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Benzion Netanyahu, historian, Israeli Prime Minister’s father, dies at 102

Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister, a noted historian and a prominent Zionist thinker with direct ties to fabled Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, died April 30 at 102.

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Netanyahu was professor emeritus at Cornell University. His academic specialty was the golden age of Jewish history in Spain. His most well-known book was The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, a book described as:

Modest in title but monumental in scope, this book is easily the finest study of the Inquisition to appear in this, or arguably any, century. The importance of Netanyahu’s work rests on its powerful revisionist interpretation. He argues with enormous evidence that Spanish Jews, though forced to convert, had become "devoutly Christian" and thoroughly assimilated into Spanish society. What was new in the 15th century was the Spanish monarchy’s practice of defining Jews not religiously but racially, which served as a prototype of 20th-century persecutions. Netanyahu’s magisterial achievement is prodigiously researched and lucidly written; it should be in every research, academic, and public library.

The first round of Israeli obituaries of Netanyahu emphasized his role in Revisionist Zionism in America and his purported influence over the worldview of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Haaretz wrote that Netanyahu "gained fame for his angry prophesies before the Second World War about the fate of the Jews. He will most likely be remembered for his great influence on the worldview of his son, Benjamin. The prime minister frequently mentions his father in speeches, speaking of what he has learned from his father, and of the experiences, both exciting and difficult, that the family has endured over the years." The paper quoted Benjamin Netanyahu as saying (in part) several years ago:

You taught me, Father, how to correctly view reality, how to understand what it contains within it and draw the necessary conclusions….The same foresight led Father to say dozens of years ago that the threat to world peace would emerge from the same parts of the Muslim world where oil, terrorism and nuclear go together. And it is also what led him to tell me in the early 1990s that the Muslim extremists would not rest and would attempt to bring down the Twin Towers in New York, a prediction that I included in one my books in 1995.

And Father is a smart man, very smart. This wonderful ability allowed him to see time after time what others didn’t. Even if they ignored his diagnoses and warnings, over time his ideas and diagnoses spread and became the common wisdom, without the collective knowing where they came from. Because for Father it was never important to get ownership or credit for his forecasts. He was interested in contributing to the security of his people, not in his own reputation.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the biggest event in his family’s life was the death of his elder brother, Yonatan Netanyahu in the IDF’s rescue of Israeli and Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976. Benjamin Netanyahu, then in Boston, traveled to Ithaca, NY, where his father was teaching at Cornell, to deliver the news.

After that difficult journey, I reached the path leading to the house, and I saw my father walking in the living room. He looked out the window, our gazes met, and a look of surprise was on his face. When I entered the house, he asked: ‘Bibi, what are you doing here?’ A second later he understood, and cried out in pain. His cry was followed by that of my mother – I will not forget those cries” told Netanyahu. Israeli politicians raced to issue statements of condolence and honor:

Israeli politicians raced to issue statements of condolence and Knesset members temporarily withdrew budding motions of no confidence in the Netanyahu government. The following quotes are from the Jerusalem Post.

Knesser speaker Reuven Rivlin: "Bibi learned the pure Zionism from a man who was so close to Jabotinsky," adding that the prime minister "was educated in a home where Zionism was a Zionism with no compromise… though Bibi’s realpolitik was much more developed."

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar: "Professor Netanyahu was an important scholar, both profound and original.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich: "We all have only one father. And in your case, we are talking about a unique man, distinguished historian, an ideologue and an intellectual who left a deep imprint on Israeli society."

Benzion Netanyahu was born in Warsaw, Poland, to writer and Zionist activist Nathan Mileikowsky. The family moved to pre-State Palestine in 1920, and lived in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and Tzfat before moving to Jerusalem. He studied at David Yellin teachers’ seminary and then Hebrew University. He became active in Revisionist Zionist activities while at Hebrew U.and wrote and edited their publications. He worked for Jabotinsky in New York and later received a Ph.D. at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. The family returned to Israel in 1949 after the State was established.

Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, and a close friend of Benzion Netanyahu, wrote a lengthy and warm appreciation of his friend for Tablet Magazine in 2010, in which he said:

For Benzion, the Arabs are implacable enemies. For me, they are indispensable partners who with their Jewish counterparts might once have created—and perhaps still may find the wisdom to create—a flourishing bi-national state, an exemplary multiethnic enclave within a stable Middle East or, failing that, a two-state solution. If my position underestimates the dark side of human nature, Benzion’s ignores the futility and horror—the sadness—of a military solution. Since our immovable polarity is understood by both of us our discussions of Middle East politics tend to be brief. Our affection flourishes on different ground.

… it was not an enormous effort, or even an effort at all, but the rarest of pleasures to work with this great scholar and to ignore the vast and immovable political divide between us for the sake of a scholarly revolution and the friendship that followed.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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