The Father, the Son (Bibi) and the Spirit of Catastrophe

Far from being a politician with no vision or plan, Benjamin Netanyahu is in dialogue with history. His ideology was inherited from his father, but it harkens back to 15th-century messianic writings.

Avner Ben-Zaken
Benjamin and Benzion Netanyahu.
Benjamin and Benzion Netanyahu.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom
Avner Ben-Zaken

Benjamin Netanyahu is a highly intelligent individual. This fact is widely acknowledged, even among his political rivals. In his political activities – notwithstanding assertions to the contrary – there is no evidence of any logical inconsistency, charlatanism, zigzagging, predilection for personal interests over the national interest, survivalist reaction, or over-abiding cynicism. Nor is he merely a brilliant campaigner: Netanyahu has a firm and coherent philosophical framework, and is guided by a profound conviction in the justice of his ways.

Whereas the majority of Israel’s political leaders in recent years have dealt with solving specific problems, Netanyahu has set his sights on the long-term depths of history. He is the sole political leader who is at present conversing with history, corresponding with it and drawing from it practical political conclusions. Essentially, Israel has never had such an ideological prime minister.

As opposed to what many observers would have us believe, Netanyahu’s ideology is not rooted mainly in his American life experience, Friedmanist capitalism, or Straussian neoconservatism – all of which are modern political traditions and trends to which he was exposed indirectly and relatively late in life. Rather, Netanyahu was nurtured at an early age on a political philosophy dating to the late Middle Ages, which he received directly from his father, the late historian Benzion Netanyahu.

I had the opportunity to converse with Benzion Netanyahu only once. I attempted to share with him – an expert on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain – my opinions regarding the life story of physician Amato Lusitano, the Portuguese crypto-Jew who wandered throughout Europe. Prof. Netanyahu adopted a respectful attitude, and expressed interest in the details, but it was clear that his own bitter life experience had engendered in him a suspiciousness and a self-seclusion. Especially noticeable was his tendency to make historical analogies between the expulsion from Spain and the Holocaust.

The scholarly interest in the expulsion of Spain’s Jews and the Inquisition – prior to the 20th century, the greatest catastrophes ever to affect the Jewish people – crystallized for him during World War II, as the first reports about the Holocaust – the greatest human catastrophe known to mankind – began making their way out of Europe.

During the war, Netanyahu and Hillel Kook served as emissaries for the Revisionist Zionist movement in New York. Once the rumors and reports about the destruction of European Jewry began to spread, the two men, both together and individually, worked to sow general turmoil among American Jewish leaders, and goad them into lobbying the U.S. administration to exert all due military force to disrupt the Nazi annihilation machinery.

Don Isaac Abravanel.

It was at this time that the personal historical consciousness of Benzion Netanyahu was forged. For him, history became a movement through the dimension of time, one of profound and contradictory trends, of cosmic good and cosmic evil, tussling with one another. They rise up and hover above the surface, expressing themselves at refined moments of political catastrophes.

“The philosophy of catastrophes” began to take root in the early 19th century in the course of the search for the origins of life in fossils, but by the early 20th century it had spread to the realm of historiography. All of history, believed scholars subscribing to catastrophism, is no more than a continuum of events – barbaric invasions, collapse of empires, natural disasters – that amount to a succession of catastrophes. Everyday life, economic activity, cultural life – all are expressions of one type or another of profound trends that move in a purposeful way in the direction of some pure, colossal historic event.

Similarly, the image of the ideal leader was shaped during that era. For his part, the elder Netanyahu conceived the image of a leader as someone who is sober and devoid of utopian fantasies, who adopts a penetrating view of the historic process, who attempts to predict how a scenario will develop, who sees the historic trend of cosmic evil for what it is, who warns others of the danger, and who acts determinedly to thwart it through the mechanism of international politics. Not for naught are Winston Churchill, and to some degree also Franklin D. Roosevelt considered by Benzion Netanyahu to be ideal leaders and objects of veneration. But has there ever been a Jewish leader of that ilk in history?

Pre-Holocaust disaster

The scholarly mission of Benzion Netanyahu was, then, to identify, investigate and publicize a model of similar Jewish leadership. But an academic focus on a Jewish leader who, for example, warned of the dangers of the Holocaust – such as Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky – was too close in terms of chronology to permit a significant historic perspective. Prof. Netanyahu was left to search for appropriate subjects in the more distant past, and thus it was natural for him to look for them in the epochal Jewish catastrophe, the Spanish expulsion.

In the years following World War II, with the specter of the Holocaust still looming heavily over his home, the elder Netanyahu labored over his comprehensive historical research. In 1953, he published a biography entitled “Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher.”

In that book’s preface, the scholar described his subject as, “a leader of the Jews of Spain and its exiles, a courtier, a diplomat and a financier to kings and aristocracy, an erudite scholar, a brilliant commentator and author.”

In the introduction, Netanyahu acknowledges that the messianic issue in the writings of Abravanel is what sparked his interest. “But while working on the subject,” he writes, “it became clear to [me] that Abravanel’s messianic views were closely interwoven with a complex set of ideas on politics and history which, in turn, formed an integral part of a well-constituted world outlook.”

Netanyahu concludes the introduction by calling upon the reader to remember “that the man and his work constituted a first-rank historic force that helped direct the destines of the Jewish people through that maze of convoluted and tragic developments which led them from the Middle Ages to the present time.”

The book was first translated into Hebrew in the early 1990s, and in the special introduction for that edition, Netanyahu writes: “Isaac Abravanel, as the leader of the Jews, was among their chief defenders in several countries, scoring victories as well as defeats, and he also experienced the expulsion from Spain....Following the expulsion, he reached the general conclusion that the Jews did not have the wherewithal to build a new home among strangers. They could only hope to realize the dream of redemption, not by human force but by divine force, and he attempted to prove not only the possibility of this redemption but also the necessity of it.”

For Benzion Netanyahu, Abravanel was the founder of the school of messianic-political philosophy that holds that the remedy for the deplorable condition of the Jewish people throughout the ages is political, and will take the form of a national home that will be realized by means of direct divine intervention. This will come about at the climax of an apocalyptic catastrophe, a “war of the monsters” between Gog and Armilus – symbolizing Ishmaelites and Christendom (as Abravanel described, for example, in his work “Mayanei Yeshua”) – in the aftermath of which the Jews will eat and drink in the shelter of the Leviathan’s body, and benefit from the radiance of the divine spirit.

“The importance of Abravanel,” writes Benzion Netanyahu, in concluding the introduction to the Hebrew edition, was “in serving as a seed and a beginning to the first turning point of the Jewish people, shifting from its acclimatization in alien lands to its ingathering in its native country.”

Organic bodies

Netanyahu was impressed with Abravanel’s thinking, primarily because he was the first to speak of a political solution – as opposed to exile or assimilation – to the problem of the Jews. As such, he was a “forerunner of Zionism.” Abravanel’s political philosophy was also significant vis-a-vis the history of political thought in general. His integration of messianism into this discipline made him one of the first to introduce the concept of time into political philosophy. And instead of discussing models of a static, ideal state, Abravanel saw the state as a natural body subject to the basic laws of creation and destruction.

According to his approach, states are organic bodies. They are conceived, they prosper and they die. So if it is possible to establish an eternal state, it would be one of Jews that would be created at the time of the redemption – the consequence of a dialectical and messianic historical process, at the end of which this ideal Jewish entity would be formed.

It is not only Benzion Netanyahu who evinced great interest in Abravanel. From the advent of the modern era to the moment the scholar decided to write about him, Abravanel had sparked interest and emotion among political philosophers, dynasties of Hebraists, historians and other intellectuals, all of whom shared a fear of political tragedies, and helped formulate one of the principles of conservative political thought: Political stability and unity are achieved by means of emphasizing an external threat, even one that may be fictitious.

Thomas Hobbes, for instance, called for the transfer of authorities in the “social contract” to a monarchist authoritative figure, which, like the biblical sea monster called Leviathan, transmits by its very presence authority and control, and in effect prevents harsh differences of opinion, chaos, and political catastrophe that might break down society entirely. While the Leviathan concept embodies the constituent elements of society in toto, its function is to be external, as well – that is, to remain in the background and to serve as a glue that holds all of society together.

Hobbes almost certainly had ways of knowing about the writings of Abravanel, mainly through the writings of the Buxtorf family – Johannes Buxtorf the Father and his son, Johannes Buxtorf the Younger, Hebraic scholars who in the 17th century translated several of Abravanel’s letters into Latin and German. The most prominent of their collections was “Dissertaciones Philologo-Theologic,” published by Buxtorf the Younger, and which included translations of several of Abravanel’s political letters. One of them is an essay that Buxtorf titled “De Statu et Jure Regio” (About the State and a Just King), in which Abravanel, a proponent of Republicanism, reveals his qualifications of monarchy in his commentary on the Books of Deuteronomy and Samuel. Abravanel allowed for the possibility of monarchism under strict conditions, including that the leader is just, that he possesses the skills to rule, and that he acknowledges that the origin of his authority is God. He likens the practice of governing to the profession of seafaring, and compares the king to a ship’s captain sailing into a storm at sea.

Buxtorf the Father, in accordance with contemporary fashion, had in 1603 written the book “De Synagoga Judaica,” which described to the public at large the customs and beliefs of the Jews, including the kabbalistic belief in the war of Gog and Magog, which, according to Buxtorf, originated with Abravanel as a conflict between a “Leviathan” and “Behemoth” – that is, between a sea monster and a land monster.

Abravanel’s philosophy experienced a resurgence after the Nazi rise to power. In 1937, as the 500th anniversary of his birth was celebrated, sparking new interest in his historic role, and as the pulse of the catastrophe that would befall the Jewish people could already be heard in the background – scholars such as Abraham Heschel, Leo Strauss and Paul Goodman published works underscoring Abravanel’s role in the founding of Jewish messianism. Thus, Jewish German writings about Abravanel drew the attention not only of Benzion Netanyahu, and not only of Jews.

Apocalypse then, now

Carl Schmitt, the constitutional philosopher of the Nazis, published a book entitled “Land und Meer” in 1942, which describes global history as a struggle between land-based and maritime powers. It was written against the background of the titanic struggle then under way between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. For his part, Buxtorf the Younger had described the apocalyptic historical approach of Abravanel as a continuum of rise and fall of civilizations, symbolized by mythological monsters, the climax being a struggle between Leviathan and Behemoth.

In a series of recent talks, the historian Eugene Sheppard has brilliantly argued that Schmitt, inspired by Buxtorf’s description, applied mythological imagery to international politics, hinting that while the two powers – Britain, the naval power or Leviathan, as he called it, and Germany, the land power or Behemoth – were devouring one another, “The Jews,” Schmitt claimed, “solemnly observe the millennial festival ‘The Feast of the Levithan,’” implying that they gleefully rub their hands together while they wait for the mutual attrition that would create an opportunity to exploit the weakness of the powers and enable the Jews’ domination of the world.

In 2004, German artist Anselm Kiefer, one of the most strident critics of post-war Germany, dedicated a work of art to Schmitt, which ridiculed his anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasy. The work was entitled “Isaac Abravanel: The Feast of the Leviathan,” and featured rusting, destroyed German U-boats in the aftermath of the defeat at the hands of what he called the English Leviathan.

In spite of the preposterousness of the conspiracy that Schmitt mistakenly attributed to Abravanel, he did fix in conservative political thought the connection between apocalypse (historic aspect), state of emergency (legal aspect) and sovereignty (political aspect), as he wrote in the first, formative sentence of his most important work, “Political Theology”: “Who is the sovereign? He who declares the state of emergency.”

There are reasonable grounds to assume that Abravanel is the source of inspiration, intuitively or explicitly, of Benjamin Netanyahu. As we learn from the eulogy he wrote for his father, his mother Tzila was actually the one who deciphered his father’s handwriting, typed up and prepared the manuscript of the Abravanel biography for publication. This process, which most surely triggered lengthy discussions in the household, took place during the years in which the younger Netanyahu began to formulate his independent consciousness and first memories. Therefore, Abravanel and his philosophy were very much present in his childhood.

It is not especially difficult to recognize the contours of Abravanel’s political thought in Netanyahu the Younger’s political philosophy. He translated the apocalyptic struggle between Gog and Armilus, between the Ishmaelites and Christians, into the struggle of the (Christian) West and the (Muslim) terror. Moreover, he fully adopted the concept of employing military from Abravanel, who argued that “only decisive military force is the sole true guarantee of peace,” and “every war requires great risks and therefore one should avoid it as much as possible Oftentimes, the results of the wars are at odds with all of the logical calculations.”

Furthermore, this past January, after the massacre at the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris, in a closed meeting with the leadership of French Jewry at the Grand Synagogue, Netanyahu addressed the problem of anti-Semitism and compared the French Jewish leadership to Abravanel, who had a very comfortable life before the expulsion from Spain. Netanyahu said that although the expulsion took him by surprise, Abravanel eventually came to the conclusive understanding that the Jews must have their own nation-state, and he called on French Jews to follow Abravanel’s call and move promptly to Israel.

But more than anything else, Benjamin Netanyahu adopted from Abravanel the approach of integrating political thought into the history of catastrophism. Whereas his father looked at history through only two peepholes of catastrophe – the Spanish expulsion and the Holocaust – Netanyahu the younger adds a third element: He describes the State of Israel as having the potential to become the victim of the greatest Jewish catastrophe in history. His important speeches share the same structure: First he speaks about catastrophal history (Holocaust), then he refers to the potential for a genuine future disaster (wrought by Iran, global Jihad, Arab citizens at ballot booths, etc.) – and in the end he declares a state of emergency.

Restrained catastrophism

Abravanel, Hobbes and Schmitt situate potential catastrophe on the horizon somewhere in the future, in order to make use of it in the present, as a tool for consolidating and intensifying collective consciousness, and for defending the political body, the sovereignty of the state. Netanyahu the Younger, then, understands that only by means of maintaining, sustaining and managing a potential catastrophe will the collective Jewish political consciousness be preserved, as the adhesive that preserves the unity of the Jewish political entity.

Consequently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved by means of a peace agreement, annexation of territories, unilateral withdrawal or deportation of Palestinians. Rather, it will be managed by means of exacerbation of the situation and its becoming unsolvable. The Iranian nuclear threat cannot be eliminated through military action or by consensual agreement; it will be contained, in Netanyahu’s view, by means of an unending regime of sanctions.

Moreover, Hamas rule in Gaza will not be eradicated by means of occupation of the Strip or imposition of a new international order; it will be preserved, together with the drizzle of rocket fire, which is critical for reinforcement of the notion of the dangers inherent in the establishment of a Palestinian state. The threat posed by Israeli Arabs will not be reduced by deportation, granting full equality of rights or swapping of territory; it will be contained by preserving their status as a fifth column, as an entity that threatens the very essence of Jewish existence in Israel.

In principle, threats are not to be eliminated but are to be maintained and contained, because they do an immense service in the shaping of a shared and effective political and historical consciousness. So it is that Netanyahu the Younger skips and hops between potential catastrophe, on the one hand, which he cultivates, and preventing its realization, on the other, all the while keeping Jewish existence suspended in a state of emergency. His political philosophy is, then, fully based on what can be called a doctrine of restrained catastrophism.

The abiding fear of Netanyahu is thus not of a failed peace effort, but of a successful peace effort. Deep down, he envisions a neighboring Palestinian state that has carried on friendly relations for decades with the State of Israel and, to illustrate the parable, sees the Palestinians throwing rice over the wall while Israelis are throwing flowers. It is reasonable to assume that after 50 years of good neighborliness, during which goods would be exchanged between the sides, people would be crossing the border, the wall between the peoples would eventually tumble down, and the two states would become one.

Thus, in Netanyahu the Younger’s playbook, only a perpetual Palestinian threat, only “management of the conflict” and the maintenance of a perpetual state of war, can preserve the Jewish state over time.

The frequent declarations of a state of emergency have severely reduced the range of opinions in the Zionist political field. Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in fixing in the Israeli mindset the assumption that the decisive Jewish question in this state is always an existential one; consequently, anyone who is part of the national Jewish discourse here is compelled to adhere to that basic truth, and must come to terms with the political truths that Netanyahu himself has termed critical.

So it is that during his years in power, liberal Zionism, from the left and from the right, has been vanquished. Every time Netanyahu declares a veritable state of emergency, he tears away additional layers of non-Revisionist Zionism’s cellophane wrapper, forcing liberal forces to vie with him on the basis of existential issues, and to support his position.

Creating a tumult

Preserving political equilibrium is indeed an art, but at times potential catastrophes pumped into political discourse morning and night take on a life of their own. Benjamin Netanyahu does not make do with merely describing Israel within a continuum of historical catastrophes, the expulsion from Spain and the Holocaust.

Prior to leaving for the U.S. to speak to Congress in March, he paid a visit to his father’s grave, and then issued a press announcement in which he stated, “My father was never afraid to go out into the storm,” using the imagery employed by Benzion to describe Abravanel. And as his father attempted in miniature to create a tumult among American Jews when the news of the Holocaust was publicized, so as to enlist the American administration to take action against the death camps and on behalf the refugees – so, too, does Netanyahu the Younger seek to enlist Congress to pressure the administration and rescind the Iranian threat to Jewish existence in Israel.

But Benjamin Netanyahu is not waiting for the Americans. As he said in his speech, “The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over... Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

Indirectly, his actions promote the religious ideas of a messianic era. They imperil the strategy of “restrained catastrophism” and are liable to lead to a loss of control and the transition of the current Jewish political experience in the Land of Israel to a third and final catastrophe.

The irony of history is, as Netanyahu the Elder believed, that the Zionist movement had realized the vision of Abravanel “not by divine power but by human power,” while the actions of his son are increasingly bringing an entire people back to the original philosophy of Abravanel, which contends that divine intervention is necessary to attain the political redemption of the Jewish people. Some Israeli groups are already openly speaking this way, including messianic Orthodox factions that claim that the Lubavitcher Rebbe told Netanyahu, “You will be the final prime minister and you will be the person to transfer the leadership to the Messiah.”

Meanwhile, there is an Israeli submarine at sea, one of a fleet of five German-made submarines, which answers to the name “Leviathan.



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