The death of the father of Israel’s prime minister will likely set off a wave of comment focusing on the influence that Benzion Netanyahu had on his son Benjamin and whether his passing will make the prime minister more amenable to pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. But this popular interpretation of the relationship between the two men, which the prime minister rightly dismissed as “psychobabble,” misses the point both about the Netanyahus and the principles they embraced.
Benzion Netanyahu, who died in Israel today at the age of 102, was an important figure in Zionist activism and Jewish history in his own right. Benzion was a follower of Zeev Jabotinsky, one of the great figures in the history of Zionism whose Revisionist movement is the ancestor of the modern Likud. Many contemporary pundits saw him as a representative of a bygone era whose belief in the rigid ideology of that movement served as a human obstacle to peace, because they claimed his son would never embrace a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict as long as the father lived. This was false. Netanyahu signed peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office in the 1990s and embraced the concept of a Palestinian state during his second. But the values and lessons his father did teach him will stay with the prime minister. The shame is that more Jews don’t understand them.
As with other veterans of the pre-state Zionist movement, Benzion Netanyahu deserves the gratitude of the Jewish people for his labors. As the representative of Jabotinsky’s movement in the United States during World War Two, the Polish native who had moved to Palestine during his youth is credited with helping to persuade the Republican Party to adopt in 1944 an unprecedented pro-Zionist platform plank that caused the Democrats to follow suit. But he deserves just as much, if not more credit for his work as a scholar of Jewish history. And it is here, as much as in his embrace of Jabotinsky’s vision of a secure, liberal and democratic Jewish state in all of historic Palestine that his influence is felt.
In his seminal work, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, Benzion Netanyahu exploded myths about the persecution of Jews in Spain that saw most of those who converted to Christianity as a result of persecution as secretly practicing their old faith. Contrary to the long-held belief that the victims of the Inquisition were secret Jews or Marranos, Netanyahu proved that most were not. They were attacked by the Christian establishment not because of their religion but because Jews were seen as inherently evil. As with the Nazis who followed centuries later, the attack on the former Jews was the result of racism, not religious extremism.
While many Jews persist in believing that anti-Semitism as well as ant-Zionism is all a terrible misunderstanding, Benzion Netanyahu understood that hatred and intolerance lay at the roots of the difficulties of the Jews then as now. As his son noted at his funeral today , the challenge is to “face reality head on” and “draw the necessary conclusions.”
Doing so does not make one insensitive to the need for peace or to the legitimate desire of other peoples to live in peace. But it does force one to strip away illusions about the world and force us to come to grips with the modern versions of the ancient hatred that consumed the Jews of past eras. Peace with Palestinians who have not yet abandoned a belief that the Jews have no right to be in the country cannot be bought with good intentions. Until the day comes when the Palestinians are willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, the people of Israel must shield themselves behind the “iron wall” that Jabotinsky envisioned and leaders like David Ben-Gurion built and now Benjamin Netanyahu must preserve.
The principles of a belief in the right of the Jews to their homeland and the need to defend them against the unreasoning hatred of their enemies will not die with Benzion Netanyahu. Nor should his son or any person of good will forget them.
May his memory be for a blessing.