How will the death of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister who died in Jerusalem on Monday, at 102, affect his powerful son? I don’t have a clue, though some, like Jeffrey Goldberg, have posited that it might—might—make the prime minister a little bit more willing to compromise with Israel's Arab neighbors. Rather than play Nostradamus, though, it’s probably best to understand how Benzion—a towering scholar of medieval Jewish history, and one with a markedly conservative bent—has influenced Bibi thus far.
What’s interesting is that only recently have writers begun to tease out Benzion’s influence on his son, Bibi. What they argue is that Benzion’s long-held belief that anti-Semitism was as ancient and indefatigable a phenonemon as Jews themselves had a profound influence on Bibi’s worldview. Though Benzion was a rigorous and respected historian, who had taught at several American universities, Benzion’s interpretation of the Spanish Inquisition laid bare his view of the entirety of Jewish history. In short, it was the lachrymose conception: persecution, survival, and persecution again.
In his revisionist magnum opus, “The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain,” Benzion argued that Jewish converts to Catholicism in 15th century Spain were in fact genuine believers in Christ. But even though these converts enthusiastically embraced their newfound Christianity—which was nonetheless forced upon them, lest they face exile or death—Spanish Catholic authorities still didn’t accept them.
The derogatory name “marranos”—which many Catholics called these new Jewish converts—meant “pig,” and it suggests the unyielding hatred they had for Jews. Benzion Netanyahu emphasized this point, tracing the hatred of Jews all the way back to Egyptian history. And it was reflected in his lifelong political activism as well: he was born in Russia, in 1910, and became an ardent support of the right-wing Zionist Zev Jabotinsky. It was Jabotinsky who advocated a hardline stance against Arabs, demanding the largest possible Jewish state and a strict separation Jews and Arabs.
Even as late as 2009, the nearly 100-year-old Benzion was saying things like the “vast majority of Israeli Arabs would choose to exterminate us if they had the option to do so,” which he said in an Ma’ariv newspaper interview. Another recent remark was even more hair-raising: “The tendency toward conflict is the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won't allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn't matter what kind of resistance he will meet. His existence is one of perpetual war.”
So while we may not know how Benzion’s death will affect his son, Bibi, we can almost say for sure that he’s had an outsized influence already.
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