The death of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, was announced just before 8 a.m. on Monday, April 30, Israeli time. By nightfall,
the elder Netanyahu was interred in the soil of Jerusalem, where the old man
had lived in the same home in the Old Katamon quarter for the last 60 of his
102 years. "I never told you how proud I am that
you are the man you are," Israel's premier eulogized, "and that I am your son."
In death, as in life, Benzion was a polarizing figure. Leftist
Israelis bid good riddance to a man they scorned as an unrepentant militarist and
bigot, while those on the right extolled the deceased's erudition, ideological purity, and vital
contributions to the Zionist project.
The real issue, though, is what Benzion means to Bibi. Received
wisdom says that to understand the prime minister, you have to first
understand his father -- a view that Netanyahu has long dismissed as
"psychobabble" and "psychoanalysis." But while nobody should expect the premier to transform into a
dove now that he is clear of his father's shadow, there is a grain of truth to
the claim: Netanyahu's political life has long been an attempt to find a
balance between the unwavering ideals of his father and the need to reach a
modus vivendi with rivals in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and, occasionally, Washington.
The fundamental ideological split within the Zionist movement
defined the life of Benzion ("Son of Zion" in Hebrew). While a student in British Mandate
Palestine, Benzion joined the
Revisionists -- secular, free market nationalists opposed to the predominant
socialist Zionism led by the Labor movement of David Ben-Gurion, later Israel's
first prime minister. The Revisionists were followers of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the
author and activist from Odessa who embraced Zionism after witnessing the
infamous 1903 Kishinev pogroms. There, priests led a frenzied mob in killing 49 Jews and
wounding some 500 over a blood libel -- the ancient calumny that Jews had used
gentile children's blood in religious rites. "The Jews were taken wholly
unaware and were slaughtered like sheep," the New York Times reported at the time. "The local police made no
attempt to check the reign of terror."
To Jabotinsky, a Jewish home in Palestine was justified by events
past and present. The Romans had expelled the Jews from their homeland two
millennia prior, condemning them to an eternity of wandering and depending on
the sufferance of other peoples. Virtually every inhabitable corner of the
globe was populated by someone, he
wrote, and the Jews had historical, spiritual, and emotional ties to one land
"[S]elf-determination does not mean that if someone has seized a
stretch of land it must remain in his possession for all time, and that he who
was forcibly ejected from his land must always remain homeless," Jabotinsky wrote in
his best-known work, the 1923 essay "The Iron Wall," which remains central to Revisionists' ideas about Israeli
defense policy to this day. "Self-determination means revision -- such a
revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations
who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have
not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to
exercise their right of self-determination."
Jabotinsky predicted that the Arabs
would overwhelmingly reject the Jewish
state and actively work to destroy it, stopping only once they realized the
Jewish state was an established fact that could not be undone. As for
the Arabs of Palestine itself, he did not believe a Jewish state need result in
their displacement; the Revisionists expected a large Arab minority in their
future state, and the essay explicitly calls for equal rights for all.
Revisionist Zionists originally insisted all of the British
Mandate of Palestine -- including modern-day Jordan -- be part of the Jewish
home, both to accommodate the millions of Jews they anticipated would immigrate
and to ensure the state had defensible boundaries. The demand for Jordan has
faded into obscurity, but many latter-day Jabotinskyites still insist Jordan is
the only permissible homeland for the Arabs of the area once known as Mandatory
As Netanyahu is inescapably his father's son, his father was
Jabotinsky's apt pupil. In 1939, Benzion persuaded the Revisionist leader to
move from London to New York, and there Benzion served as Jabotinsky's personal secretary until his
mentor's death the following year. The elder Netanyahu spent World War II
shuttling between New York and Washington, alerting lawmakers to the dark
reports emerging from Europe on the fate of the continent's Jews and lobbying
on the merits of the Jewish national idea. His efforts paid off: In 1944, the Republican Party added support for Zionism to its campaign platform, followed shortly after by the Democrats.
But Benzion and his colleagues would not win every battle. The
Revisionists furiously opposed the U.N.-sponsored partition of the land west of
the Jordan River into a Jewish state and an Arab state, holding out for the entire
territory even at the risk of losing it all. Meanwhile, the mainstream Zionist
leadership in Palestine accepted partition, reasoning that a small Jewish state
with vulnerable borders was better than none at all. Arab leaders rejected partition
outright -- in the ensuing war, Transjordan seized most of the land allotted
for an Arab state (dropping the "Trans" from its name and renaming its new
territory the "West Bank"), while Israel and Egypt grabbed the rest.
After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the
Netanyahu family returned to Jerusalem, and in 1949 their second son, Benjamin, was
born. In the new State of Israel, however, Benzion felt the perpetual outsider.
The country's elites were preponderantly Labor Zionists, and Revisionists were
regularly denied plum posts in government, the media, and the military.
Benzion, who during World War II had
written a dissertation on medieval Spain
at Philadelphia's Dropsie College, despaired at finding work in Israeli
universities. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he returned to the United
States, doing teaching stints at Dropsie, the University of Denver, and Cornell
University -- and taking his young family along with him. If mainstream Israel's exclusion
of his father held any benefit for the Netanyahus, it was the edge it gave the
young Bibi over peers back home: flawless American diction.
As a historian, Benzion Netanyahu's magnum opus is The Origins of the
Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, a revolutionary -- indeed, revisionist -- tome that since its
1995 publication has become a standard in the rarefied field of Inquisition
studies. "[T]his book is easily the finest study of the Inquisition to appear in
this, or arguably any, century," wrote the late Benedictine monk and Georgetown University scholar
Bennett Hill. Jason Epstein, a dovish publisher and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, hailed its release as "one [of] the proudest moments" of his career.
The book defies the traditional understanding that the Inquisition
was motivated by suspicions within the Catholic Church that Jews forcibly
converted to Christianity were continuing to practice Judaism in secret.
Instead, the author maintained, most of Spain's converted Jews were willing and
even enthusiastic practitioners of their new faith. The Inquisition, he wrote,
was mainly inspired by jealousy at the Jews' newfound power in the church,
royal court, and economy, and fear that the Jewish race would contaminate
Spain's limpieza de sangre, or
"purity of blood."
For Benzion, the Inquisition, and more recently the Holocaust, were
just the goriest episodes in a Jewish history marked by near-constant hatred --
usually racial, not cultural or religious -- predating Christianity and
stretching back as far as ancient Egypt. "Jewish
history is a history of holocausts," he told New Yorker editor David Remnick in a rare 1998 interview.
It's a conviction he maintained until the end. "We are in danger of extermination," he told Israel's Channel 2 in 2009. "We're not just in an
existential danger but in danger of extermination. Some think this
extermination -- namely, the Holocaust -- is over, but it isn't. It continues
all the time."
To Benzion, the Arabs were not just the latest
enemies sworn to the Jews' destruction -- they were also the most implacable. "The tendency toward conflict is in the essence of the Arab," he told Maariv newspaper. "He
is an enemy by essence. His personality won't allow him any compromise or
agreement. It doesn't matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price
he will pay. His existence is one of perpetual war."
Benzion believed that the only way to contain Israel's Arab
adversaries was to vigilantly guard Jabotinsky's iron wall. Netanyahu the
Younger, however, came of age in a political environment where powerful
international actors, as well as significant segments of the Israeli electorate, were
pushing for a political accommodation with the Palestinians.
The current Israeli debate over a
Palestinian state is, in a way, a re-emergence of the pre-1948 disagreement on
partition -- controversies in which both the older and younger Netanyahu have
played crucial roles. After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the
1967 Six-Day War, successive governments -- first Labor, then Likud -- dotted the territory with settlements and grappled with the question of how to adapt
to Israel's rapid transformation from a nation besieged from all sides to the
most powerful state in the region. Only with the 1993 Oslo Accords -- when
Yasir Arafat's PLO recognized Israel along
its pre-1967 lines -- did most Israelis again seriously consider the question
of splitting the land. These old Revisionist debates (and the elder Netanyahu's legacy in them) echo in the current Israeli premier's strategic thinking even today.
Bibi initially denounced the Oslo Accords, both because of a general
Revisionist reluctance to cede Israeli land (his father had even opposed Likud
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's peace deal with Egypt) and because he viewed the agreement as an unjust reward for years of PLO terrorism. In
addition, he thought it dangerous that Oslo left some of the most intractable
issues -- chiefly, control over Israel's contested capital, Jerusalem -- for an
unspecified future date, practically inviting a conflagration should those issues remain unresolved. In the years immediately following Oslo, the dismal
regularity of suicide bombings -- first by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, soon joined
by Arafat's Fatah faction -- lent Netanyahu an air of grim vindication.
Still, Netanyahu rarely matched his father's dogmatism. In his
first election campaign in 1996, he broke with the Likud consensus by affirming
his commitment to Oslo. He then went further -- signing a protocol granting the
PLO partial control over the flashpoint city of Hebron and later giving it
jurisdiction over larger portions of the West Bank. To Benzion, who had
denounced the Oslo Accords as "the beginning of the end of the Jewish state,"
each move was a betrayal.
In 2009, shortly after his second election to office, Bibi
delivered an address at Bar-Ilan University that included his first public
backing, and the first by a Likud leader, of a Palestinian state. The
endorsement was unprecedented, but contained deep caveats: Netanyahu remained
ambiguous on the borders of the prospective state, which would be demilitarized
and without control of its airspace, and Israel would not accept the "right of
return" of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Jerusalem,
he said, would remain fully Israeli.
But Benzion said that even that limited endorsement was a
bluff. "He doesn't support [a Palestinian state]. He would support it
under terms they would never accept," he told a Channel 2 reporter in a phone conversation. "That's what I
heard from him.… Those conditions -- they would never accept even one of them,"
he said. The prime minister condemned the interview as unauthorized, and in a
statement denounced it as a "shameful … trap set on a 100-year-old man."
In an obituary, Haaretz
columnist Ari Shavit wrote that Benzion was a
man steeped in the past but with an uncanny ability to foretell the
future. The original Hebrew column contains two
paragraphs not translated into English, and they are the most telling. "Benjamin
isn't Benzion. He's much more moderate than his father, much more of a
compromiser and a bit less pessimistic," Shavit wrote. "[T]he son's life is an
ongoing negotiation between the principled core of his father and a changing
That principled core may be distilled into three words -- peace
through strength. The changing reality, however, is one in which a majority of
Israelis have adopted the view -- once the sole preserve of the left -- that a
Palestinian state west of the Jordan River is inevitable to preserve a Jewish,
democratic Israel, even though many suspect that state's creation may not spell
the end of the conflict.
Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge is to find an equilibrium between
Benzion's icy pragmatism and the stated ideals of those who, for the better
part of a century, kept him out in the cold.