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.”
For Benzion Netanayahu, Spanish Jewry’s complacency, and their embrace of a convenient narrative, reveals “man’s natural reluctance to draw radical conclusions which imply uprooting oneself from a comfortable spot.” Just as German Jews “failed to foresee Hitler’s rise to power at any time during the period preceding that rise, so the Jews of Spain failed to notice, even a few years before the expulsion, the mountainous wave which was approaching to overwhelm them.” The failure by one of the greatest communities in Jewish Diaspora history to sense this threat was “nothing short of proverbial.”
Now, the son of this scholar leads the Jewish state and must decide how seriously to take the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iranian leaders, as they seek the ability to build a weapon of which the ancient and medieval enemies of Jerusalem and of the Jews could only have dreamed.
As it happens, Benjamin Netanyahu has written with reverence of his father’s scholarship, and of its underlying lesson. The Tisha B’av expulsion from Spain, as he sees it, is an eternal warning to Jews that one of the great threats to their wellbeing is their own complacency. Several months ago, he chose to close his eulogy at his father’s funeral by referring to the latter’s academic work:
Your books clearly show that you were not only endowed with an ability to see the shape of the future, but also to uncover the secrets of the past, and of course there is a connection between the two. Many times, you told me that he who cannot understand the past, cannot understand the future, and he who cannot understand the present, how can he discover what the future will hold?
You always told me that a necessary component for any living body—and a nation is a living body—is the ability to identify a danger in time, a quality that was lost to our people in exile; that is what you said. You taught me, Father, to look at reality head on, to understand what it holds and to come to the necessary conclusions.
It was this Tisha B’av, the first without his father, that Netanyahu stood with Mitt Romney and warned his nation, and the world, that after centuries of persecution Jews had learned to take anti-Semites at their word. How Netanyahu will choose to deal with the Iranian threat is unclear. Yet one thing is certain: He will have his father and his father’s lifework in mind as he makes his choice.
Meir Y. Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.