Israel, where religion is always the story

When Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land last week, every religious move he made was analyzed for its political significance. On Monday when Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet President Obama in Washington, just the opposite will be true: the political moves will be analyzed for their religious significance. Of course, there is more to it than religion. As most commentators noted on the eve on the meeting, there are strategic, military and political factors to weigh. Obama is expected to press Netanyahu to accept the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a position that Netanyahu has rejected as premature. He'll want to see an end to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. For his part, Netanyahu will want to put the focus on stopping Iran -- which has called for Israel's destruction -- from developing nuclear weapons.

I thought the New York Times got it right on Sunday in two articles that drew attention to the religious dimensions of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. Jeffrey Goldberg's "Israel's Fear, Amalek's Arsenal," explores Netanyahu's world view, which he says was shaped in part by Deuteronomy. Goldberg writes:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu's anxiety about Iran. His answer: "Think Amalek." "Amalek," in essence, is Hebrew for "existential threat." Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek's malevolent spirit.

Goldberg mentions two other influences on Netanyahu, both of them borne of Jewish history, one ancient and one more recent. He was shaped by the scholarship of his father, the pre-eminent historian of Spanish Jewry, whose work showed that the Spanish hatred of Jews was not merely theological but based in race hatred. And he was shaped by the martyrdom of his older brother who died in the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe to free Jewish hostages. Entebbe, Goldberg notes, still symbolizes "the purest expression of the modern Jewish rejection of passivity."

Obama's world view is explored in another article in the Times, this one by Helene Cooper and written from Washington. In a few pungent paragraphs she notes that Obama, although a Christian, is the son of a Muslim father; is a chum of Rashid Khalidi and other Arab-Americans; and is poised to give a major talk on Islam in Cairo next month.

"None of this," Cooper adds, "necessarily means that Mr. Obama will chart a course that is different from his predecessors'." But the headline on her story, "World Watches for U.S. Shift on Mideast," suggests that others may be expecting something else.

Obama's views are still emerging. But Netanyahu, who is serving his second round as Prime Minister, has a pretty firm positions. If, as his adviser's suggest, he sees Iran as the classic enemy, Amalek, it would be good to keep in mind that the Bible offers no compromise with Amalek. "Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven," Deuternomy 25 commands, "Thou shalt not forget it."

In short, just because the pope may be out of the Middle East picture for now, religion is not.

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