‘A symbol of fervent and uncompromising Zionism’

In one of world’s ironies, historian Benzion Netanyahu received far greater recognition in death than in life.

PM, father Benzion (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
PM, father Benzion
(photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
In one of the world’s great ironies, internationally acclaimed historian Benzion Netanyahu received far greater recognition in death than he did in life.
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 days.
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 farewell.
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 minister.
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.
Peres 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 delayed.
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 him.
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 in 1940.
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 convert.
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 and playwright.
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 Abravanel.
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.
Instead, 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 Jabotinsky.
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 oversight.
Sa’ar called Netanyahu an important, in-depth and unique researcher and a Zionist in the most absolute terms of the word.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin described Netanyahu as “one of the great Revisionists and a symbol of fervent and uncompromising Zionism.”