Benzion Netanyahu’s Role In American Politics (JEWISH PRESS) By: Rafael Medoff 05/02/12)
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Benzion Netanyahu – historian, one-time political activist and father
of Israel’s prime minister – died Monday in Jerusalem at 102. An
accomplished scholar and the patriarch of one of Israel’s most
important political families, he also played a surprising and little-
known role in American political history.
Netanyahu was born in Poland in 1910 to a family deeply immersed in
the world of religious Zionism. His father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky,
a popular Zionist preacher, brought the family to British-ruled
Palestine in 1920. He Hebraicized the family name to Netanyahu.
In the wake of the Palestinian Arab riots of 1929, Netanyahu was
attracted to the militant wing of the Zionist movement, Revisionist
Zionism, headed by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His literary talents
were recognized early on, and he served as editor-in-chief of the
Revisionist newspaper HaYarden in the 1930s.
In 1940, Jabotinsky sent several of his leading disciples, including
Netanyahu and future Knesset member Hillel Kook (better known as
Peter Bergson), to the United States to seek funds and public support
for the rescue of Europe’s Jews and creation of a Jewish state in
“It was a brand new world for us,” Netanyahu told me in one of my
interviews with him. “I had never been to America. But I had to learn
quickly – there was no time. The world of European Jewry was going up
Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. wing of the
Revisionist Zionist movement and editor of its magazine, Zionews. His
essays were notable for their passion, political insights and high
level of fluency in a language he only recently had mastered. One
1944 editorial criticized mainstream Jewish leaders as “too cautious,
too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of
sympathy that [are] issued from high places.”
Bergson and Netanyahu employed tactics not commonly used by the
American Jewish community at the time, including placing full-page
advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers. Some of
the ads challenged the Roosevelt administration’s stance on refugees.
Others took aim at the British government’s White Paper policy of
closing Palestine to Jewish immigration. One that Netanyahu authored
was headlined “The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews
are to be Saved!”
Netanyahu divided his time between Revisionist headquarters in New
York City and Capitol Hill, where he sought to mobilize congressional
backing for the Zionist cause. At the time, mainstream Jewish leaders
such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were strong supporters of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt and stayed away from the Republicans.
Netanyahu, by contrast, actively cultivated ties to prominent
Republicans such as former president Herbert Hoover, as well as
dissident Democrats such as Sen. Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Mormon.
In 1944, Netanyahu sought to have the Republican Party endorse Jewish
rescue and statehood.
In the months leading up to that year’s Republican national
convention, the Revisionists undertook what they called “a systematic
campaign of enlightenment” about Palestine among GOP leaders such as
Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft, who chaired the convention’s resolutions
committee, and Rep. Clare Booth Luce, wife of the publisher of Time
and Life magazines.
The GOP adopted an unprecedented plank demanding “refuge for millions
of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes
by tyranny” and the establishment of a “free and democratic” Jewish
state. The Republicans’ move compelled the Democrats to compete for
Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs.
The Democratic National Convention, which was held the following
month in Chicago, for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish
immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment
of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”
These events helped ensure that support for Zionism and later Israel
would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every
subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar
plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.
In recent years, pundits have speculated on the extent to which
Benzion Netanyahu may have influenced his son’s actions as prime
minister. While it is difficult to draw a direct connection between
father and son on specific policy matters, there is a parallel in
their efforts to cultivate support for Israel on both sides of the
While working as a political activist in the 1940s, Benzion Netanyahu
also managed to complete a doctorate in medieval Jewish history at
Dropsie College in Philadelphia. He later taught Jewish history at
Dropsie, and then at the University of Denver and Cornell University.
Netanyahu’s magisterial study, The Origins of the Inquisition in
Fifteenth Century Spain, widely considered a groundbreaking work in
his field, was published in 1995. He spent time in both Israel and
the United States over the years, returning to Israel permanently in
1976, the same year his son Yoni was killed while leading the Entebbe
Notoriously reluctant to grant interviews, Netanyahu generally
succeeded in eluding the spotlight. He only recently agreed to
cooperate in the first documentary on his life and legacy, by Israeli
filmmaker Moshe Levinson, which coincidentally is scheduled to
premiere this week in Jerusalem.
Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for
Holocaust Studies in Washington. His latest book, co-authored with
Sonja Schoepf Wentling, is “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins
of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.” (© 2012
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