Benzion Netanyahu, 102, Hawkish History Scholar

By Martin, Douglas | International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Benzion Netanyahu, 102, Hawkish History Scholar


Martin, Douglas, International Herald Tribune


A scholar of Judaic history, he wrote a revisionist account of the Spanish Inquisition and became a behind-the-scenes adviser to his son, the Israeli prime minister.

Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of Judaic history who lobbied in the United States for the creation of the Jewish state, wrote a revisionist account of the Spanish Inquisition and became a behind- the-scenes adviser to his son Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, died Monday at his home in Jerusalem. He was 102.

The prime minister's office announced the death.

The elder Netanyahu's views were relentlessly hawkish. He argued that Jews inevitably faced discrimination that was racial, not religious, and that compromising with Arabs was futile.

In the 1940s, as the executive director of the New Zionist Organization in the United States, he met with policy makers like Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He also wrote hard-hitting full-page advertisements that appeared in The New York Times and other newspapers.

His group, which was part of the rightist movement known as revisionist Zionism, originally opposed creating the new Israel by dividing Palestine between Jews and Arabs. It wanted a bigger Jewish state, which would have included present-day Jordan.

The partition was ultimately made, but Dr. Netanyahu came to support the smaller state and was instrumental in building U.S. support for it, according to Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington.

Dr. Medoff, in a letter to The Jerusalem Post in 2005, said that Dr. Netanyahu had persuaded the Republican Party to call for a Jewish state in its 1944 platform. It was the first time a major U.S. party had done this, and the Democrats followed suit.

As a historian, Dr. Netanyahu reinterpreted the Inquisition in "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain" (1995). The predominant view had been that Jews were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion after pretending to convert to Roman Catholicism. Dr. Netanyahu, in 1,384 pages, offered evidence that most Jews in Spain had willingly become Catholics and were enthusiastic about their new religion.

Jews were persecuted, he concluded -- many of them burned at the stake -- for being perceived as an evil race rather than for anything they believed or had done. Jealousy over Jews' success in the economy and at the royal court only fueled the oppression, he wrote. The book traced what he called "Jew hatred" to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity.

Though praised for its insights, the book was also criticized as having ignored standard sources and interpretations. Not a few reviewers noted that it seemed to look at long-ago cases of anti- Semitism through the rear-view mirror of the Holocaust.

But to Dr. Netanyahu, "Jewish history is a history of holocausts," as he said in an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker in 1998. He suggested that Hitler's genocide was different only in scale.

Dr. Netanyahu believed that Jews remain endangered in the Middle East. A "vast majority of Israeli Arabs would choose to exterminate us if they had the option to do so," he said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv in 2009. Arabs, he said, are "an enemy by essence" who cannot compromise and will respond only to force.

Benjamin Netanyahu, while defending his father against accusations of extremism, has insisted that his own views differ from his father's. And he has dismissed conjectures about his father's influence on his decision making as "psychobabble."

In his New Yorker article, Mr. Remnick wrote that Israelis seemed in the dark about the extent of Benzion Netanyahu's influence on his son. Benzion Netanyahu, he wrote, was "nearly a legend, a kind of secret." But, he added, using the younger Netanyahu's nickname, "To understand Bibi, you have to understand the father."

Benzion Mileikowsky was born on March 25, 1910, in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire. …

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