1941: A Pessah message from Benzion Netanyahu

Seventy years ago, Binyamin Netanyahu's father, the scholar and Zionist activist Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, authored a stirring Pessah eve proclamation.

April 26, 2011 14:22
3 minute read.
Benzion Netanyahu

Benzion Netanyahu. (photo credit: Yoni Reif)


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IDF generals probably don’t cry very often. These are men of steel nerves, professional soldiers toughened by the rigors of battle and a lifetime devoted to strict military discipline. But there was a moment during his recent swearing-in ceremony when Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz could not hold back his tears.

That moment came when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu turned from the familiar generalities about army service to a very personal subject: the contrast between the suffering Gantz’s mother endured during the Holocaust and the national triumph her son’s career symbolizes.

What the audience did not know, however, was that there was also a personal element on Netanyahu’s side. Seventy years ago, his father, the scholar and Zionist activist Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, authored a stirring Pessah eve proclamation likewise anchored in the themes of Jewish victory in the face of unbearable persecution and the ability of the Jews to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“When your mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she weighed just 28 kilograms,” the prime minister noted. “I am certain that at the time, she never dreamed that 66 years later her son, yet to be born, would be the 20th chief of General Staff of the army of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. Perhaps she did not dream of such a thing, but it has come true before our eyes.”

Gantz made it clear, in his remarks, that he appreciated the historical significance of the journey from Bergen-Belsen to Jerusalem, from Jewish weakness and homelessness to sovereignty and independence. “I am the son of the Jewish people’s chain of generations,” he declared.

The IDF, after all, is not just any army, and its chief of General Staff is not just another general. They are intrinsically connected to the unique Jewish national experience, both in exile and in their homeland.

Which is exactly the point that Benzion Netanyahu made in his Pessah 1941 message. At the time, he served as executive director of the New Zionist Organization of America, the US wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. He was also editor of its biweekly publication, Zionews.

His lead editorial in each issue typically dealt with the latest Palestinerelated political developments and controversies, not something from the Jewish calendar. In fact, Netanyahu’s April 21, 1941, editorial was the only occasion in the journal’s five-year history when he devoted that premier space to a reflection on a Jewish holiday.

“For ages and generations we have assembled in our homes on the first and second evenings of Pessah to commemorate the liberation of our forefathers from the slavery of Egypt,” he began. “Thousands of years have passed since; new slavery, hatreds and persecutions followed our race into every corner of the world.”

He cited a number of examples of such persecutions, including, of course, being “burned on the fires of the Spanish Inquisition,” which was the subject of the PhD dissertation he was then writing. Netanyahu also recalled how the Jews were “uprooted [by the Romans] from free and independent Judea to be slaves.”

They were “beaten and killed by the Cossacks of the Ukraine.” “The Russian pogromists shed our blood like water.” “The Arab effendis have proclaimed a holy war on us.” And “Hitler and Mussolini have started a march of extermination against us.”

Yet the suffering of the Jews could never separate them from their faith or extinguish their hopes: “Through oceans of blood, our blood, through oceans of tears, our tears, hated, persecuted, beaten, wandering and homeless, we assemble at the Pessah Seder to thank God for our liberation from Egypt, and to express once again the hope of the Haggada: ‘This year we are still slaves – next year we shall be free men.’” “It is a great hope,” Netanyahu concluded. “It is a great spirit of a great nation. Only a nation of our spiritual caliber could come through the ages of unparalleled sufferings with its spirit unbroken; still alive; still striving for liberty. Next year we shall be free men.”

It would, of course, take longer than he hoped, and many innocent Jews, including Benny Gantz’s mother, would endure unimaginable suffering. But in the end, the Jewish nation would survive to see the dream fulfilled, so that one day, Netanyahu’s son would appoint Mrs. Gantz’s son to lead the army of their nation.

The writer is director of the David S.Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. www.WymanInstitute.org.

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