Benzion Netanyahu: Patriarch of a legendary Israeli family

Netanyahu Sr will turn 102 this month, and his memories span through Zionist history.

Benzion Netanyahu (photo credit: Yoni Reif)
Benzion Netanyahu
(photo credit: Yoni Reif)
Robust hands rest atop a cane and his eyes are watching, serene. The family dog so wants attention from him. He is a very great man, and my son and I are enjoying an evening with him in Jerusalem.
Benzion Netanyahu, patriarch of a legendary Israeli family, will turn 102 this month, and his memories stretch from white-hot sand dunes in Tel Aviv in the 1920s, to the latest news of the still raging conflict with the Arabs. His insights into the Zionism movement are invaluable for historians and students alike.
It is a history that he lived. His family emigrated to Palestine from Poland when he was 10 years old. Benzion studied in the teachers’ seminary run by David Yellin, and later went on to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He specialized in history and was especially inspired by professor Joseph Klausner.
Netanyahu’s father, Nathan Mileikowsky, used to sign some of his articles with the name “Netanyahu” (Hebrew for “gift of God"). It was a common practice for Israelis at the time to adopt a Hebrew name, and his son Benzion eventually adopted this family name.
In subsequent decades, he contributed greatly to many of the successes of Zionism. To begin with, Benzion is the father of three accomplished sons: Yonatan, the revered IDF commander who fell in the Entebbe rescue mission; Binyamin, Israel’s current prime minister; and Iddo, a physician and gifted writer. All three sons served in the elite counterterrorism unit Sayeret Matkal.
Benzion, who with his beloved wife, Cela, raised the family in Jerusalem, near the Old City, is by profession a historian of world renown and a professor emeritus at Cornell University. His classic work Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain analyzes what brought about the Spanish Inquisition.
The landmark book overturned centuries of accepted scholarship on the motives of Catholic leaders in Spain in confronting conversos – Jews forced to accept Christianity – about their supposed secret practice of Judaism. Today, Benzion’s reassessment is considered a towering work in the field of Inquisition studies.
Incredibly, he has remained prolific in his latter years, and a collection of his essays will be published in a new book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism, by Balfour Books in April. Originally released in Hebrew, the book profiles five Zionist pioneers whose pre-state activism led to the modern miracle on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Founding Fathers provides rich insights into Theodor Herzl, Leo Pinsker, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Benzion himself worked closely with Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist movement within Zionism.
When Benzion Netanyahu succeeded Jabotinsky as director of the Revisionist chapter in the US during the 1940s, he stood out from many mainstream American Jewish leaders in his promotion of the Zionist cause. He set about to mold American public opinion to support the idea of creating a Jewish state and pressure the US government itself also to support the concept, as well as to pressure England to desist from its anti-Zionist policies in Palestine.
For instance, when it was learned that the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, was living in France at the end of the war, Benzion sponsored large newspaper advertisements featuring a photograph of Husseini meeting with Hitler and urging that he be tried for war crimes. Among his crimes, Husseini had sabotaged a prisoner exchange deal with the Germans that would have saved the lives of 4,000 Jewish children.
Benzion Netanyahu also became close to Col. John Henry Patterson, the British commander of the First Zion Mule Corps who had moved to America after retirement. Binyamin Netanyahu has stated that his brother Yonatan was named after Patterson, such was the respect that his father had for the Christian officer who so helped the Zionist movement by forming the first Jewish fighting force since the Bar Kochba revolt.
Individual histories so often impact the destinies of nations, and for Israel it would prove fateful that Netanyahu’s family (he was born in Warsaw) left Europe before the Nazi specter arose. In the family dining room in Jerusalem, the Netanyahu family discussed a whole host of subjects, and the sons developed a deep sense of pride in their country and the sacrifices of its pioneers.
The most poignant moment for the Netanyahu family came when Yonatan, assigned to lead the rescue force to free Jewish hostages being held by PLO terrorists at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, was killed seconds before the terrorists were gunned down.
Binyamin Netanyahu has said that the tragedy propelled him into the fight against terrorism. He and Iddo both served with distinction in the same unit, although they were on standby during the Entebbe operation. Iddo’s own 2003 book, Entebbe: The Jonathan Netanyahu Story, is a moving account of the raid and its aftermath.
I first met Benzion almost a decade ago, and patiently waited for his book manuscript to be translated from Hebrew into English. Sitting with him in a living room that is itself wrapped in history is quite an experience, as he vividly described the drive toward statehood.
“Russia hated the Jews before she knew them,” he said wistfully. It is a fascinating line, and one from his new book. It recalls the thoroughly singular experience of the Jewish people, so unlike any other people in history. Jewhatred incubates in many hearts, seemingly before a person is aware of it.
Still, I believe he realizes that the successes of Zionism – that the people of Israel are alive and secure in their ancient homeland – rise higher than the painful steps it took to get here. His books, from The Founding Fathers, to a slightly obscure title – Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher – are riveting, and have key insights not only for Jews and Christians interested in the history of the Jewish people, but for anyone ready to be inspired by heroic tales of survival against absurdly steep odds.
Christians especially will thrill at the historical detail of the modern ingathering of the Jewish people to their ancestral land, given the depth of that history provided by Netanyahu in The Founding Fathers. For example, the societal conditions in 19th century Russia neatly overlay the soaring prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah that promise the Return. Indeed, Netanyahu writes about the very moments when The Return became real for European Jewry: “The ‘legion of prophets’ arose indeed fifteen years later with the appearance of Herzl, Nordau, Zangwill and their crusading associates. It was only then that Pinsker’s dream of establishing the leadership of the movement in a western country was finally realized. It was then that the first Congress could be convened and the Jewish question placed before the governments of the world and made an international issue.”
His latest book is a tour de force, and the smiling, twinkle-eyed old man sits in triumph in the ancient city of his forefathers – a living testimony to the power that life has over death. •
Jim Fletcher is a writer and pro-Israel activist who can be reached at