The Amalek dilemma: Ukraine, Israel and Purim -opinion

Amalek has become the paradigm of the genocidal enemy of the Jewish nation. The Torah instructs us to “not forget” the cowardly attack perpetrated by Amalek after the Israelites’ exodus.

 A MAN places a candle next to a monument in Kyiv commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar.  (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
A MAN places a candle next to a monument in Kyiv commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar.

Even before we lived in Israel, we were very proud that Israel has always been on the front lines to provide disaster relief when there are humanitarian crises in all corners of the globe.

Israel sets up field hospitals, cares for the wounded, delivers babies, provides clean drinking water, food, medical supplies, warm clothing and all manner of help for refugees.

So what exactly is the dilemma we’re writing about? Some background is needed in order to put the questions, and our thoughts, in perspective. 

Purim is one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar when we rejoice over the Jews’ military victory over our enemies in ancient Persia, as the book of Esther records.

Amalek and his descendant Haman, the Purim antagonist, are descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12; I Samuel 5:8; Esther 3:1). Amalek has become the paradigm of the genocidal enemy of the Jewish nation.

The Torah instructs us to “remember” and “not forget” the cowardly attack perpetrated by Amalek after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

The Torah further enjoins us, “to erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens” (Exodus 17:8-17; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). In effect, the battle waged by the Jews in ancient Persia was a fulfillment of this dictum.

 Maimonides (Laws of Kings 5:4-5) distinguishes between the commandments regarding the seven Canaanite nations and Amalek. He says that the law to conquer the seven Canaanite nations no longer applies because “they have disappeared.” Ra’avad explains that because “Sancheriv, king of Assyria, came and interspersed the nations,” (Yadayim 4:4) we no longer know who the seven nations are!

 However, regarding Amalek, Maimonides does not say that they have disappeared. He maintains that the obligation to erase Amalek still applies. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his book Kol Dodi Dofek, brings his father’s explanation that Amalek is not a specific national identity, but rather it refers to the metaphysical identity of any nation (such as Nazi Germany) whose goal is to destroy the Jewish people. We are still duty-bound to eliminate them. 

 Where does Ukraine stand in the Amalekite “Hall of Shame”? The commandment to “remember” imposes a duty to review how the Jews were treated in Ukraine in the course of history. This is doubly important in light of what the Torah adds: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of ages past. Ask your parent, who will inform you, your elders, who will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). 

Here’s some history of the Jews in Ukraine. Bogdan Chmielnicki (1595-1667), who led the Cossack rebellion in Ukraine (1648-1657), was responsible for the mass murder of Jews – 80,000 according to Nathan Hanover (died 1663) in Yeven Metzulah (a 17th-century chronicle depicting Jewish life in Russia and Poland), and 100,000 Jews according to Rav Shabbtai HaCohen, (1621-1662).

Bernard Weinryb, in The Jews of Poland, suggests that the numbers may have been lower. But even the reduced numbers are huge in a time period when there were no mechanized armies or gas chambers.

 In the second and third decades of the 20th century, there were more massacres of Jews in Ukraine. A key figure who played a controversial role in these killings was Symon Petliura (1869-1926). Petliura is connected to pogroms against Jews during his rule of the Ukrainian National Republic.

Wikipedia cites Peter Kenez who writes, “Before the advent of Hitler, the greatest mass murder of Jews occurs in Ukraine in the course of the Civil War.

The number of Jews killed during the period is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000. A total of 1,236 violent attacks on Jews had been recorded between 1918 and 1921 in Ukraine. Among them, 493 were carried out by Ukrainian People’s Republic soldiers under the command of Symon Petliura.”

The Babyn Yar massacre of 33,741 Jews on September 29-30, 1941, was perpetrated by the Nazis with assistance from the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police.

Many of the cruel guards in the four Operation Reinhardt exclusive death camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzec – were Ukrainians.

Ukraine has consistently voted against Israel in UN votes on Israel, according to the UN Watch website. The best it could do on a few occasions was abstain when voting on resolutions condemning Israel.

 Just recently, Lauren Marcus in World Israel News recorded, “Hundreds of Jewish families in Ukraine were forced to flee their homes not due to the Russian invasion, but because of Ukrainians looting their properties and physically attacking them.

“The Lev Layeled NGO reported that Jews in the town of Zhytomyr were threatened, harassed and physically beaten by locals looking to take advantage of the chaos resulting from the fighting between Ukraine and Russia.”

SO, WE ask, is Ukraine Amalek? From one perspective, it is a country where huge numbers of Jews were murdered and persecuted. Surely, the Ukrainians who perpetrated those crimes in the past deserved to be eradicated, like Amalek.

One might argue as Rabbi Elazar did (Tanhuma, Metzora) that whoever is merciful to the cruel, in the end, becomes cruel to the merciful. The same King Saul who showed mercy to the Amalekite King Agag, wiped out the priestly Jewish city of Nov!

In light of the above, should we show compassion to the people of Ukraine? We believe there are several reasons why we should embrace not only our Jewish brethren from Ukraine, but non-Jewish refugees as well.

The shoe has been on the other foot in the past and in so many cases, Jews were treated as pariahs in their hours of greatest need.

It would seem to be the Jewish thing to do to respond with the loving-kindness that is an integral part of Israel’s national character and that is embedded in the souls of her people.

Furthermore, not all Amalekites are evil. They are not different from their ideological ancestor Esau/Amalek. The reunion between Jacob and Esau includes a dramatic embrace (Genesis 33:4) as well as a kiss, vayishakaihu. The Torah text has dots over that Hebrew word. The Sifrei (Numbers 69) offers two interpretations about what the dots teach us about that kiss. 

One suggests that it was not sincere. But Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says that even though generally, “Esau is Jacob’s enemy,” at that moment he was overcome by brotherly emotion and he kissed Jacob sincerely. 

There are Germans and Ukrainians who are honored by Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations.” We do not believe in genetic evil. There is a reason why so many Jews live by choice in Ukraine today. Clearly, they feel comfortable dwelling among their sincere Ukrainian neighbors. 

A Pew report released in 2018 determined that only 5% of Ukrainians would not like to have Jews as their fellow citizens. This percentage is lower than all the other countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

Interestingly, Maimonides (Kings 6:1,4) says that even an Amalekite who wants to make peace according to our conditions may be spared. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) states that “some of the great-grandchildren of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak.” Rabbenu Nissim Gaon (Brachot 27b) identifies the great Rabbi Akiva of Bnei Brak as one of Haman’s descendants!

Compassion is a paramount Jewish value. When Heshie was a student in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s shiur (Torah study) at Yeshiva University, a civil war raged in Nigeria from 1967 until 1970. The Ibo tribe of Biafra was being ruthlessly annihilated. A rally was to take place at the UN in early January 1968. 

Rav Lichtenstein told his students that as Jews, they must attend to protest genocide. But there would be no exemption from Torah study in order to attend the rally. His students woke up extra early, prayed k’vatikin (praying at sunrise), had a shiur for two hours, and then made their way to the UN on a frigid, below-zero-degrees (Fahrenheit) morning.

Of the 60 people who attended the rally, 47 were Yeshiva University boys with their rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

Our Jewish conscience and values tell us that we in Israel should feel that same compassion toward innocent non-Jewish Ukrainians and grant them asylum.

A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, synagogue rebbetzin, and yo’etzet halacha (halachic adviser) in the US.