“People think the Holocaust ended. It’s still going! We are on the brink of complete annihilation.” Those grim words belong to Benzion Netanyahu, a history professor who studied the golden age of Spanish Jewry, and the father of Benjamin Netanyahu. Those words were not said 50 years ago, they were uttered ahead of the 2009 election, in a rare interview he gave with his son, that was supposed to aid Bibi in the then close race. At the age of 99, and still sharp as a knife, Netanyahu senior gave his grim analysis of Israel’s future.
He was born in 1910 in what was then Russian Warsaw, and at the age of ten, his family, the Mileikowsky family, moved to Jerusalem. He became a member of the right-wing “revisionist party”, the great grand parent of today’s Likud party, and rose to be Zeev Jabotinsky’s personal secretary in the Zionist leader’s last days. He moved with him to America, where he lobbied for the Zionist movement and later opposed the UN’s proposals for the Middle East.
At the same time, he began his life-long academic work, as a historian of Spanish Jewry, it’s golden age, and its tragic expulsion from Spain. He returned to Israel with his first son Yoni in 1949, where his two other sons, Benjamin and Ido where born. He worked as an editor of the Hebrew Encyclopedia, and in 1962 moved again to America, and joined Cornell, where he continued his titanic research. Then, tragedy struck – in 1976, Yoni, the eldest of his sons, died in the unbelievable “thunderbolt” operation in Uganda, as a soldier in Israel’s elite spec-ops unit.
The operation freed the passengers of an Air France flight to Tel Aviv, that was hijacked in mid-air to Uganda by German and Palestinian terrorists. The IDF sent two planes with soldiers, who stormed Entebbe airport and freed the hostages in a daring act of heroism. They returned with one casualty – Yoni, who was killed by a sniper. The operation that was later nicknamed after Yoni, propelled the Netanyahu family into the limelight. Benjamin founded the “Yonatan institute” which catapulted him into politics, and the book “Yoni’s letters” which compiled his letters to his family was now in every home in Israel. An astounding fit for someone with politics such as Netanyahu senior.
History, according to Benzion Netanyahu, is a never-ending series of catastrophes and horrors enacted against the Jewish people. From the Pharaoh all the way to Hitler, history is marked by the abuse of Jews wherever they might be. It does not matter if it’s a tyrant in Germany or a young lad scolding a Jew in the street, this is the Holocaust and it never ends. Hitler was the most successful out of all the many destroyers who wished to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth, and the next Hitler Netanyahu senior argued, would be the one to finish the task. History then, would not give the Jewish people another chance. As one Israeli journalist wrote, “for the Netanyahus, somewhere in the world the year is 1938”.
The only solution for this problem, he argued, is for the Jewish people to be as strong as possible, militarily end economically. This world view was forged by his research of Spanish Jewry, who failed to see the calamity that was about to hit them in 1492. He wrote two monumental books, both in his nineties; one is the gigantic “The origins of the Inquisition”, a 1,600-page large masterpiece about the infamous state police, and a biography of Don Isaac Abarbanel, who was both a philosopher and minister in the courts of Spain.
In both works, he mocks the Jews who believed no harm would ever come to them, and documents the tragic history of the “Conversos” who behaved as Christians only in public. Netanyahu senior claimed that the Inquisition was formed not to convert Jews into Christianity, but to drive those so called “Christians” out of power, since as Christians, they could hold almost every type of public office. The Inquisition was then the first case of modern antisemitism, based not on religious hatred, but on ethnic origins.
This view was a radical one and gained the patriarch of the Netanyahu family many critics. His grim view of history was passed on to his son, Benjamin, who was mocked all his political life as a pessimist and a fear monger.
But in the end the Netanyahu skill of finding potential existential dangers to the Jewish people was right every time. From when the PLO signed the Oslo accords, which both Netanyahu’s father and son warned would only weaken Israel and bring terrorism and violence, to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and, of course, Iran and its destructive ambitions for a global Islamic takeover.
Benzion Netanyahu died in his sleep ten years ago. Heralded as a titanic thinker, and as a monumental historian. Like his son, his influence over thought and politics will be long lasting.