Benzion Netanyahu's Legacies

Gershom Gorenberg discusses the legacy of Benzion Netanyahu, a staunch revisionist Zionist and father of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who died at the age of 102.

Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images

Honesty is difficult, perhaps distasteful, in talking of man just now dead. Honesty nonetheless requires saying that Benzion Netanyahu would be briefly eulogized as a historian, and more briefly recalled as a footnote to forgotten Zionist rivalries, were it not for his other legacy: the son whose politics, view of history, and resentments he shaped.

Netanyahu, who died Monday at age 102, was a specialist in the history of the Jews of Spain. In his books, he asserted a revisionist thesis: Spanish Jews converted to Christianity willingly, not under duress. Their willing assimilation did not reduce their neighbors' hatred of them. The Inquisition's pursuit of conversos was not based on religion, nor was Spain's expulsion of Jews who remained Jewish. Both persecutions expressed economic resentment and racial hate toward Jews. And, he wrote, "Just as the Jews of Germany failed to foresee Hitler's rise to power… so the Jews of Spain failed to notice… the mountainous wave which was approaching to overwhelm them."

I leave it to scholars of Spanish and Jewish history to debate whether Benzion Netanyahu's depiction fits facts or explains them well. But I hazard to say that it is a breathtaking example of how historians can write about the present when they portray the past, of how history can be autobiography. Netanyahu explicitly describes fifteenth-century Spain as a dress rehearsal for twentieth-century Jewish life in Germany and in his own native Poland. Jews who believed they could successfully assimilate were deceiving themselves, because gentile hatred was racial, implacable, unconcerned with the optical illusion of religion. Spanish Jews were as willfully blind to the danger as were Polish Jews who ignored the warnings of Netanyahu's ideological mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky. If Germany and Poland repeated Spain, then all of Jewish history was a series of repetitions, a "history of holocausts," as Benzion told the New Yorker's David Remnick in 1998.

As loyal son and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu regularly repeats this doctrine. In his speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, Netanyahu the Younger not only described the threat posed by Iran as a new Holocaust; he compared those who dislike that equation with "Jewish intellectuals" in Warsaw who "ridiculed Jabotinsky." In his speech to AIPAC in March, he equated today's leaders in Iran with the villain of the Book of Esther, "a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people."

Ironically, the thoroughly secular Netanyahu was echoing the most mythological thinking in Jewish tradition, which describes Haman as springing from Amalek—the tribe that tried to destroy the Israelites when they left Egypt and has purportedly been trying ever since. But then, the idea that the Jews and their enemies are unchanging forces, locked in eternal battle, is where the fringes of Judaism and secularism meet in paganism.

Back to Netanyahu the Elder. In the Netanyahu family account, Benzion never got an university position in Israel because the "academic establishment… was dominated by the left." Perhaps. But Israeli academia was small in the first years of the state, displaced Jewish intellectuals were many and, in other accounts, the German-educated academic elite had a preference for scholars of the same background. What matters isn't so much what happened but how the Netanyahu's interpreted it: they resented the left.

And the right. Benzion Netanyahu was Jabotinsky's secretary and ideological heir. But he was in America from 1940 through Israel's 1948 war of independence. He wasn't in Palestine when the Irgun, the underground of the right, was fighting the British. He wasn't a member of the "fighting family," which became the leadership of the Israeli hard right after independence. The children of the fighting family—people such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni - became the "Likud princes," the second-generation leaders. As Benzion's son, Benjamin Netanyahu was an aristocrat in Likud politics—but an outsider as well, a rebel duke from the provinces. He has spent much of his political life battling with and resenting the princes.

He has made good use of his resentments. Think of Benjamin Netanyahu as an Israeli brother to Richard Nixon as portrayed in Rick Perlstein's masterful Nixonland: the leader of the club of the outsiders, the man whose own angry sense of exclusion by snobbish elites, leftist elites in particular, channels the anger of everyone who despises the snobs. Outsiders outnumber insiders, and they have carried Netanyahu to power.

The prime minister is 62 years old. Until this week, his father was not just a remembered voice but a living presence. Now the son may be marginally more free to decide what to make of himself as Benzion Netanyahu's legacy.