The Magazine

Bibi— Son of Benzion

The Netanyahu legacy.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By MEIR Y. SOLOVEICHIK
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Benjamin Netanyahu

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Much of the reporting about Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel has focused on his statement that Israel’s success is linked to its political and economic culture. Yet the most significant geopolitical event during his journey was the statement by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a joint news conference with Romney, that the current American administration’s policies have not swayed Iran’s nuclear ambition “one iota.” Adding to the significance of this event was the date on which it took place, and the importance of that date not only to the Jewish people in general, but to Netanyahu’s family in particular. 

Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel coincided with the observance by Jews worldwide of Tisha B’av, the annual Jewish day of mourning. The ninth day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is the date when, according to tradition, the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by the enemies of the Jews. Over one thousand years later, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, another catastrophic event, took place on or around this date. According to Isaac Abravanel, one of the greatest biblical exegetes in Jewish history who served in the Spanish royal court until the expulsion, King Ferdinand had no idea that the chosen deadline for the Jews to leave fell on a day so rife with meaning to Jews. It was Providence, he suggests, that forever united the destruction of Jerusalem with the demise of one of the most intellectually illustrious communities of the Diaspora.

This is significant because Abrav-anel, the Jewish expulsion, and the persecution of Jews by the Spanish Inquisition were the particular expertise of Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father, who died this year at the age of 102. 

Benzion Netanyahu was a remarkable man. Long before Benjamin became prime minister, the Netanyahus were one of Israel’s famous families, as a result of the heroic death of Benzion’s eldest child, Yonatan, leading the otherwise triumphant Entebbe raid of 1976. But Benzion Netanyahu was already a major Zionist figure in his own right. Born in Warsaw and raised in Palestine under the British mandate, Benzion moved to New York to serve as the personal secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the intellectual forefather of Israel’s Likud party. According to the historian Rafael Medoff, Netanyahu “cultivated relationships with former President Herbert Hoover and other leading GOP figures and urged them to include a pro-Zionist plank in the 1944 GOP platform.” As Seth Lipsky noted in the Wall Street Journal, “Benjamin Netanyahu was standing on his father’s shoulders when, in 1996 and 2011, he addressed joint meetings of Congress and won roars of approval from both sides of the aisle.”

Benzion Netanyahu remained in the United States for several years and pursued a doctorate in Jewish history, writing his dissertation on Isaac Abravanel. This was later published with the title Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher. In his book on Abravanel, and in his later work The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, Benzion Netanyahu asks why the announcement of the expulsion edict came as such a shock to Spain’s Jews. After all, the Inquisition was already persecuting and torturing conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity before the threatened expulsion, and who were accused by the church of covert Jewish observance. Yet the Jews, including the great Abravanel, “did not read the signs of the times.” When the expulsion edict was eventually announced, it was, for Spanish Jewry, “like a thunderbolt out of the clear sky, tumbling, at last, the walls of illusions behind which the Jews of Spain had lived.” Why, Netanyahu asks, did Jews not sense the vicious hatred that was festering, and why did they not take the Inquisition’s anti-Semitic activity more seriously? 

Netanyahu suggests that the Jews of Spain incorrectly assumed that the Inquisition was concerned solely with the religious beliefs of those who identified as Christians. But the way the Inquisition spoke about Jews should have alerted the Jewish community to the church’s ultimate aims. The Inquisition spoke of the “polluting blood” of the Jews of Spain, and of the “sinister” Jewish character from which Spanish Christians must be protected. Yet the Jews chose to see the Inquisition as motivated only by a crusading Christian fervor, and not by a deeper, almost racial, hatred of the Jewish people. The most peculiar aspect of the years leading up to the expulsion, writes Netanyahu, is the fact that “the Inquisition, instead of serving as a warning, contributed to a deceptive sense of peace.” 

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