Noted historian Benzion Netanyahu, father of Israel’s prime minister, dies at 102


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Benzion Netanyahu, a noted Jewish historian and Zionist thinker, and the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has died.

Netanyahu died early Monday morning at his home in Jerusalem. He was 102.

Benjamin Netanyahu visited his father for the last time on Sunday evening, according to a statement issued Monday from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu was born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw in 1910, and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1920.

Netanyahu studied at the David Yellin Teachers’ College and later at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His research focused on the history of the medieval Spanish Jewish community and the history of Zionism. Among his books are a biography of Don Isaac Abravanel; a history of the Spanish Marranos; and his major work, "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain." He also authored "The Founding Fathers of Zionism," about the lives of the founders of political Zionism — Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Netanyahu was the editor in chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia for more than a decade beginning in the 1950s. He served as a professor of Jewish studies at various universities in the United States, concluding his academic career as professor emeritus at Cornell University.

From his time as a student in Jerusalem, he was involved in public Zionist activities. Netanyahu was a supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and edited a newspaper that also featured Joseph Klausner and poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg on its staff.

In 1939, Netanyahu traveled to London and persuaded Jabotinsky to relocate to the United States and from there mobilize support for the Jewish state. Jabotinsky died shortly after their arrival in the U.S.; Netanyahu continued to raise support for the Jewish state throughout the war and afterward.

In this context he met with many U.S. Jewish leaders of the period, as well as lawmakers, writers and other leaders. Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, he returned from the United States and moved with his young family to Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. 

Netanyahu’s political views were "relentlessly hawkish," the New York Times said in its obituary.

He believed that Jewish history is one of persecution and holocaust, and that Arabs are fundamentally the enemy of the Jews and that they would not be able to compromise in order to make peace with Israel. He told the Israeli daily Maariv in 2009 that a “vast majority of Israeli Arabs would choose to exterminate us if they had the option to do so.”

Many believe he has had an undue influence on the decision making of the prime minister.

He was predeceased by his wife, Tzila, with whom he was married for more than 50 years, and a son Yonatan, who was killed during a hostage-rescue operation at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Along with Benjamin, he also is survived by a son Ido, a doctor, author and playwright.

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