In one of the world’s great ironies, internationally acclaimed historian Benzion
Netanyahu received far greater recognition in death than he did in
Netanyahu, father of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, died at his
home in Jerusalem in the pre-dawn hours on Monday morning, one month and five
days after celebrating his 102nd birthday. He was buried late Monday afternoon
at the Har Hamenuhot cemetery.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was advised of
his father’s demise by his younger brother Ido, who is a physician and who had
been in constant attendance at their father’s bedside over the past few
The prime minister immediately rushed to what for 60 years has been
the Netanyahu family home in the capital’s Haportzim Street for a final
The Netanyahu family spent the whole morning at the house and
received several consolation visits, including from Justice Minister Yaakov
Neeman and David Shomron, the prime minister’s lawyer and special envoy, who is
also a relative.
Netanyahu’s death was the second blow the family had
suffered in a span of less than six months. In November of last year, Shmuel
Ben-Artzi, a noted Bible scholar and the father of the prime minister’s wife,
Sara, died at 97.
Benzion had been in poor health in recent weeks. His
condition deteriorated seriously on Independence Day.
As a mark of
respect to the prime minister in his bereavement, opposition parties withdrew
their motions of no confidence in the government and for dissolution of the
Knesset. They also wrote warm messages of condolence to the prime
President Shimon Peres, who was touring the north on Monday,
cut his visit short in order to return to Jerusalem and to pay his respects at
the funeral. At a cornerstone-laying ceremony for an IAF technological school,
Peres asked everyone present to stand for a moment’s silence in honor of Benzion
Netanyahu, whom he described as a great historian and a great Jew.
had enormous admiration for Netanyahu’s scholarship and intellect. Two years
ago, on Netanyahu’s 100th birthday, Peres paid tribute to him at the Begin
Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
Most of the people who attended the
milestone gathering had expected to congregate once again on Monday at the Begin
Heritage Center for the premiere of a documentary film on Netanyahu’s life. The
film, which was directed by Moshe Levinson and took two years to make, was
previously scheduled for screening on Channel 1 on May 6, but may be
Yossi Ahimeir, executivedirector of the Jabotinsky Institute in
Tel Aviv, had twice nominated Netanyahu for the Israel Prize, but was
unsuccessful. Ahimeir, who has known the Netanyahu family since his early
childhood and whose father was a colleague of Benzion, made a point of visiting
the elderly man approximately once a month.
Netanyahu’s ideology and
teachings have been discussed greatly over the past 24 hours, something that was
denied him during his life.
The media devoted hours of broadcast time to
interviewing people who had known him, to exploring his ideology, and to
reviewing the story of his life and the influence that he had on all three of
his sons. Both national and international media outlets ran long obituaries on
Netanyahu was a close aide to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the
Revisionist Movement, and became the movement’s US head after Jabotinsky’s death
Netanyahu was the one who persuaded Jabotinsky to leave his
London headquarters in 1939 and move to the United States, where he could have
wider and more effective influence.
In some of his most significant
historic writings, Netanyahu, who was an expert on the Spanish Inquisition and
the history of 15th and 16th century Spain, did not accept the commonly held
belief that Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity had been forced to do
so and remained secretly Jewish.
Through his research, Netanyahu showed
that the majority of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity did so because
they wanted to become part of mainstream Christian society. There were strong
racist feelings against Jews in Spain at the time, he argued, and with few
exceptions, any Jew who wanted to enter society had to forfeit his religion and
Born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw in 1910, he was the son of
Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, an ardent Zionist, who served as the headmaster of a
Jewish high school in Warsaw. Mileikowsky decided that the Land of Israel was
the only place in which a true Zionist should live. A prolific writer of
newspaper articles, he occasionally used the name Netanyahu as a byline, which
he later adopted as his last name, though some family members retained
Mileikowsky. After serving as a headmaster in various high schools, Mileikowsky
settled his family permanently in Jerusalem in 1920, where he became an
important figure in the World Zionist Organization.
Benzion imbibed many
of his right-wing views from his father and later passed them on to his own
three sons: Yoni, who was killed in 1976 in Operation Entebbe; Binyamin who
became a diplomat and later a politician serving twice as prime minister and
also foreign minister and finance minister; and Ido, who is a physician, author
During his initial period in the US, Netanyahu studied
for his PhD at Dropsie College (now known as the Center for Advanced Judaic
Studies) in Philadelphia and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Don Isaac
On his return to Israel, in 1948, following the establishment
of the state, Netanyahu could not get a job at his original alma mater, the
Hebrew University. At the time, his ideology was considered to be too radically
right-wing for the university to accept him on its staff.
Netanyahu devoted his scholarly abilities to editing the Encyclopedia Hebraica,
serving for more than a decade as its chief editor.
He also wrote several
books, his most monumental work being a 1400-page volume The Origins of the
Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. He also wrote on Zionist topics, his
last book focusing on the founding fathers of Zionism including Theodor Herzl,
Leon Pinsker, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill and of course Ze’ev
Netanyahu later returned to the United States, where he
served as professor of Jewish studies at various universities, most recently
Cornell, where he is a professor emeritus.
Netanyahu was involved in
Zionist activities from his student days onwards. He personally met many great
Israeli leaders as well as some of the most prominent figures in American Jewry.
He was awarded prestigious prizes in the US and Spain, but in Israel he was all
but ignored outside of his political circle. The books that he wrote in English
were for many years not translated into Hebrew, and most still have not been,
although Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar may do something to remedy that
Sa’ar called Netanyahu an important, in-depth and unique
researcher and a Zionist in the most absolute terms of the word.
Speaker Reuven Rivlin described Netanyahu as “one of the great Revisionists and
a symbol of fervent and uncompromising Zionism.”