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Face to Faith

The demons of history

Emma Klein
Monday October 28, 2002
The Guardian

Jihad and Amalek are emotive terms which reverberate across the centuries. Intrinsic to Islam and Judaism respectively, they can also be seen to reflect a group dynamic common to many cultures. This is the split between the desire to nurture and validate one's own, and the urge to project all the negativity one refuses to acknowledge on to the other, the outsider.

The Pentateuch contains numerous injunctions to blot out the name of Amalek, the archetypal enemy who attacked the Israelites coming out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 25, 17-19). Jihad is a term believed to have been coined by the prophet Mohammed, and understood as a holy war against the so-called infidel - popularly perceived in the west as all who fail to follow the tenets of Islam.

The twin tendencies of idealisation and demonisation clearly flourish in a climate of religious or nationalistic fanaticism. As Jenny Beddington, a psychotherapist experienced in conflict resolution, explains: "One major motive for demonising the other is an inability to forgive and move on from past grievances. The history remains in the present. Things are seen in black and white terms."

Such splitting can occur, says Beddington, when a group feels threatened by a culture with different values, or when groups are very similar and feel threatened by loss of power and identity. "In extreme cases of splitting, where hatred predominates, violence is used to eliminate the other group, which is debased and seen as subhuman. This situation is at its most severe where religion and identity are one, and where the reasons for violence are sanctified by the religion."

Certainly the biblical Amalek and his descendants are portrayed as the embodiment of evil. One is Haman, the villain of the Purim story, who sought the destruction of the Jews of King Ahasuerus's realm. The glee with which Jews noisily drown out his name, and the rejoicing that accompanied the slaughter of his family and followers, suggest that he and they are seen as less than human. The war against Amalek, the Pentateuch warns, will be pursued from generation to generation (Exodus 17, 16).

It is the struggle with Amalek that the medieval commentator Maimonides cites as a rare instance where war is justified, and, today, Hitler, Arafat and others are not infrequently labelled as Amalek reincarnate. Similarly, while Islam's dispute with the Jews may be traced back to the days of Mohammed, the vilification and demonisation of Jews spewed out by today's Arab media provides ample justification and incitement for acts of martyrdom in the name of jihad.

Is it possible to find a new perspective on the war against Amalek and the concept of jihad? In his book, The Eternal Journey, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg cites the Hassidic tradition that interprets the words of the Pentateuch as "to you Amalek", meaning Amalek is within you - within all of us. "The war against Amalek," Wittenberg concludes, "means fighting evil both within ourselves and without. If we ignore the former, we too quickly become like Amalek."

Likewise, earlier this year, the Israeli-born Islamicist Sara Sviri, speaking on "the greater jihad", claimed that "the idea conveyed by this term is that the true jihad is not the one against infidels but the one against one's own inner self. To struggle with the external 'other' is easier than to struggle with the inner 'other'."

And from the crucible of conflict, a glimmer of hope. A Palestinian suicide bomber, who only partially succeeded in detonating his explosives, was taken to an Israeli hospital, where he received the best medical treatment alongside survivors of other bombing incidents. "Not all Jews are bad," he said afterwards. "You can have a bad Arab in the same way as a bad Jew." In this context, an encounter with the other may offer the most effective means of laying the foundations of a process leading towards an eventual transformation of perception.

· Emma Klein is the Tablet's Jewish correspondent

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