Benzion Netanyahu, 1910-2012, scholar and prime minister’s mentor

Benzion Netanyahu, 1910-2012, scholar and prime minister’s mentor

The professor's unflinching take on the history of the Jews shaped the thinking of the man today most responsible for their country's future

Benzion Netanyahu in his Jerusalem home (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Benzion Netanyahu in his Jerusalem home (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Benzion Netanyahu, who died Monday, was a renowned scholar who both wrote history and influenced it in a lifetime that spanned a century.

Netanyahu, 102, was a historian who authored several important works on the Spanish Inquisition, challenging the accepted views about that vital chapter of Jewish history.

His death was international news Monday, however, not because of who he was but because of who his son is. The influence wielded by the elder Netanyahu over his second son, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been a matter of some speculation throughout the younger Netanyahu’s political career.

Benzion Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yoni, died leading Israeli commandos in the famed Entebbe rescue raid in 1976.

“I learned from you to look into the future,” Benjamin Netanyahu told his father at a party for his 100th birthday in 2010. His father, the prime minister said, had foreseen both the Holocaust and the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Benzion (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Flash/90)
Benzion (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Flash/90)

Benzion Netanyahu was 29 when WWII began. When the airliners hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was 91.

Born Benzion Mileikowsky in Poland in 1910, he came to Palestine as a child and eventually became involved with Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, the opponents of David Ben-Gurion’s socialist Zionist camp and the precursors of today’s Likud Party. A supporter of the idea of a Greater Israel that would encompass today’s Kingdom of Jordan, he opposed the 1947 Partition Plan that created a smaller Jewish state.

As a young man he spent time in New York as Jabotinsky’s aide, and went on to divide much of his life between Israel, which he considered home, and the US, where he held a number of teaching positions, the most recent of them at Cornell University.

Netanyahu wrote extensively about Zionist history, but his most significant work dealt with the Jews of 15th century Spain and the converts to Catholicism known as marranos.

Before Netanyahu, scholars portrayed the marranos as unwilling converts who surreptitiously practiced Judaism. In this version, the Inquisition instituted by the Catholic kings of Spain to hunt down these secret Jews was pursuing a genuine phenomenon.

In Netanyahu’s version, which was based in part on rabbinic literature, most of the marranos were in fact willing converts who abandoned Jewish ritual and did their best to assimilate. The Inquisition, Netanyahu thought, had nothing to do with Jewish practice but was instead driven by racism and economic jealousy. The idea that Jews were secretly practicing their religion, he thought, had been manufactured to justify the persecution.

Some critics believed that he was reading 20th century history – and especially German anti-Semitism and the Holocaust — into older events as part of a worldview that saw European Jew-hatred as unchanging and Jewish attempts at assimilation as doomed.

A younger historian, Yirmiyahu Yovel, has written that Netanyahu had “a tacit ideological (indeed Zionist) agenda.”

His work has nonetheless played an influential role in the way that period has been studied ever since.

Some observers of the younger Netanyahu’s political behavior have picked up on what they believe is the influence of his father’s work. The prime minister often weaves history into his speeches, using historical documents as props — like the WWII-era letter he produced at a speech in the US earlier this year — and clearly seeing Israel’s current situation not just in the context of newspaper headlines but as part of the long and painful sweep of Jewish history.

“I read Benzion Netanyahu’s work,” Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmerman told The Times of Israel earlier this year, “and if you ask me, deep down in his heart [Benjamin Netanyahu] feels that everything is a plot against the Jews.”

The historian’s son has repeatedly suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran echoed an older threat – that of the Nazi genocide. “Those who dismiss the Iranian threat as a whim or an exaggeration have learnt nothing from the Holocaust,” he said earlier this month in a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The elder Netanyahu remained fiercely opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians, and publicly chided his son for relinquishing Israeli control of Hebron during his first term as prime minister.

“To me it’s clear that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. There is none and never was,” Benzion Netanyahu told Haaretz in a 1998 interview. For Israel, he said, Palestinian statehood would be a “nightmare.”

Some pundits have suggested his father’s ideology was keeping him from embracing a compromise with the Palestinians as long as his father lived — an idea the younger Netanyahu has dismissed as “psychobabble.”

Uri Savir, the chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords, said Benzion Netanyahu’s influence could not be disregarded but that it would be foolish to expect a change in the prime minister’s political direction as a result of the elder Netanyahu’s death.

“Netanyahu’s positions are surely a function of his education, but he means what he says,” Savir told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Yosef Kaplan, a professor of history at Hebrew University who specializes in the Jews of Spain in medieval and early modern times, said the elder Netanyahu would rightly be remembered for his impact on the writing of Jewish history.

“He was a man with vast knowledge of Jewish sources and general European sources, a man of broad horizons,  an excellent writer who knew to develop a theory, and a brilliant polemicist. He was a great scholar,” Kaplan said.

The elder Netanyahu died in the Jerusalem home where the family has lived on and off since 1952. 

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