentional agency. What distinguishes human radical evil from natural disasters is of course the element of agency and responsibility.

It is important to note that this radical evil is, in the Torah's narrative, historicized. Amalek appears at a certain moment in history, and it is conceivable that he will disappear from it before history runs its course. In fact, he already has disappeared, in the more immediate sense: there is no contemporary or historical nation by that name, nor is there any archeological record of its existence. Amalek lives on only in the pages of the Torah. If not for the injunction to obliterate his memory, his memory would already have been obliterated. According to Jewish tradition, the obligation to wage "God's war" against Amalek is incumbent on Jewish rulers as well, and this is the more narrow meaning of the commandment not to forget. But how would they be able to know whom to fight against, if the memory of Amalek were to be wiped out?

One way of understanding this is by assuming that the memory of Amalek will in fact not be wiped out as long as the struggle continues. The final obliteration of the name of the adversary is thus relegated to a distant, possibly messianic future, while the struggle grants him a functional immortality. One passage in the Torah (Num. 20:1) mentions a Canaanite king, whom the commentators actually identify as the king of Amalek, thus saving from oblivion one mention of the accursed name, in apparent violation of the basic injunction. The aim is pedagogical: the king of Amalek had instructed his troops to pretend, even in battle, that they are Canaanites, not Amalekites; further proof of Amalek's treachery which needs to be put to light in order to expose the adversary's inherent evil. For this is in fact, according to tradition, whom Amalek really is—the force for evil in the world, just as Israel is supposed to be a force for good. God's and Israel's struggle against Amalek is therefore a stand-in for the fundamental struggle against evil (commentaries on Num. 20:24).

Traditional Torah commentators explain Amalek's supposedly intrinsic evil nature through genealogy. Amalek the man, king of Amalek the nation, is (cf. Gen. 36:12) the grandson of Esau, Jacob's elder brother who had been tricked out of his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Understandingly bitter against his triumphant younger brother and his descendants, Esau would havePage  187 transmitted these feelings to his grandson, who then acted upon then. On the day after the fatal encounter at Rephidim, Israel does battle against Amalek, with Moses lifting his arms to heaven in order to ensure Israel's victory, which in fact eventually comes (Exod. 17:8-16). But Israel's encounters with Amalek do not end at Rephidim: the spies sent into the Promised Land lose heart when they see, inter alia, the Amalekites' might (Num. 13:29). Soon after Amalek gives Israel "a pounding" in Hormah (Num. 14:45). Indeed, at this point it takes a non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, to declare the thought that "Amalek is the first among nations, its end will be eternal destruction" (Num. 24:20). But even after the Exodus is over, and Israel is settled in the Promised Land, Amalek gives them no rest: as Divine retribution it invades the land and occupies it for eighteen years (Judg. 3:12-14). In Judg. 6 and 8 we again learn of Amalekite raids.

The final reckoning takes under King Saul's reign, when God finally (I Sam. 15) commands him to destroy the Amalekites. The command is unequivocal: "Spare no one, but kill alike all men and children, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses" (I Sam. 15:3). This is a command of genocide, like the one concerning the fate of those inhabitants of the Promised Land who would resist the Israelite invasion (Deut 20:12, 16). There is, however, one crucial difference: the Torah states that the inhabitants of Canaan did have a choice: they could submit to Israel and live in servitude (Deut. 20:10-12). Only to the Amalekites God offered no choice—as they had left no choice to their Jewish victims at Rephidim, generations earlier. [6]

King Saul is shocked and—according to the Talmud—questions God's orders: "If Amalekite men are sinful why must the children perish and their cattle die?" (T.B. Yoma 22B). Nonetheless, he then goes on to execute God's orders—and the Amalekites—but fails to be fully obedient. From the massacre he saves some prime Amalekite sheep and oxen, to be offered as sacrifice to God, and the Amalekite king Agag. Faced with God's wrath Saul finally complies, by slaughtering both the animals and Agag—but never is God's favor to return to him again.

Nor are the Amalekites to disappear. According to the Talmud (T.B. Megillah 13A), King Agag's stay in captivity was long enough for him to beget a son, and so the Amalekites escaped extermination. They will return to briefly kidnap two of king David's wives (I Sam. 30); an Amalekite will kill King SaulPage  188 and his son Jonathan after their defeat at David's hands (II Sam. 1). Psalms (89:8) mentions them among the nations which plot to "wipe [Israelites] out as a nation; Israel's name will be mentioned no more" (89:5). The circle closes: as Amalek had done to Israel, so Israel had done to Amalek. And as Israel attempts to erase Amalek's name, so does Amalek conspire to erase the name of Israel.

The symmetry is not complete, however: while Israel's goodness is conditional upon obeying God's commandments (cf. Lev. 11:44 etc.), Amalek's evil seems to be absolute. In other words, while it is amply evident from the Torah that Jews can also do evil, there is no indication that Amalekites might also be capable of doing good. This is, anyway, the way they are perceived in Jewish tradition: though the direct genealogical line stemming from Esau ends with King Agag, there is no shortage of Amaleks in later Jewish history, though the progeny of Agag's hypothetical son cannot be traced. And so, Haman, king Ahasverus's evil counselor in the Book of Ester is considered to "be" Amalek, as are later oppressors and persecutors in Jewish history, through Roman generals and Crusader leaders right down to Adolph Hitler and Yasser Arafat.

Just How Evil Is Amalek?

There are two problems with this irremediably evil view of Amalek, however. In Judaism man has free choice and, if Amalek is unable to choose good, they are not human, and therefore (like angels who are unable of choosing evil) beyond the sphere of moral discourse. Some authors do in fact treat "Amalek" as the generic name of evil, and read his putative descendant Haman's name, for instance, into the description of the First Sin. [7] The other problem is that we do not know of any evil acts committed by Amalek against anybody but the Jews. Since their evil is then, so to speak, "Israel-specific," then it must relate to what makes Israel specific, i.e., their chosenness. But since that chosenness is itself conditional, this implies that Amalek's evil is conditional as well. This in turn suggests that if Israel were to do evil, Amalek would no longer have reason to commit evil against them. Yet we know (Judg. 3:12-14) that Amalek did invade and occupy Israel precisely as punishment for Israel's transgressions. This therefore seems to indicate that either Amalek is a moral automaton, and therefore irrelevant to a discussion of human behavior, or it is capable of deciding his own conduct on the basis of his own criteria. For the sake of the discussion, let us then adopt the latter possibility—and see how itPage  189 can affect Israel's mandated remembering/oblivion.

We must remember, however, that all that we know of Amalek is what the Torah tells us—that is, for those who do not necessarily believe in the Divine origins of the text, what Israel remembers. Now all the mentions made of Amalek in the Torah are negative—but this could be the result of an active process of forgetting. All other nations that Israel encounters in its history are given a more variegated presentation: Egypt is not only the house of slavery but also a refuge from famine, the Hittites are not only a Canaanite nation to be pushed aside but also those who sold Abraham the cave of Machpelach, and so forth. Amalek alone is seen as an implacable enemy only. Is this because this was really the case—or because the perceptions of Amalek as such an enemy, from the disastrous first encounter onwards, made any other remembrance impossible?

Though we cannot know for sure, we certainly cannot discount this possibility. In other words, the image of Amalek in the Torah would be a construct, based on a first traumatic experience, and not necessarily on real knowledge of the Amalekite nation. The process of remembering would then be one of forgetting as well, and the memory/oblivion contradiction would thus paradoxically be solved. "Remember" all the evil Amalek has done to you, and "blot out the memory" of everything else.

By the heinousness of their first act, the Amalekites established themselves in the eyes of the Israelites as those who are heinous. Remembering that about the Amalekites had an obvious survival value; remembering anything else might not.

This memory, though obviously traumatic, was at the same time easy, in a way—all you had to remember about Amalek was this one thing. Nothing else—not the customs nor the trading patterns not the history nor, say, the interesting textiles they might have produced, was of any importance. And finally, it made unimportant the question of why Amalek was evil. He was evil because he was Amalek, and this made all radical evil Amalek. In other words, when the Talmud suggests that King Agag had the time to beget a son, it simply fills in the missing link in the chain between Esau and any later or contemporary radical evil. Since radical evil exists, so does Amalek. The memory of Amaleks past creates the Amaleks of the future.

Page  190

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be that when YHVH your God gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the land that YHVH your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory from under the heaven—you shall not forget. (Deut. 25: 17-19).

This is, then, what we are to remember about Amalek. Not the fact that on the next day Israel had a victorious confrontation with the Amalekites. Not the fact that the only other encounter with them during the Exodus—the "pounding" at Hormah—barely merits a one-sentence mention in the book of Numbers. Not that the Amalekite invasions of the Promised land described in the book of Judges, or the two incidents during King David's reign seem trivial when compared with what not only the Assyrians or Philistines will do, but with the civil wars between Israel and Judea. And not that in the passage from Psalms the Amalekites are but one of many plotters, neither most prominent nor most dangerous. We remember the enemy through his first, indeed heinous act, and project that memory on all subsequent ones. Everything Amalek does is seen in the light of Rephidim, and only that which is illuminated by that light is remembered.

Does this mean that we have created a bogeyman, that the only danger there is is in our head? No. The attack at Rephidim was truly vicious. There is a special kind of evil in attacking those without defense, in the murder of the faint and weak. Israel did not invent Amalek—Amalek impressed itself indelibly on Israel's mind by that act. Only possibly Pharaoh's order to exterminate all Jewish male newborn could in Israel's experience at the time rival in atrocity with Rephidim, but that act had followed a long positive history of cohabitation with the Egyptians, especially when Joseph was prominent at court. Of Amalek, all that Israel had known was the radical evil committed at Rephidim—and Rephidim would henceforth define Amalek in Israel's eyes. And for this, as in the case of any other atrocity, it is the perpetrators who bear responsibility. This statement, obviously, has implications that go beyond the story of Amalek.

Page  191

The Amalek Image

On the basis of the story of Amalek, radical evil can be defined as an intentional group attack on a collectivity of individuals, selected necessarily to be defenseless, but possibly also on the basis of other characteristics, with the aim of exterminating them. It is important to note that this definition does not take into consideration the justifications that the perpetrators might give for their act. It is assumed that, on the basis of the natural right of humans to life, such justifications are to be considered irrelevant. [8] Wars of aggression, genocide and terrorism are examples of such radical evil.

Its impact on victims is such as the impact of Rephidim on the Israelites. The perpetrators are seen though that act and are defined by it. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, and 9/11 are but some recent examples of the above. In all cases, one net result of the perpetrators' actions is the development of an Amalek image of themselves in the eyes of the victims. The Kuwaitis now see their Iraqi neighbors mainly through the prism of the horrors of the occupation. After ages of more or less peaceful, but certainly once fondly remembered coexistence, the last thing Bosnian Muslims now want is to live next door to the Serbs again. And 9/11 has created a seemingly unredeemably hostile image of Arabs and, more widely, Muslims in the eyes of the American public.

Obviously, it is the perpetrators themselves who are responsible for the creation of this "Amalek" image. But on the other hand, it goes without saying that such an image, like any reductionist representation, necessarily distorts reality. This does great disservice to the community the perpetrators are part of, for, unless we assume they are all evil (and this is doubtful even in the case of Amalek), it stands to reason they are not. But by the same token, it is incumbent on that community to show the Amalek perception is mistaken: by dissociating itself from the perpetrators, condemning them and bringing them to justice, expressing sympathy for the victims, offering moral and material compensation—and foremost making sure this does not happen again.

But to do so, the community must enjoy a modicum of liberty. The Iraqis are in no position to dissociate themselves from the crime their regime has committed and, until a measure of freedom is restored to them, we will never know if in fact they want to, or are indeed aware of that demand. Bosnian Serbs (and Serbs in Serbia) do enjoy that freedom. However, it would appearPage  192 that many of them either deny the crimes themselves ("all lies"), their particular responsibility ("it was a war and all sides did nasty things"), or the need for a reckoning ("we cannot be held responsible for the criminal acts of psychopaths and fanatics"). [9] While the first two reactions are usually given in obvious ill faith, the third is often genuine and can in fact be mistaken for the postulated dissociation from the perpetrators. But in this case the dissociation is to avoid the burden of responsibility, not to endorse it. It is not a step forward toward changing the Amalek image; it is a step back.

In the case of radical evil, this is a crucial issue. Because of its particularly heinous nature, radical evil has to be addressed by the perpetrators' community first through acknowledging it, and then by rejecting its perpetrators. The discourse has to be: "Yes, we did it. Now we condemn it. We pay homage to the victims and pledge never to permit this to happen again." Perhaps had Amalek the next day at Rephidim done something similar, the Torah would not contain the commandment to remember/obliterate his memory? It can be argued that Willy Brandt's gesture at the Warsaw Ghetto monument, where he unexpectedly knelt during the first state visit by a German chancellor since the war, made Polish-German reconciliation possible. On the other hand, the fact that no Croat Willy Brandt appeared to apologize to the Serbs for the wartime crimes of the Ustasha, helped convince Serbs that the Croats are unrepentant and ready to do it again if given a chance. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, Belgrade decided to make a preventive strike against the "successors of the Ustasha," thus plunging the country into bloody war. It should be noted that a Croat Willy Brandt could not have appeared for, under Tito and his successors, no one could speak in the name of the Croat nation, for any reason—such was the fear of the recrudescence of nationalism. This perverse mechanism produced in the end the very disaster it was trying to avoid.

The Role of the University

It is interesting to note that, of the three examples given above, it is post 9/11 America which seems least inclined to succumb to the Amalek image. Acts of violence against Muslims or those thought to be Muslims were rare and immediately condemned, and the body politic went to great pains to explain that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. Though some actions of internal security agencies, especially at universities, seem to belie this statement, itPage  193 is a fact that mass hysteria has been successfully averted. To the contrary, it seems at times that some milieus in the United States, academe first of all, are willing to bend backward to try to understand the motives of America's new enemies. Though this is obviously the best way of avoiding the development of an Amalek image, it raises the thorny issue of the line separating understanding of from understanding for. And it also seems to point to a specific aspect of the American experience: its lack of exposure to radical evil, at least on American soil.

A certain Ukrainian professor of history, who had managed to flee to the West in the aftermath of World War II, eventually made his way to the United States. [10] After lecturing for barely a semester at an East Coast university, he decided to return to Europe, giving up American comfort and security for the harsh realities of exile in a war-torn continent. To his friends, flabbergasted by his decision, he explained: "I cannot teach history there. You see, they do not believe in the devil."

This particularly American trait is by no means contradicted by polls indicating that a surprising percentage of Americans actually believe in the existence of the Evil One. The devil Americans seem to believe in is a personal adversary, tempting them as individuals away from the straight and narrow. This is not what the Ukrainian professor had in mind. The devil he, and so many other Europeans, had encountered throughout the twentieth century, showed his face in the Great Famine and at Babi Yar, in the smoldering ruins of destroyed cities and the triumphant falsehoods of the Ministries of Truth. This devil—that in this text I call radical evil—had spared America, so Americans needed not believe in his existence. "It can't happen here," proclaimed in the 1930s the title of Sinclair Lewis' chilling novel describing his coming, for—as the book's last sentence memorably proclaimed—"a Doremus Jessup [the novel's simple but undefeated hero, a fighter for the truth] can never die." [11]

Shortly after 9/11, I received from the States an email containing a photo of the World Trade Center shrouded in smoke. In the billows someone had discerned—and computer-enhanced—the actual face of the Evil One, horns and all. I wondered what the reaction of the long-dead Ukrainian professor would have been, had he seen this photo. I imagined him throwing his arms up in despair and saying: "They still do not understand. They look at the smoke, not at Herostrates."

Page  194

Doremus Jessup can die. The probable product of a liberal American university, and certainly the incarnation of its proclaimed values of truth, fairness and tolerance, he is mortal both as a man, and as a concept. The dead of 9/11 prove that beyond a shadow of doubt. But for European witnesses of the unlamented past century—and indeed Asian and African ones as well—this is hardly news. They have seen, and continue to see their Jessups, and their families, die in the millions. For after all, the death toll of 9/11 is but half a Srebrenica—and Srebrenica we do know about and remember mainly because the cameras happened to be rolling. That which made 9/11 special was that it occurred in America. It can happen here.

It would have been facile to build a doctrine of European negative exceptionalism, an inverted mirror image of the positive one that had fed much of American collective imagination in the past century. There is, however, no great knowledge, or moral qualities, to be necessarily gleaned from the experience of suffering—especially as there seem to be no limitations to the scale of suffering. Anyone claming special rights because of this experience can have that claim used against him (or her) by another sufferer. Indeed, there is moral fraudulence in claiming such superiority over alleged or real American ignorance and naivete, and there is real evil in asserting—as some have—that the Americans "had it coming to them." And yet one should not, for all the Schadenfreude, dismiss voices from, say, the Balkans or the Middle East, saying that now the Americans "know how it is." For it is true that 9/11 has brought America the experience of suffering, fear and anger, which had so often been the basic staple of much of the rest of the planet. Nothing, after all, resembles one mass killing as much as another mass killing.

The experience, then, was hardly unique—nor has America's reaction to it been. The rallying to the flag, the condemnation of those accused of showing undue understanding for the enemy, the threat to liberal values—hitherto taken for granted—in the public sphere, the justice system, and indeed in academe, are an only too familiar response of a nation under attack. And yet America's reaction to 9/11 was marked by a lesser degree of closing ranks than might have been otherwise expected. From critical comments in the media, through the solidarity with the predicament of America's Muslims to debates such as this one, the strength of the country's commitment to its declared values was rather impressively displayed. Still, it would be foolish to say that there is nothing toPage  195 be discussed.

For there are values, which are not relative, but absolute, such as the right to life, and in freedom and dignity at that. Criticism of these values does not just introduce another, equally worthy perspective into the debate. It contains the threat of liquidating the entire debate, concepts, discussants and all. This was very well phrased by a Nazi activist, on trial for political violence in the waning days of the Weimar republic. The defendant complained that his political rights were being trampled upon. When challenged by the judge that his reference to political rights was inconsistent with the policies he himself advocated, the Nazi replied: "I claim these rights in the name of the values you stand for and, once the tables are turned, I will deny you them in the name of the values I stand for." It would be irresponsible to ignore the historical record that followed.

In journalism, my chosen profession, giving up neutrality is warranted, I believe, when reporting radical evil. I would not trust a journalist who would proclaim himself neutral when covering World War II, for instance, or the Bosnian conflict. But giving up neutrality does not mean one is free to give up objectivity also. Investigating possible misdeeds of the side one empathizes with remains a professional obligation. I believe this model might be useful in considering the obligations of academe when its nation is in conflict.

But should academe at all recognize, let alone endorse, "its" nation? Is that not a breach of trust in the obligations of clerks who, as Julien Benda [12] would have put it, are duty-bound to remain loyal to the "invisible university," and not serve any other master? Benda had a point, amply supported by the obscene support given, say, by Martin Heidegger to the Nazis, or by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to the denunciation of Andrei Sakharov. More pertinent to our immediate area of concern is the endorsement of Islamic terrorism by many academic bodies in the Arab world.

And yet these examples are strongly offset by others, illustrating the consequences of not taking a stand, in the name of protecting science from politicization. In Poland in the 1930s, most academic institutions did not react to the rise of the extreme right on campuses. This led to their approval of "bench ghettoes" and numerus clauses for Jews. The reason mostly given for that was not support for the right wing agenda, but the desire to remain impartial in a conflict between the right and the left, which affirmed equal rights for Jews.Page  196 Finally, it is possible to both endorse Benda's ideal and at the same time support "one's own," as in the case of the guilty silence of the Israeli Academy of Sciences when the building of its Palestinian counterpart was recently vandalized by Israeli troops.

There are clearly then conflicts in which it is impossible for academe not to take sides. This obviously leaves open for discussion the question of what the criteria are, and whether the situation in which America finds itself after 9/11 is one of those conflicts. But this discussion, of course, reflects a much deeper controversy, one that is inherently rooted in the very nature of the university.

Young people go to study, and their parents and societies send them there, in order to fulfill two fundamentally contradictory goals. On the one hand, they need to be taught critical reflection, directed first of all at themselves and the society they live in. Without this criticism, they will not fulfill their basic social function as searchers for the truth—and criticism which fears to become heresy if need be is, by definition, emasculated and useless. The implication obviously is that the university should teach heresy as a matter of course—in both senses of the word. One that would refuse to do so, or allow itself to be intimidated into refraining, would fail the basic trust of the people it teaches and the society it serves.

In the same time, however, the university needs to ensure that the ideals and values it strains to achieve are still recognizably those of that selfsame society. Otherwise, it would not be legitimate to expect society to support it—both in terms of the material burden and, more importantly, of entrusting it with its young. A university essentially at odds with that society would have no rights over it and, more practically and more fundamentally, would lose its appeal to most of those it wishes to educate. And what worth would heresy have, if it were to remain locked in an ivory tower?

As long as the value of free debate is shared both by the university and by society at large, this contradiction is being lived through it, ever reformulated and modified to address the issues at hand. If free debate is dead, as in unfree societies, so obviously is the university, and the issue becomes one of resistance. But the real test comes when a free society is involved in a conflict, for this unavoidably leads to the reduction of the sphere of free debate. It is then necessary to decide just how much heresy still to endorse, in the name of serving its first goal, and how much of it to give up, in the name of the secondPage  197 one. The decision is for the university to make, and it will have to live with the consequences.

The Children of Amalek

Be it as may, it seems safe to conclude that it is the job of the university to resist the formation of the Amalek image. On the other hand, it was earlier postulated that Amalek himself should take the responsibility of doing things to prove that the Amalek image is wrong. It seems obvious that the university is uniquely suited to detect such activity, report on it and support it. This may prove the best answer to those who would criticize the university for being too accommodating to Amalek. But for this to happen, Amalek—or the children of Amalek—will have to develop their own remembrance of the event that caused the Amalek image to develop.

They will have to acknowledge the specific nature of radical evil, and that it was committed by their own. They will have to acknowledge that it was committed in order to benefit them, and to reject any such benefit. They will have to ensure that they will do the utmost to prevent this from happening again. Such a program is far from being Utopian. The example of post-war Germany proves it admirably, and Karl Jaspers' "The question of guilt" remains a fundamental reference point. [13] To an appropriately lesser extent, discussions about wartime guilt and responsibility in countries such as France, Poland and Italy—and the terrible lack of such in, say, Lithuania, Romania and, above all, Russia—point both to the hopes one can harbor, and dangers that still lurk.

But all the best efforts of the children of Amalek will come to naught if the children of the victims of Amalek will not do their part. Remembering can be constructed as a response to dis-membering, a collective attempt to symbolically make the destroyed whole again. A crucial element of that construction is the freezing the event in time, and making it thus resistant to change; in particular the perpetrators become a fixed concept, with the concomitant consequences in reality perception—the Amalek image. This is another, and no less paradoxical reading of the Torah's commandment of remembrance/oblivion. The memory of Amalek has to be blotted out—but the only way one can be sure this commandment has in fact been fulfilled is by remembering that the memory of Amalek has to be blotted out, and thus of course remembering Amalek.

In the psychological theory of paradoxical change, the same phenomenonPage  198 is described in respect to certain forms of neurosis. An event, an action, a feeling is repeated in memory time and time over, precisely because one wants to forget it. The only way to let go, to be free again, is to give up the effort of forgetting—and, by the same token, the pain of remembering. Amalek can be defeated only when he is collectively forgotten as Amalek, and becomes Amalekites—a collection of individuals. This is only possible when the event of radical evil can be rendered in memory on different planes. One is that of the event itself, which must live in memory out of solidarity with the victims (Milan Kundera had said that totalitarianism is the battle of memory and forgetting). [14] Another is that of the perpetrators, not generalized to include the community they wanted to identify with, but reduced to who they really were, and inclusive, if and when, of the efforts of the perpetrators' community to condemn and compensate the evil.

It is possible to forget Amalek—but only when his acts are remembered, in shared sorrow, by his children together with the children of the victims.

Page  199


1. Biblical quotations according to The Chumash: The Stone Edition (Brooklyn, NY: The Art Scroll Series, Mesorah Publications, 1993) for the Pentateuch, and Tanakh (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985) for the other books of the Hebrew Bible.

2. Emil Fackenheim, "Jewish Faith and the Holocaust" in The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim, ed. Michael Morgan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 176.

3. Though the dominant term for the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis in World War II is "Holocaust," this usage is problematic. "Holocaust," a Greek term, designates a burnt offering to the gods. Taken in this sense, it would imply that the murder of the six million was in fact a sacrifice, or that at least it could have religious meaning. But the victims, my family included, did not want to be sacrificed; therefore the sacrifice would have to be seen as a Nazi one, to Nazi gods—certainly not the appropriate way to remember. This is why the Hebrew word "Shoah," indicating destruction, is preferred.

4. The double bind can also be self-imposed. In a Hassidic story I once heard, a righteous man had journeyed to Sodom, climbed on a barrel in the city's market place, and started preaching, urging the inhabitants to repent. He went on like this for fifteen years, and no one paid attention. Finally one day a young boy stopped in front of him and said: "You must have been standing here even before I was born. Do you really think you will convince us?" The righteous man answered: "When I came into this city I did in fact hope this will happen. Now I know it will not—but I still have to go on preaching, because otherwise it will mean that you have convinced me."

5. Amalek might argue, however, that the Jews, by virtue of crossing foreign territory, have accepted the possibility they might be attacked. It is not clear if Rephidim, where the attack occurred, was in fact claimed by any nation. This argument would also imply that it is legitimate to kill foreigners just because they are there—hardly an acceptable position. Furthermore, Amalek is weakened by the treacherous nature of their attack: from behind, on the stragglers and the weak. On the other hand, criticism can be raised of the Jewish leaders, Moses and Aaron: had they arranged Israel in a different marching order, with the weak and stragglers in the center and armed menPage  200 bringing up the rear, the tragedy might have been averted. This, however, would imply a permanent militarization of the Exodus, and the Jews believed that, after the defeat of Pharaoh's army, they faced no more threats. The Exodus had but started and the escapees' level of organization was probably not yet sufficient.

6. Another difference would be that, while the conditional command of genocide in Canaan is contained in the book of Deuteronomy, part of the Pentateuch, or Torah in the narrow sense, the unconditional command of genocide of Amalek is contained in the book of Samuel (I), part of the Hebrew Bible but outside of the Torah in the narrow sense, and therefore, for non-Orthodox Jews at least, not Divinely revealed but only inspired.

7. This is possible by a Kabalistic reading of Gen. 3:11, in which God asks Adam: "Have you eaten of the tree (ha-min ha-etz) from which I commanded you not to eat?" The only difference between "ha-min" and "Haman" is vowel marks, which in Hebrew are usually not marked.

8. The recent Human Rights Watch report, which calls Palestinian suicide terror attacks a crime against humanity, explicitly rejecting any legitimization for them in previous, possibly unlawful acts by the Israeli military, is a case in point. See Joe Stork, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks against Israeli Civilians (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2002). By the same token, of course, no Palestinian atrocity can justify possible crimes committed by the Israelis.

9. All the above are recurrent quotes from conversations with Serbs from Bosnia and from Serbia I had during and after the Bosnian war. It must be stressed that, although the sheer dimensions of Serb crimes make accounting in their case more urgent than in others, similar though less intensive denial can be encountered also among Croats, both from Bosnia and Croatia. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was among the Bosnian Muslims, who were mainly victims of both sides, that I found the greatest willingness to address the issue of crimes committed by their own side. These observations are supported by the attitudes adopted by the respective states towards extraditing their war crime suspects to the Hague: none, bar Slobodan Milosevic on the Serb side (Biljana Plavsic had turned herself in, other Serb suspects were forcibly arrested by international forces), some grudging extraditions, with stiffening resistance and finally refusal on the Croat side, and almost faultless cooperation on the Bosnian Muslim Page  201side.

10. The story has been told by the former Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Dymytro Pavlychko, at a conference at the Pogranicze Center, Sejny, Poland, February 2002.

11. Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1961).

12. Julien Benda, Treason of the Intellectuals (New York: Norton, 1969).

13. Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978).

14. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981).