The father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benzion Netanyahu, died Monday morning in his Jerusalem home at the age of 102. His funeral will take place at 5 P.M. at Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem.
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Benzion Netanyahu was an Israeli historian and professor emeritus at Cornell University. He served as a secretary to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who is considered the father of Revisionist Zionism, and was a Revisionist leader in the Zionist Movement in the United States. During the 1950s he served as editor for the Encyclopaedia Hebraica.
Netanyahu was born in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire, on March 25, 1910 as Benzion Milikovsky. In 1920, his family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, where he studied at the David Yellin Teachers’ College and later at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As an academic, he specialized in the field of Medieval Spanish Jewry, writing a book about Isaac Abrabanel and essays on the Spanish Inquisition and the Marranos. He developed a theory according to which the Marranos converted, not under compulsion, but out of a desire to integrate into Christian society - but were pushed into being Marranos by continued persecution due to racism, and not out of pure religious persecution, as was previously believed. Netanyahu rejected the myth that the Marranos lived double lives, claiming that the idea grew out of Inquisition documents. He later left the Israeli academy and became a professor emeritus at Cornell University.
Later, he became close with the leaders of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Abba Achimeir and others. He spent a significant portion of his life in the United States, and became Jabotinsky’s personal secretary, but never got involved in Israeli politics. He gained fame for his angry prophesies before the Second World War about the fate of the Jews.
He will most likely be remembered for his great influence on the worldview of his son, Benjamin. The prime minister frequently mentions his father in speeches, speaking of what he has learned from his father, and of the experiences, both exciting and difficult, that the family has endured over the years.
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In a televised interview two years ago, he uttered a sentence which distilled his worldview: “We are very simply in danger of extermination today. Not just existential danger, but truly in danger of extermination. They think the extermination, the Holocaust, is over, it isn’t, it goes on all the time.”
“I have always said that a necessary condition for the existence of any living body, and for a nation, is the ability to identify a danger in time, a characteristic which our nation lost in the Diaspora. You taught me, Father, how to correctly view reality, how to understand what it contains within it and draw the necessary conclusions. It certainly wasn’t an easy thing for you, because there were always those who did not see as you did, ridiculed, laughed at or belittled your conclusions. But I believe that in this, as well, you taught me to distinguish between the important and the unimportant, and concentrate on the important,” said Benjamin Netanyahu. “The same foresight led Father to say dozens of years ago that the threat to world peace would emerge from the same parts of the Muslim world where oil, terrorism and nuclear go together. And it is also what led him to tell me in the early 1990s that the Muslim extremists would not rest and would attempt to bring down the Twin Towers in New York, a prediction that I included in one my books in 1995.”
“And Father is a smart man, very smart. This wonderful ability allowed him to see time after time what others didn’t. Even if they ignored his diagnoses and warnings, over time his ideas and diagnoses spread and became the common wisdom, without the collective knowing where they came from. Because for Father it was never important to get ownership or credit for his forecasts. He was interested in contributing to the security of his people, not in his own reputation.”
The prime minister also recounted the greatest trauma in his father’s life - the death of Yoni, his son, during the 1976 Entebbe operation. “And then something happened which changed the course of our lives forever. Your life, like our lives, was divided in half: before and after that terrible day on which Yoni fell.”
Netanyahu has spoken of how he traveled to deliver the news of his brother Yoni’s death during Operation Entebbe, while they were both living in the United States. “It was the longest, most difficult journey of my life,” said Netanyahu. “Since then, our family life changed drastically. Today, there is life before Yoni’s death, and life after Yoni’s death,” explained Netanyahu.
Speaking about that eight-hour journey from Boston to Cornell University, where his father taught, after he received the news of Yoni’s death from his brother Ido, Netanyahu has said, “After that difficult journey, I reached the path leading to the house, and I saw my father walking in the living room. He looked out the window, our gazes met, and a look of surprise was on his face. When I entered the house, he asked: ‘Bibi, what are you doing here?’ A second later he understood, and cried out in pain. His cry was followed by that of my mother - I will not forget those cries” told Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has said the most important message he learned from his father is that, “whoever doesn’t know his past, can’t understand his present, and therefore can’t plan for his future. He predicted the attacks on the Twin Towers back in the early 90s. He also predicted the threat of tyrannical Islamist regimes attempting to attain nuclear weapons,” said Netanyahu.
In an interview with Haaretz Magazine in 1998, Benzion Netanyahu predicted a difficult national course due to the combination of the Arab threat and the weakness of Israeli public opinion. He believed in true peace in our midst, but denounced any retreat, and saw the left as an existential threat. He attacked the general complacency he saw in Israel, which reminded him of the blind eyes turned toward the Nazi regime. Benzion Netanyahu denied he had any influence on his son’s decisions.
Israeli politicians react
On Monday morning, Meretz withdrew the vote of no-confidence that it issued this morning, following the death of Benzion Netanyahu. Party chairperson Zahava Gal-On stated that the proposal for dissolution of the Knesset will be postponed until after the period of mourning.
The Labor party also reported that the motion for dissolution will not be made this week. MK Isaac Herzog stated that “Because of the Prime Minister’s period of mourning, the Labor faction will not propose dissolution of the Knesset this week, signed by all faction members; instead it will be postponed until next week.” Herzog also expressed condolences to the Netanyahu family following the loss of Benzion Netanyahu.
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, of Kadima, also expressed his sorrow. “It was an honor and a privilege to get to know Benzion Netanyahu, through his son Yoni, of blessed memory, who fell during Operation Entebbe. I knew a precious, humble, and sharp man,” said Mofaz.
“Benzion Netanyahu was a man of learning from head to toe, a Zionist that believed in the founding of the State of Israel, its right to exist, and even paid the ultimate price in losing his son Yoni. I feel a deep sorrow over the passing of Benzion Netanyahu, and send my condolences to his family,” continued Mofaz.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar expressed his condolences and sorrow to the prime minister and his family as well. “Professor Netanyahu was an important, thoughtful, and original researcher. His revolutionary study of the Spanish Inquisition period is of great historical value. Professor Netanyahu was a Zionist through and through, he had the privilege of serving as assistant to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and was an important student of both Herzl and Jabosinsky. Professor Netanyahu raised three men, who all served on the field of battle, and endowed them with a deep responsibility for sacrifice for their people and state,” said Sa’ar.