Benzion Netanyahu's Death - Researching the Past, Predicting the Future

The Prime Minister's father, who died before dawn on Monday at the age of 102, loved the Jewish people, but had little faith in the Jews.

In the late 1990s, the hatred for Benjamin Netanyahu was even stronger than it is today. His enemies used to treat his historian father, Benzion, as if he were some kind of demon.

So when I approached the stone house on Jerusalem's Haportzim Street for the first time, I was really concerned. I expected to meet an intellectual, frightening despot with a quick temper.

Benzion Netanyahu - Fitoussi - 1.5.12
Olivier Fitoussi

But the round-faced elderly man who opened the door turned out to be incredibly friendly. After he overcame his own initial hesitation, he opened his home and his heart to me. The dozens of hours I spent talking to him for a profile later published in Haaretz gave me a glimpse into a rare man with rare abilities and a unique worldview.

Benzion Netanyahu, who died before dawn on Monday at age 102, loved the Jewish people, but didn't have much faith in the Jews. He thought they were like children who didn't understand history and didn't know how to shape history.

Benzion Netanyahu was committed to the State of Israel, but didn't think much of Israelis. He thought we were lacking the sense of sovereignty that all sane nations had, and were missing the mechanism that warns all other living creatures of imminent danger.

Since he was a loyal Revisionist, he didn't respect David Ben-Gurion and scorned the red rabble of Mapai. Because he was thoroughly secular, he didn't think well of the ultra-Orthodox or religious Zionists. Settlements didn't excite him, the settlers didn't impress him, and he had no use for messianists.

As far as he was concerned, this was a nation that had no political understanding, political culture or political leadership. Perhaps, when he overcame his failings, Benjamin Netanyahu could be the statesman that the Jewish people was lacking.

Benzion Netanyahu's perception of reality was cold and cruel. He never forgave the Zionist leadership for ignoring the warnings of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and failing to evacuate Europe's Jews from the killing fields in time. He never forgot that the United States didn't heed his warnings about the Holocaust in the 1940s.

He always saw the state Ben-Gurion founded as an unstable hamlet, made up of a mixed multitude that hadn't matured into a people. While there had indeed been miracles in 1948 and 1967, he saw the chances of Israel's ultimate survival as poor.

Still, he believed we each had a responsibility to improve those chances. That's what his son Yonatan did in Entebbe, and that's what his son Benjamin was doing in the miserable swamp of local politics. Only the chosen few could renew the hope that was plundered from the Israeli nation by its terrible history and its deep internal weakness.

Benzion Netanyahu didn't believe in peace and didn't believe in withdrawals and didn't believe there was such a thing as the Palestinian people.

Fifteen years ago, he predicted that there would be volcanic eruptions among the peoples of the Middle East and that Islamic extremists armed with nuclear weapons would threaten world peace. He believed that the ayatollahs' long-range nuclear missiles would eventually threaten the East Coast of the United States. He believed the West would be unable to cope with the new Islamic challenge. He believed Western civilization was disintegrating because its elites were unworthy and its masses were ignorant.

It seems amazing that a world-class historian, a man of the past, had such an exceptional ability to predict the future. Because he was able to distinguish between what was important and what was not, and because he was not restrained by political correctness, he was able to see what others could not see.

Though he eventually achieved renown as an expert in his field, Israel's academic establishment never acknowledged his abilities; as a result, he was forced to teach and carry out research in the United States and raise his sons abroad. This rejection - the strong experience of unrecognized greatness - left its mark on the Netanyahus and deeply influences the prime minister to this day.

This is the source of the ongoing revenge of his son against Israel's leftist elite. Benzion Netanyahu did not bequeath rationality alone to his son Benjamin; he also left him the feeling that he belongs to an exclusive fraternity that is treated contemptuously by the same Israelis who rejected his father.

Read this article in Hebrew.