Benzion Netanyahu: In life and death

Two momentous events occurred recently in the life of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week, he dropped a bombshell on the Israeli public by forging, under the cloak of night, a coalition with Kadima, his party’s leading rival in the Knesset. This move, which forestalled early elections expected in September, demonstrated yet again Netanyahu’s formidable political skills, in this case by co-opting his most dangerous parliamentary foe.

The second event came a week earlier, on April 30, with the death at 102 of Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father. Netanyahu père was an erudite scholar of Jewish history who exerted an outsized influence on his tight-knit family. The elder Netanyahu held to what the greatest of 20th century Jewish historians, Salo Baron, called the “lachrymose” — or tearful — conception of Jewish history. This view can be readily summarized in a line uttered by Benzion Netanyahu to David Remnick for a 1998 profile of Bibi in The New Yorker: “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.”

We might call this the Amalekite view of Jewish history, referring to the hated biblical foes of the Israelites whose existence — and even memory — should be blotted out (Exodus 17:14). The historian’s belief that the Jews have been subjected to constant genocidal threats did not lead him to a passive fatalism, as if there were nothing that the Jews could do in the face of Amalek. Rather, it inspired his own militant Zionism, which demanded a persistent willingness to wage war against one’s enemies.

Bibi Netanyahu dismisses talk of his father’s deep imprint on him as “psychobabble.” But it is hard to avoid seeing traces of the father’s vision of the past in his own thinking and policies. It is hard, for example, to disconnect his bellicose stance on Iran from his father’s Amalekite worldview. Netanyahu the son does not merely see Iran as a grave threat; he regards it as comparable to the most terrifying of Jewish persecutors, the Nazis — a point he made explicitly at the March 2012 AIPAC convention and during his recent Yom HaShoah remarks. There is a broader historical perspective that anchors this analogy. Like his father, the prime minister sees the long history of the Jews as marked by “powerlessness,” “utter defenselessness” and “the atrophy of Jewish resistance,” the antidote to which is the unapologetic and ever-ready assertion of Jewish force.

To be sure, Bibi Netanyahu is more than a mere replica of his father. Indeed, there is another facet to his personality alongside the Amalekite — that of the political pragmatist educated at MIT and trained in the art of deal making at the Boston Consulting Group. That is what makes him such an intriguing figure in the history of Israeli political life. Still, it is worth reflecting on the father, both because he deserves our attention in his own right and because of his strong cultural and historical transmission to his son.

Benzion Netanyahu was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910 and emigrated to Palestine in 1920. While studying in Jerusalem, he became involved with the upstart Revisionist Zionists, who organized themselves in the mid 1920s as an alternative to the European-based World Zionist Organization, as well as to the Labor Zionists of David Ben-Gurion in Palestine. The goal of the Revisionists was not to build up the ancestral homeland through cooperative communities and an egalitarian spirit, but rather to insist on the creation of a political state to be located on both sides of the Jordan River. The fledgling movement’s charismatic prophet, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), was a brilliant Russian-Jewish journalist who laid out his distinctive political perspective in a 1923 essay titled “Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky was willing to accord full rights to Arabs in Palestine, but only as a function of Jewish beneficence, not as a result of power sharing or negotiation between equals.

Benzion Netanyahu was nurtured on the principles of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism. He also inherited the movement’s sense of persecution and marginalization within Jewish Palestine. Not only was the movement a minority party within Zionism, its militant stance toward both the local Arab population and British Mandatory authorities made its existence somewhat precarious. It is no surprise that Jabotinsky’s chief disciple, the future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, titled a history of the Revisionist paramilitary group Etse”l (National Military Organization), which he commanded, “In the Underground” (“Ba-mahteret”). Begin and his fellow Revisionists felt the need to hide in the underground, where they faced a multitude of enemies (Arab, British, even Jewish) while seeking to redeem the Jewish people through armed struggle.

Benzion Netanyahu deeply internalized this bunker mentality, bringing it with him from Palestine to the United States, where he moved in 1940, initially to serve as secretary to Jabotinsky (until his hero’s death later that year). For the next eight years, he ran the Revisionist-affiliated New Zionist Organization of America. Simultaneously, he undertook doctoral studies in Jewish history at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, earning his degree in 1947 with a dissertation on the great Iberian Jewish thinker and statesman, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508).

This study, published as a book in 1953, launched Netanyahu’s career as a historian of Spanish Jewry. One might assume that his path into academia signaled his exit from the world of Zionist politics. Not so. Netanyahu’s historical views undergirded and were intricately entwined with his political outlook. Thus, he evinced considerable empathy for Abravanel, not only owing to his communal leadership but to his deep antipathy for the hostile Christian world that surrounded him. At the same time, he took Abravanel to task for his flights of messianic fancy, wondering what might have been had the Jewish leader instead “propagated a realistic course, a plan of regaining the Promised Land by settlement and colonization.” In other words, he held Abravanel, rather ahistorically, to the standards of 20th century Zionism.

Perhaps more significantly, Netanyahu began to develop in this book his iconoclastic, controversial and conspiratorial outlook on one of the most notorious institutions in the history of the West, the Inquisition. Netanyahu was continually drawn to the phenomenon of conversos, those Jews who had been forcibly converted in Spain beginning in 1391 and whose presence proved to be a major irritant to Spanish Old Christian society. Now that the stigma of Judaism had been removed, the conversos were free to gain entry to any and every position of power in Spain. Netanyahu, among other scholars, argued that the Inquisition was introduced between 1478 and 1481 in order to retard the advance of the “New Christians” into the heart of Spanish society. This, in itself, was not particularly original.

What did set Netanyahu apart from other scholars, however, was his claim that the Inquisition, which was not directed against Jews per se, but against perceived heretics among the conversos, engaged in wholesale and malicious fabrication. Its long recitation of the “Judaizing” crimes of the conversos — observance of the Sabbath, abstinence from pork, Torah study, etc. — was but a lie. Almost no converso, Netanyahu strenuously argued, continued to adhere to Jewish ritual practice; all had assimilated into Spanish society.

Netanyahu first detailed this assertion in “The Marranos of Spain” (1966), relying on contemporaneous Hebrew sources. At the end of that book, he posed a vexing question: If the conversos were not in fact engaged in secret Jewish practices, what then motivated the Inquisition to persecute them? It was this question that occupied his attention for 30 years — and that stood at the center of his monumental, nearly 1,400-page book, “The Origins of the Inquisition” (1995). Relying on Christian sources now, Netanyahu argued that the Inquisition was propelled into action not by religious zeal, but by a mix of socio-economic and racial factors. On one hand, the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, sought to prevent the ascent of conversos into the uppermost echelons of the Spanish economy. On the other, the Spanish Inquisition was rooted in a pernicious racial enmity toward all those possessed of Jewish blood. Indicative of this enmity were the “purity of blood” statutes introduced in mid-15th century Spain to exclude New Christians from public office. Herein lay the true motivations of the Inquisition. And herein lay a stunning adumbration of modern, racial anti-Semitism, as it would take form in Nazism.

Others have noted this link between early modern Spanish and modern German racialism, most notably Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. But few scholars argued that there were virtually no secret Jews among the conversos and, therefore, that the Inquisition was founded on a vast lie. In fact, while Netanyahu canvassed a wide range of sources, he was frequently criticized for ignoring the veracity of the largest trove of documentary material relating to the conversos: the detailed accounts of Judaizing activity in Inquisitorial records themselves.

Benzion Netanyahu’s provocative methods and findings are inseparable from his deeply ingrained Amalekite worldview, according to which Jews face unrelenting hostility from the Gentile world — even when those Jews abandon their very adherence to Judaism. His perspective was nurtured not only in the archive, but also in the underground, where suspicion and paranoia tend to fester. And, via his powerful son, it is a perspective that will survive Professor Netanyahu’s death, informing Israeli political culture at a most crucial juncture.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.

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