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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A wise man has left this world: Ben Zion Netanyahu z"l wondered whether his son was tough enough to be Prime Minister

It is often the case that parents know their children better than anyone else in the world. Ben Zion Netanyahu z"l, who passed away on Monday, reflected the thoughts of many right-leaning Israelis when he told an editorial dinner shortly after his son was elected Prime Minister in 1996 than he doubted that Binyamin Netanyahu was tough enough to be Prime Minister of Israel.

Seth Lipsky has a great article on the Prime Minister's father in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. I received the entire article in an email from Ricky G, and for the benefit of those of you who, like me, do not have a subscription to the Journal, I am posting most of it below.
That was back in the late 1990s. It was the only meal I ever had with Benzion Netanyahu, who died Monday at the age of 102. But I have often thought of the writer's question. Clearly Netanyahu's formula for fatherhood was successful. One of his sons, Jonathan, led—and gave his life in—the 1976 hostage-rescue raid on Uganda's Entebbe airport that inspired the world. Another, Ido, is a physician and playwright. And the voters of Israel lifted up Benjamin Netanyahu to prime minister not once but twice.

The thing to remember is that Benzion Netanyahu played his own role in the history of Israel and America, and he did something transcendent. He taught with particular clarity one of the hardest and most important truths that every Jewish person has to learn, namely that anti-Semitism is not about Jewish behavior. He exposed his own facet of this truth by the noblest methodology—scholarship. He pored through the pages of history to disclose the facts of the Spanish Inquisition.

The son of a rabbi and a preacher of Zionism, Benzion Netanyahu was born in Poland and was brought to pre-state Israel as a child of 10. It was after the Palestine riots of 1929, when 67 Jews were slain by Arabs in Hebron alone, that Netanyahu, then 19, made his turn toward the politics known as Revisionist Zionism. The movement was led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who is the inspiriter of the political party that became known as the Likud.

Jabotinsky's most famous essay rejected the notion that the Palestinian Arabs "are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains." He disputed the need for any agreement with the Palestinian Arabs, calling instead for an armed defense force that could protect the Jewish population like an "iron wall." Only by outlasting any hope that the Jews could be driven out of the land of Israel would peace be possible.

It was Jabotinsky who brought Benzion Netanyahu to America to build support for the creation of the Jewish state. Jabotinsky had called for the establishment of such a state to be made an Allied war aim. Jabotinsky died in 1940 after suffering a heart attack at a training camp for his young followers at Batavia, N.Y. Benzion Netanyahu carried on his work, entering the political fray here as the Jews of Europe were being engulfed by the Holocaust.

According to Rafael Medoff, writing this week for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Benzion Netanyahu approached such Republican leaders as the former president Herbert Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft and Rep. Clare Boothe Luce. Mr. Medoff credits this campaign for the adoption by the GOP in 1944 of a platform demanding "refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children" in a Jewish state and the Democratic platform that followed with a call for a "Jewish commonwealth." So 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.

Yet it was Benzion Netanyahu's academic work that proved transcendent. Until he published in 1995 "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain," received wisdom held that the Inquisition turned on the Jews who'd converted to Christianity—the conversos—because they were secretly practicing Judaism. What Netanyahu uncovered was that the matter was more complicated. Most of the conversos did not practice Judaism. They had actually converted, if by force, and become practicing Christians. Yet the Inquisition still turned on them.

"Never did cunning, hypocrisy and deception make greater use of sanctimonious contentions than did the Inquisition in its attack on the conversos," Netanyahu wrote in his magnum opus. He attributed the Inquisition's success to its "skillful presentation of its verdicts as the judgments of wise and righteous men who had but one purpose: the establishment of truth." If that sounds like the self-righteousness of the anti-Israel left today, it may be why Netanyahu's learning seemed so relevant to his time and ours.
As an Israeli, I can only hope that Ben Zion Netanyahu's influence on his famous son will only strengthen now that the father is gone to a better place.

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