A stalwart Zionist

Benzion Netanyahu's views on Zionism and the State of Israel had not softened over the course of time.

Benzion Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Benzion Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Afew years ago, I accompanied Professor Benzion Netanyahu on a one-week trip to the US so he could discuss with his publishers the idea of an abridged version of his famous book, Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth- Century Spain.
I found myself at the professor’s side at Ben-Gurion Airport as his son Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, walked with us (the professor was driven in a golf cart) to the King David Lounge.
The professor ate a light meal before boarding as Netanyahu sat with me in a corner, drawing out a map of the place we would stay along with details of where I could find the nearest restaurants and, if necessary, a pharmacy.
It was obvious to me that this was a significant trip in that I was spending a week with the man who had served as Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s personal secretary, a leader of the Zionist movement in pre-state years, a great historian and author of a groundbreaking book on the Spanish Inquisition – the thesis of which caused great rift among academics.
And I took full advantage of engaging him in conversation once we had landed.
A stubborn man, the professor did not like our accommodations and, after one day in New York, insisted on moving to a hotel he preferred across town.
Since it was Shmini Atzeret, I was unable to accompany him by car so I helped him into a cab and then walked through Central Park to the hotel.
We had two days to kill until our appointment with the publishers, and that gave us plenty of time to talk.
It was clear that the professor was fascinated by Jabotinsky’s political realism and deep sense of reality. His own deep Zionist ideology surfaced regularly in the way he viewed world events.
President Barack Obama had already been elected as the 44th president of the United States and we spoke of his upcoming inauguration. The professor was convinced that it would be terrible for Israel and winced as he said that we should expect at least four years of trouble.
Whether he was right or wrong is still up for debate.
We also discussed his own son’s election campaign (he was optimistic), the opposition, his family life and, naturally, his son Yoni, who was killed in the raid on Entebbe in 1976.
The professor appeared frail but was, in fact, at the ripe age of 99, physically strong, mentally sharp and formidable in character.
His views on Zionism and the State of Israel had not softened over the course of time; rather, he held onto his belief that Israel’s enemies would not relent and that Israel must use its own strength to secure its future.
A Huffington Post article once described him as having “instilled in all his sons a fierce, right-wing school of thinking in Israel known as ‘the Revisionists.’
“They believe in rule by force and raw self-interest as the only hope for Israel’s survival. They see the historic enmity between Arabs and Jews as something that will never be overcome and propose that there should be an ‘iron wall’ – to use the Zionist pioneer Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s words – between the two. Anything that compromises these beliefs, they hold to be dangerously naive.”
In a well-circulated article, “The point of no return,” which appeared in The Atlantic in September 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg analyzed the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. He interviewed a number of key figures who offered their views not only on Iran but on the prime minister himself.
Goldberg wrote, “‘He has a deep sense of his role in Jewish history,’ Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told me.”
“To understand why Netanyahu possesses this deep sense – and why his understanding of Jewish history might lead him to attack Iran, even over Obama’s objections – it is necessary to understand Ben-Zion Netanyahu, his 100-year-old father...
‘Always in the back of Bibi’s mind is Ben- Zion,’ one of the prime minister’s friends told me. ‘He worries that his father will think he is weak.’” Goldberg describes being present at a party marking the professor’s 100th birthday at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, at which Netanyahu described “a loving father who, though a grim and forbidding figure to outsiders, enjoys cowboy movies and played soccer with his sons.”
The professor certainly appeared outwardly stern and always in thought. At his son’s swearing-in as prime minister at the Knesset in 2009, he sat straight-faced in the dock, even when Netanyahu waved from below.
But he had a soft, humorous side and though when we first met the professor seemed to have little patience and preferred short answers, after about a day he opened up.
He pointed out to me the places he used to take “the boys” (Yoni, Bibi and Ido) when they were young.
He spoke of the days when he was heavily involved in the creation of the state, but said that after 1948 he backed off from politics and entered into academia.
When Netanyahu called me to see how his father was doing, he suggested I take him to see a Broadway show. When I mentioned this to the professor, he made a sour face. “I have no interest in such things anymore.”
Goldberg also wrote about the professor’s birthday speech. “Many people in Likud Party circles have told me that those who discount Ben-Zion’s influence on his son do so at their peril. ‘This was the father giving his son history’s marching orders,’ one of the attendees told me. ‘I watched Bibi while his father spoke. He was completely absorbed.’ (One of Netanyahu’s Knesset allies told me, indelicately, though perhaps not inaccurately, that the chance for movement toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state will come only after Ben-Zion’s death. ‘Bibi could not withdraw from more of Judea and Samaria... and still look into his father’s eyes’).”
Since then, I’ve wondered the same, but I am not sure this assessment is wholly accurate.
What was clear was that the professor believed deeply in his son’s ability to direct the country through its maze of troubles. It was also clear that Netanyahu cared deeply for his father and took an interest in his daily welfare. Ido was in America at the time and Netanyahu could have shrugged his shoulders, leaving Ido with the responsibility to check in on their father. Instead, he took time out of his busy schedule to call. I thought that was commendable.
WHAT WAS interesting though, was the contrast between the professor’s right-wing political identity and his distaste for Orthodox practice.
Here we were: I, an Orthodox Jew; he, formerly religious (until around age 30, he said) and now secular.
On Shabbat, he asked if I would buy him cream from a nearby pharmacy to help heal dry skin on his leg that was bothering him. He offered me money to pay for it, but I told him that as it was Shabbat I did not carry cash but I would see if the hotel could procure it for us.
“So put it in your pocket,” he exclaimed.
“I’m not worried about people seeing me with cash. It’s more of a divine thing,” I replied.
He looked at me and, shaking his head, said, “I’m disappointed in you. You think God cares about such minute details? He worries about the larger things in life.”
I cannot and will not judge a man who has been through a lot more in life than I have, but it is unfortunate that his deep love for Israel and its people did not extend to the practice by which we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world.
Regardless, the professor’s deep Zionist fervor left an indelible impression on me and his appreciation for history taught me, like he taught his son, that one needs to look to the past in order to see the future.
More recently, I visited the professor in his home. During the course of our discussion about Jerusalem, he pointed out the window to show me some large pine trees he had planted as saplings years ago when the area was sparsely inhabited and which now tower over the surrounding buildings.
We also discussed his belief that “ideas matter in the battle for freedom” and that while there are numerous ideas being thrown around for solving the conflict with the Arabs today, one can never lose sight, he insisted, of the past as an indication for what the future holds.
The professor has passed on, but, just as the trees he planted remain deeply rooted and continue to grow, his stalwart Zionist roots and deep understanding of the history of the Jewish nation live on through his two remaining sons.