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Middle Israel: Benzion Netanyahu’s on messianism

The Messiah suddenly returned to our headlines this week, after a conspicuous absence.

Benzion Netanyahu funeral
Photo by: Courtesy Thinkstock
The Messiah suddenly returned to our headlines this week, after a conspicuous absence. “Raise a shout,” exclaimed former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, quoting from Zechariah (9:9), “Raise a shout, fair Jerusalem,” continued the Jewish version of J. Edgar Hoover, “your king is coming to you,” the ever-equipped secret agent read from a note that he pulled from the back pocket of his jeans, “victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass,” this king will arrive “on a donkey foaled by a she-ass.”

The idea was to alarm us that the Netanyahu-Barak duo take decisions “based on nothing but messianic intuitions” and should therefore be stopped in their tracks as they prepare a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear program. And to sting the two men personally – as if this pair of hopelessly secular Israelis somehow pretend to be each the Messiah himself – Diskin mentioned the one’s dwelling in a luxury tower and the other’s in posh Caesarea, choices which indeed would be unthinkable for the real Messiah.

In fact, the master agent could have carried his argument further, to Isaiah, who implied the Messiah will lack the kind of thick hair, perfect teeth, broad smile and bursting athleticism which image-makers routinely cultivate in modern politicians before marketing them to the impressionable masses. Moreover, “God’s servant” would be a modern campaign manager’s nightmare; he will look “so marred” that his appearance will be “unlike that of man” and “his form beyond human semblance” (52:14), and “lacking beauty and lacking elegance” he will be “despised” and “shunned by men,” and a man “familiar with disease” whose suffering will be as glaring as that of a person compelled to hide his face (53:2-3).

So modest will be the man whose arrival will be so astonishing that people will ask each other “who can believe what we have heard?” referring to the leader whose authority will stem neither from rank nor from charm, but from “God’s arm” (53:1). And as encounters of the biblical sort go, two days after Diskin’s tirade Netanyahu’s father Benzion passed away, which brought to my mind his fascinating biography Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher (Hebrew edition, 2005, Schocken), and its own take on Jewish messianism.

ONE OF Spanish Jewry’s two main leaders at the time of the expulsion, Abravanel (1437- 1508) arguably experienced the expulsion more traumatically than any of its estimated 200,000 victims, as he was originally a royal treasurer who suddenly found himself negotiating on behalf of the Jews in a futile effort to foil the expulsion. With his colleague Abraham Senor choosing to convert, Abravanel took to the sea along with the rest of what then was the world’s richest, largest and most powerful Jewish community.

Abravanel thus embarked on a Wandering Jew’s voyage, spending his remaining 16 years in five different places between Corfu in the south and Venice in the north, and wondering throughout it all just what made the Jews suffer through such loss, humiliation and despair. As it were, he proved unable to consider the Jewish situation with the same political sobriety he displayed while advising kings and queens. Rather than think how to get the Jews to build armies, wield power and fight for their lives, rights, and honor the way he had seen the gentiles do throughout his illustrious political career, Abravanel sought in his traumas God’s fingerprints, and the Messiah’s footprints.

Probing biblical, rabbinic and mystical sources, Abravanel predicted that Rome was about to initiate a major clash with Islam so that Christianity would retake Jerusalem, which it had lost more than three centuries earlier. The assault would start in Egypt and then proceed to the Land of Israel, an occurrence which he believed Jeremiah hinted when he wrote (4:16) that Notzrim – Jeremiah’s word for “keepers,” but ours for Christians and Abravanel’s for Romans – will “come from a far country and give out their voice against the cities of Judah.”

Once Christianity has wrested Jerusalem it will turn it into its spiritual and political center, yet that reign will only last nine months, for then the Christians will suddenly face a terrible assault by the Ten Lost Tribes. As Netanyahu explains (p. 244), Abravanel had a psychological need to insert the Ten Tribes into his messianic plan because Spanish Jewry’s demise generated an impression that the Jewish nation had dwindled so severely that its end was imminent, and his prediction of an imminent clash between Rome and Islam was partly inspired by Christianity’s loss of Constantinople when Abravanel was 16.

Even so, this entire prediction’s relationship with reality, let alone statesmanship, was loose at best, as this was no political plan, but a religious fantasy, enhanced by Abravanel’s framing it in specific years, all based on complex textual analyses. The years to which he pointed, 1503-1531, during which the Jews’ Redemption was to begin and end, have long elapsed without any of his predictions materializing.

BENZION NETANYAHU’s father, Nathan Milekovsky, to whom he dedicated Abravanel’s biography, was a rabbi, but Netanyahu himself was secular, and his mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was even militantly secular. And so, while throughout the book Netanyahu treated his hero’s messianism with great respect, as a historian must do when probing the mind-frames of people who lived in distant times and settings, in the book’s last pages Netanyahu finally let out his own thoughts:

“Abravanel’s messianic theory reflects the tragedy of the Jewish messianic movements, and to a large extent the tragedy of the Jews in the Middle Ages. It was a tragedy of a people that built imaginary towers that breathed an atmosphere of dreams and not of reality. The worst aspect of that tragedy lay in the fact that while the nation’s soul floated between clouds in the heavens, its beaten body was being dragged on the ground bleeding from a hundred wounds. There was no bridging the abyss between the ideal and the reality” (p. 268).

And the abyss that could not be bridged yawned between the perfect opposites of irrational optimism, which is the hallmark of messianism, and rational pessimism, which in recent generations has become a pillar of Jewish statesmanship.

It was this realistic pessimism that inspired Benzion Netanyahu’s politics and scholarship throughout his long and fruitful years, and which now inspires his son’s Iranian policy. This may or may not make his attitude restless, suspicious, alarmist, gung-ho, antsy, simplistic, militant, bellicose, trigger-happy, even adventurist. Messianic, however, is one thing it is not.

The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.


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