"Remember what Amalek did to you... Therefore... you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
These words, read as the Maftir portion of the Torah reading, and the accompanying Haftarah, which tells the story of Saul’s battle against the Amalekites, ring true to us when we consider the many times in which Jews have been attacked, maimed, and killed by others, most especially the Holocaust. There is a piece of every Jew who knows anything about these events that says, "Never again!" — and rightly so.
Along similar lines, but proportionally, the Torah commands that we never allow the Amonites and Moabites become part of our nation, "because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam ... to curse you...You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live" (Deuteronomy 23:4-6). These nations did not attack us physically, but they refused to help us and sought to undermine our relationship with God by tempting us with idolatry and immorality. We therefore are not commanded to kill every last one of them, as we are with regard to Amalek, but we are to avoid them forever.
At the same time, the Torah itself surprisingly says of Egypt, which, after all, enslaved our ancestors for hundreds of years, "you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation." (Deuteronomy 23:8-9). This generation and the next are to be shunned for what they did, but by the third generation after the Exodus, Israelites are not to hate them, for that generation was not involved in enslaving us. On the contrary, we must recognize that our ancestors managed to live there, albeit in slavery, in a land that was not theirs.
The most important lesson from all of this, it seems to me, is that our relationship to the nations with which we come in contact must fit the nature of the experience we had with them, and that must be adjusted by what contemporary generations are doing. In our own time, nations like Iran and groups like Hamas and Hezboleh that openly seek the destruction of the State of Israel must be resisted as strongly as we can, including armed resistance, when necessary. They are the modern-day Amalek.
At the other end of the spectrum are nations like the United States and Canada, where Jews are treated as full citizens. We must take an active role in furthering the welfare of such nations, including fighting for them when they are attacked. In fact, the real problem, as Napoleon already recognized in his questions to the French Sanhedrin that he convened in 1807-1808, is the degree to which, and how, Jews are to assimilate into Western countries in which they are full citizens. Speaking the native language is one thing, and Jews have adjusted to taking their disputes to the nation’s courts rather than to rabbinic ones, but what about marrying other citizens who are not Jewish? This is, of course, one poignant example of the larger issue that we often discuss — namely, we have survived persecution through all these centuries, but can we survive freedom?
Between blatant enemies, on the one hand, and countries that welcome us as full-fledged citizens, on the other, are nations that have historically done very bad things to our ancestors but now seek to make amends. Germany is the obvious example. Although Germany created the Holocaust, arguably the worst catastrophe that our people has every suffered, for many decades now Germany has been paying reparations to Jews whose families were killed or robbed during the Nazi era, and Germany has been among Israel’s staunchest defenders. Furthermore, Germany has made anti—Semitism a crime, and it mandates that high schools teach all the wrongs of the Nazi period to its youth. That sounds to my ears very much like what the Torah says about the Egyptians. It seems downright unfair to hold the current generation of adults, whose parents were either young children during the Holocaust or not even born yet, responsible for the Holocaust. Although the Torah says that the third generation of Egyptians may marry into the Israelite fold, we would require formal conversion to do so, but, hard as it may be for us emotionally, we must recognize the steps of teshuvah (return, "repentance") when we see them and respond accordingly.
Other nations should be treated differently. Austria was a willing participant in the Holocaust and has not taken any of the steps Germany has to express regret for its actions or to teach its youth about the wrongness of them.
Poland is more complicated. Jews were welcomed to Poland when they were being expelled by Western European countries, and Jews lived there for close to a thousand years before the Holocaust. Furthermore, Poland sees itself as the victim of Nazi aggression, and some Poles saved Jews at the risk of their own lives and those of their families. On the other hand, many Poles cheered the Nazis on. After the war, Poland has reacted defensively to suggestions that it apologize for its part in the Holocaust and has instead begun to celebrate the long history of Jews living in Poland before the Holocaust. This is clearly not the same kind of full-hearted response of contrition and repair in evidence in Germany.
Ironically, a Polish Pope, John Paul II, did more than any pope before him to rectify this history, naming anti-Semitism as a sin, formally apologizing for the inadequacies of the Church’s response to the Holocaust, visiting the synagogue in Rome, and recognizing the State of Israel.
I mention all these cases to illustrate how nuanced our response must be to other nations and groups, including those who have done us wrong in the past. The priests in the Los Angeles Priest-Rabbi Dialogue, sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, asked us rabbis in the early 1990s what it would take for Jews to forgive the Church for what it did and failed to do in the Holocaust. We quickly realized that none of the priests sitting around the table caused the Holocaust, for all the priest were either young children living in America at the time or not yet born, and so how would they have the standing to ask for forgiveness? Conversely, none of the rabbis in the group was a survivor; we were all either small children living in America or not yet born during the Holocaust. This then led to a deep discussion of group identity and the possibility of a group asking for forgiveness from another group two generations after one hurt the other. You can see the results of that discussion in my chapter on "Communal Forgiveness" in my book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics.
Suffice it to say that, as the Torah already sets the precedent for doing, our relationships with other nations, including those who have harmed us in the past, must reflect both the extent of the harm and what subsequent generations have done in the past to make up for the wrong. We dare not treat every nation either as an Amalek or as the United States. We must rather develop a nuanced approach to nations — just as we do to individuals — that considers not only their past relationships with us but what they have done recently to repair wrongful acts.
At the same time, we too have to recognize when we have treated people wrongly, and we must take responsibility to repair that wrong. We recognize that as individuals; that, in fact, is what it means to be a moral adult. Now that Israel is a sovereign nation, however, we must recognize this duty as a nation as well. We Jews are no longer just victims, such that others always owe us for past wrongs. We must now take responsibility for the power the State of Israel wields toward its minorities and toward other nations, glory when it does that well, and seek to repair matters when it does it poorly. In some ways, it was easier to play the role of victim all the time and thus to feel always on the morally high road, but that is no longer possible. The blessings of national power bring with it moral responsibilities.
So as we read how God mandates us to respond forcefully to the ultimate evil of Amalek, including all of its later manifestations, may we also recognize that the Torah itself does not categorize all other nations as Amalek, that even some that have harmed Israel in the past should be appreciated for what they did in treating us well, and that innocent generations of nations should not be held responsible for the sins of their grandparents. Furthermore, all nations, including our own, must seek to act morally in their relationships to other groups and nations, and to repair the damage when they fail to do so. That is what it means to respond to the example of Amalek: we must not only defend ourselves with all the skill at our disposal when necessary, but we must also resolve to act very differently from Amalek in making ourselves both moral individuals and a moral nation.
For more on this theme, see Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002), especially Chapter Eight, "Communal Forgiveness." Readers might also be interested in my essay, "A Jewish Theology of Jewish Relations to Other Peoples," in Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 263—277.