Obituary: Benzion Netanyahu, 1910-2012, scholar and prime minister’s mentor (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By RAPHAEL AHREN and MATTI FRIEDMAN 04/30/12)
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The professor’s unflinching take on the history of the Jews shaped
the thinking of the man today most responsible for their country’s
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 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
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
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. (© 2012 THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 04/30/12)
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