Killing Amalek

“I think the [Palestinian] village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” said Israel’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, earlier this year. Though shocking to many at the time, it now seems like a popular sentiment among Israel's political class since Hamas militants invaded southern Israel, attacking a kibbutz, a music festival, and civilian outposts, killing hundreds in a particularly brutal fashion. What came next was as familiar as it was predictable: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assembled a “unity government” coalition based entirely on the one thing they now had in common: support for a sweeping and merciless attack on Gaza. What was once controversial has now become consensus. The only answer to brutality is to show just how brutal we can become in response. 

People forget that the early “mafia” in the United States was Jewish. Known as “Murder Inc,” gangsters like Meyer Lansky hit the heights of organized crime through bootlegging, grasping power just as fascism was ascendant. In Swastika Nation, which chronicles the rise of the German-American Bund in the 1930s, Arnie Bernstein recounts how much of the Jewish criminal underworld shifted its focus to the Nazis, using their unique skill sets to attack fascist leaders, shut down gatherings, and become a defensive force against the Bund. Lansky in particular learned a lesson about the necessity of violence in defense of Jews while witnessing his Grodno Jewish community (in what is now Belarus) prepare for a rumored Christian pogrom.

Bernstein traces these early Jewish criminals to the story of the Golem, a violent, amoral monster constructed by Jews to defend against murderous antisemitic onslaughts. The Golem is central to Jewish folklore, but the best known tale is the Golem of Prague, in which a rabbi regretfully builds his beast out of clay to fight invading Christians. “The rabbi studied his creation…[but] he decided that the golem was more frightening than the Gentiles.” After the Gentiles marched into the ghetto on Passover, however, beheading Jews and setting buildings on fire, the rabbi’s reservations were dispelled. The Golem was necessary.

The Golem encapsulates the core fear underscoring Ashkenazi history: your neighbors could turn on you at any moment, and we might need to become monsters to save ourselves. The 1981 pulp novel The Tribe mobilizes this myth, telling the story of a tight group of Orthodox men who use a Golem to survive Belzec and whose unapologetic use of revenge against encroaching violence inspires them to wield the Golem against any Gentile deemed a threat, even communities of color now inhabiting previously Jewish neighborhoods in 1970s New York. Gershom Scholem saw the Golem as a “replica of Adam, the first Man himself,” who is now outgrowing the control of his creator. The Golem was like us, or, we should say, we are like the Golem, who was what Adam was before life was breathed into him.

If revenge is a response to unspeakable trauma and anger, then it makes sense for Jewish revenge to hit its zenith at the close of the Holocaust. This is when, upon seeing the Shoah’s full scale, and following the command for revenge found scrawled on the walls of gas chambers, several Jewish led organizations formed (both through the Red Army and independently) to do just that to many of the Germans now sitting in Allied custody. There were show trials where Nazi crimes were read aloud before the guilty were strangled to death with bare Jewish hands.

A new book chronicles one group, the Nakam (Hebrew for vengeance), made up of the Nokmim (The Avengers), who had grander aspirations: to kill six million Germans. Israeli scholar Dina Porat’s Nakam: The Holocaust Survivors Who Sought Full Scale Revenge meticulously tracks this briefly held mission in the anguished months immediately after the war. 

The book centers on Israeli poet Abba Kovner, a member of the socialist Zionist  Hashomer Hatzair and partisan fighter who founded Nakam. Returning home from displaced person's camps, many Jewish internees found their entire families massacred, their houses occupied by the same neighbors who had turned them in, and even feared the pogroms would continue unabated. 

For many, the Holocaust had crushed the utopian foolishness of the socialists, the faith of the democrats, leaving only a nihilistic fury to show the entire world that Jewish suffering came at a price. Kovner recruited around 50 members, some of whose plans for murder were to be folllowed by their own suicide. What interest did they have in building families, going to work each morning, knowing what they knew?

The group didn’t form in isolation, it emerged out of the earlier East European Survivor’s Brigade (Hativa), which was founded on a few absolutes: immigration to Israel, “self-defense as a nation,” “dissolution of the Diaspora,” and the unified establishment of a Jewish state. Their oath read:

“I, a child of the Jewish people, do hereby swear, in full awareness, by the earth that is soaked with the blood of my dear ones, and by the memory of the millions of martyrs who were slaughtered, burnt, tortured, and raped, that I will fulfill all the commands that I receive, safeguard all the secrets, and follow any path in order to reach the Land of Israel.” 

An additional oath went by the acronym Parkhakh, which they swore before leaving for Palestine, to inflict death on anyone who threatened the Jewish people.

Kovner set off for the Yishuv—the Jewish community in Palestine—to acquire poison for two potential plots. Plan A was to poison the water supply of a major German city, hopefully reaching a death toll of six million, while Plan B was to kill only acutely guilty SS soldiers, numbering in the thousands. As Kovner met with Yishuv leaders it was clear that while there may have been sympathy with Plan A, only Plan B would receive the support of even the angriest of Palestine’s Jewish community. 

Plan B’s support came from leadership of the Haganah, the fighting force that would eventually lead the 1948 war. The Yishuv, itself trying to unify Palestine’s Jewish leadership, was wary of the Nakkam’s independence. Porat doesn’t underplay the importance of Kovner and Nakam’s relationship to these pre-Israel institutions, suggesting that some of the Yishuv and Haganah leadership may have been aware of Plan A, yet only supported plan B, which ostensibly separated the guilty from the innocent. 

Kovner was a partisan hero, after all, and the Haganah supplied him with the identification needed to re-enter Europe and carry with him canisters of poison that could be smuggled into Germany for his eventual, Plan B attack. For his part, David Ben-Gurion (who allegedly met with Kovner) saw revenge as of little importance in comparison to the formation of the state, something that undergirded every choice, and compromise, he made. 

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Porat, former Chief Historian of Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, holds the Nokhim in a sentimental regard, even as she walks us through their violence, something that fell far short of the kind of transcendent vengeance they hoped would match their tragic experiences. Plan A was seductive specifically because it was every bit as indiscriminate as the murder of Jews itself. It was the utter destruction of a nation—one whose guilt was ubiquitous. 

The story was understood as the Biblical Amalekites, enemies of Israel whose total eradication was required in order to restore the dignity of Jewish peoplehood. Porat follows the Nokhim as they try and fail at one profound attack on German POWs, and eventually drop the mission, emigrate to Israel, and commence a new life building what they see as the final act of Jewish self-defense: a Jewish state. “Two thousand Amalekites are sleeping the sleep of the just,” says Nokhim-member Yehuda Brieger (later renamed Ben-Horin), when he believed that the Nokhim had successfully initiated an attack on German POWs.

Porat portrays Kovner’s bloodlust (and Israeli acceptance of it) as self-evident, which it may have been for the Hebrew readership who grew up around stories, and people, like these. During the formation of the State of Israel, the New Yishuv was flooded by thousands of thoroughly traumatized people, fragments of families and lives arriving at what many hoped would, finally, be a safe haven for Jews. 

Their anger was palpable, and visible, and it’s part of the founding myths of Israel, as Hativa’s oaths about Jewish safety reveal. This sense of necessary revenge has always played a role in Israel’s national story, licensing a variety of actions, including the kidnapping and execution of Adolf Eichmann; the retaliatory attacks during both the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and subsequent conflicts with Arab neighbors; and the frequent bulldozing of the homes of families it suspects of abetting terrorism. When Hamas fires rockets over the border into Israel proper, they pale compared to the IDF’s shock-and-awe response, which presumes that an overwhelmingly violent counter-attack will make Israel safer.

The motivating logic of Revisionist Zionism, which assumed the Jewish right to every inch of Mandatory Palestine and Transjordan, was that only Jewish strength and violence could secure Jewish security and, ultimately, survival. This is the founding ideology of the Likud Party which has dominated Israel for decades, moving even further Right in the last election.

In fact, Likud’s coalition partners, such as far-right activist Itmar Ben-Gvir, made revenge their ideological centerpiece, something that echoes throughout the messianic ideology in the Settlements. Part of the Israeli far-right sees Jewish redemption through a “theology of revenge,” as elucidated by scholars Adam and Gedaliah Afterman, noting that a certain read on Jewish mysticism locates revenge against Gentile oppressors as essential for the arrival of moshiach (the messiah) and the healing of the Jewish people. 

Revenge is key to far-right rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir’s hero. Kahane is best known in the U.S. for founding the Jewish Defense League, and who saw the establishment of a Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel as commensurate with revenge against the Gentiles who had historically humiliated the Hebrews. In his view, Jews take revenge against their oppressors not only for their own redemption, but for God’s. “A Jewish fist in the face of an astonished gentile world that had not seen it for two millennia, this is Kidush Hashem,” wrote Kahane, suggesting Jewish freedom comes primarily from the humiliation enacted on non-Jews. 

The growth of Kahanism and congruent far-right theologies in the Settlements has created a culture of performative revenge through “paycheck attacks” against Arabs, which is supposed to raise the cost of living for Arabs in a land that Jewish militants believe was given to them by God. Figures like Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh take a radically literal read of kabbalah (which Shaul Magid calls “messianic realism”), asserting that a kind of cataclysm, which could be read as politically motivated violence, is necessary to redeem the Jewish people and restore their kingdom, and that anything can be permitted since we are on the precipice of redemption. 

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Yitzhak Shapira, a popular rabbi in the settlements, wrote a book called The King’s Torah, suggesting that it is always just to kill a Gentile if a Jew’s life could at some point be on the line. “There is a reason to kill babies [on the enemy side] ... because of the future danger they may present, since it is assumed that they will grow up to be evil like their parents,” writes Shapira. Never again.

The Nokhim’s rage, initially directed at Germans, would eventually shift to Arabs. It functioned as the subtext in Israeli responses to Palestinian demands for autonomy, which was animated by the belief that Jewish victimhood resulted from Jewish inaction, which was what enabled others to enact cruelty upon them. 

This is the same logic that permeated the “muscular Jew” of early Zionism, which saw the diaspora as a corrosive force on the Jewish body. Instead, as figures like Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued, Jews would have to follow the path all peoples have in their quest for continuity: violence. This logic is part of why the New Yishuv didn’t respond to Kovner with overwhelming horror, and why Porat paints a largely sympathetic portrait of his torment. 

A People Who Shall Dwell Alone

While the Nokhim lived a desperate life in those early post-war months, they eventually integrated into the mosaic of Israeli society. But they carried those experiences into agencies like Mossad, a number of whose early agents were Nokhim members. Other Nokhim led Jewish forces against Palestinians in the nakba, the disaster and expulsion of Arabs that adjoined Israel’s foundation. Kovner became a propaganda officer, writing poems that chastised Jewish troops for the emotional strife many felt when engaging in war crimes against Arabs and for retreating when victory became impossible. 

While widespread revenge may have not been feasible in 1945, it became infinitely more plentiful in the decades since. Mossad carries out retaliatory attacks as a security strategy, such as the murder of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders after the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. This is not a comparison that Porat really brings into the pages of the book, nor does she provide a critical lens to how the experiences and logic of the Nokhim have influenced Israeli identity. Porat’s relationship to the subject is complicated. 

Scholars like Antony Lerman have alleged that her antisemitism institute at Tel Aviv University received funding from Mossad, a piece of the agency’s work defending diaspora Jewry. Indeed, her writing lacks a certain sentimentality for forgiveness, as did the Israeli state agencies that eventually absorbed the Nohkim. Love and peace may have played a major role in the kibbutz movement but they were never a founding principle of the state—Jewish safety was. Porat’s treatment has a tragic matter-of-factness to it: the violence that Jews experienced cannot be undone, but naive utopianism can be.

That understanding may be why the recent Israeli elections shocked American Jews more than Israelis. Kahanists came into power who are toying with West Bank annexation, deporting Palestinian citizens of Israel, and banning non-Orthodox converts from the Law of Return. From the perspective of democracy, this is chilling, but if the founding principle of the state is Jewish sovereignty and security, then the calculations are simply different. In Israel, as Peter Beinart noted in a piece after the election, there are certain things that are just assumed, such as the centrality of ethnic nationalism. You could add that implicit violence, particularly retaliatory violence, is a part of the ethic that Israel depends on: using disproportionate force to ensure Jewish continuity (what Jewish Currents editor Joshua Leifert called the “Theory of Jewish Total Domination”). 

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This Kahanist logic of revenge, security, and theological redemption is becoming increasingly ubiquitous amongst the Orthodox in the Settlements, according to scholars of the far-right like Cas Mudde and Ami Pedahzur. The “lachrymose story of Jewish history” became so implicit in this logic that Jewish “exile,” they believe, can only be redeemed by a total reversal of Jewish victimhood: the Jewish people will be saved when no one would dare see them as victims ever again. 

The unfortunate reality of Settler Colonialism is that the settlers, which in this usage would include most Jewish Israelis, are largely insulated from the dispossession the colonized face. This only further radicalizes the settlers who are unable to understand in emotionally satisfying ways why their Palestinian “neighbors” are so angry, and why they experience Palestinian violence as illogical aggression. 

This dissonance allows attacks against Israelis to be reframed as irrational antisemitism rather than properly political—yet another people trying to make Jews victims. “Esau Hates Jacob” is a classic equation explaining why the hatred held by one people, the descendents of Esau, towards the children of Jacob, Jews, never seems to expire; first the Germans and now the Palestinians, as this logic would have it. 

This was a founding feature of Kahanism, one that Magid argues was one of Kahane’s lasting ideological imprints on Jewish self-understanding. Treating “them”—in this case the Arabs—with mercy ignores the fact that this hatred is eternal and immutable;  just as the Israelites were forced to eradicate the Amalekites, we must hold no tolerance for those who would again seek the end of the Jewish people. Israel’s actions are informed by the trauma of Jewish history. But just as it failed to serve Kovner and the Nokhim, it’s doing little to ameliorate an accelerating crisis on both sides of the Green Line. 

Near the end of the book, Porat interviews an aging and ill Nokhim member, Yehuda Friedman, who is haunted by his parents’ murder at the Plaszow concentration camp. “Why?! Why was the operation stopped?! Father and Mother will never forgive me for not doing anything! Mama, Papa, I did nothing! They stripped them and shot them,” he screamed. “We should have tried again and again!”

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The anger is palpable, and not uncommon, reemerging at moments of peak violence in the conflict over Israel’s occupation of Palestine. For an example we need look no further than the recent, unprecedented attacks by Hamas on civilian targets. In response, Netanyahu promised to turn Hamas’ locations in Gaza into rubble, followed by mass bombings in a 22-mile strip of land whose population is 43% children. 

As Frantz Fanon introduced in The Wretched of the Earth back in 1961, the violence experienced in a decolonial resistance is the reproduction of the violence introduced by the colonizer: to respond with escalated cruelty, such as carpet bombing Gazan cities as a form of collective punishment, does little to bring an end to the suffering. Instead, it can only escalate it. Revenge is a different path than peace.

What is it that we pass down with our names and tradition? Whose story remains? Tradition is how we keep the memories of the past alive today, but how long will these recollections last? How will they reproduce themselves? Depending on the perspective of the observer, the darkness of the Nokhim is both easy to understand and to dismiss—the product of trauma. But some wounds are so severe and so unhealed that it only seems logical to inflict them onto another. “Does blood have the power to wash away blood whose flesh exists no longer?” writes Yeheil De-Nur in his book, Nakam. And we might ask another question: can the crimes of the Amalek of the past be solved by punishing the Amalek of today?