Benzion Netanyahu — renowned historian, and father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was laid to rest in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery on Monday afternoon. He passed away early Monday at the age of 102.
The prime minister eulogized his father as a man who knew “how to identify danger in time” — a quality, his father told him, “that our people lost while in exile.” Benzion also taught him to “face reality head on” and “draw the necessary conclusions.”
Benzion, said his son, “could decipher the past and understand the future.” After all, the prime minister said his father had told him, “If you cannot understand the past, then you cannot understand the present. And those who cannot understand the present cannot hope to decode the future.”
Those politically poignant reminiscences came at the end of a eulogy that was largely more personal — in which the prime minister spoke adoringly of his father, family life, his and his two brothers’ upbringing, the strength with which Benzion and his late wife Tzila bore the death of their eldest son Yoni (the IDF commander who was the sole Israeli fatality of the legendary Israeli rescue raid at Entebbe in 1976), and of Benzion’s extraordinary academic scholarship.
A historian who was considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Jewish life in Spain in the Middle Ages, Benzion was also editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica.
The prime minister recounted the trauma of Yoni’s death, recalling how he had traveled “seven hellish hours” from Boston, where he was studying, to New York, to tell his parents the terrible news. “I saw him through the glass, in typical pose with his hands clasped behind his back.” His father saw him, and asked, “with surprise, ‘What are you doing here, Bibi?’” And then in an instant, Benzion realized why he had come, “and he let out a cry of such anguish… that I will remember for as long as I live.”
Yoni, he said, had the most profound respect for his father. He described a phone conversation he had with Yoni in 1968, when the two brothers were young. “Every time I have the chance to speak with Dad, I realize how smart he is, and I respect him more and more. He knows about so many things,” Benjamin recalled Yoni saying.
Stressing his father’s very practical intelligence, he said Benzion had warned about the Holocaust and, decades later, about mass terrorist attacks of the nature of those that occurred on September 11.
He also told a small, personal story from his childhood showing his father’s compassion, during which his eyes welled with tears: “I remember a snowy night in New York City,” he began, speaking directly to Benzion. “The three of us [he, Yonatan and their younger brother Iddo] were in a hotel with you and Mom…. And I told you I was hungry, and you said, ‘I’m not prepared for my son to go to bed hungry.’ So you braved the cold and went out to get me food, and you returned, soaked and drenched…. That’s the kind of father you are.”
That snowstorm was the least of the challenges faced bravely by the family and by the nation it was part of, Netanyahu noted.
Benzion was a devout follower of revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Benjamin described his father’s work to garner support among American Jews for the creation of a Jewish state and to convince both the Democrats and Republicans to open the country’s doors to the Jews.
“You always gave us a sense of responsibility to our nation,” he said.
Netanyahu said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to express his love and respect for his father at Benzion’s 100th birthday celebration. That, he said, was a privilege few sons are granted.
President Shimon Peres also eulogized Benzion: “A great teacher has left us, and left behind a leader of our people,” referring to his son, the prime minister.
He said the prime minister follows in his father’s footsteps, who was a student of history, “with the same feeling and sense of heritage.” He said Sarah and Netanyahu were in mourning for their father, “but love cannot be eulogized. Love is something that never dies nor will it ever die.”
Iddo Netanyahu, who spoke after Peres, said: “If we are to choose the secret that allowed you to reach your achievements, it is your integrity… It was your integrity that allowed you to follow your conscience and to devote many years to political activity.”
He then spoke of Benzion’s revisionist leadership activities in rallying US leaders around the idea of a Jewish state, which ultimately led to the establishment of the State of Israel.