How Netanyahu's Father Adopted the View of Arabs as Savages

Benzion Netanyahu, the late father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looked to historian Joseph Klausner as his intellectual mentor and fully embraced his view of Arabs as a nation of half-savages to be defended against

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Benzion Netanyahu, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benzion Netanyahu, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Avi Ohayun / GPO

On December 19, 1919, the S.S. Ruslan anchored off of Jaffa port. The ship, later referred to a bit hyperbolically as “the Zionist Mayflower,” had set sail several weeks earlier from Odessa with hundreds of passengers on board, among them Joseph Klausner, who would become the mentor of Benzion Netanyahu. The poet Rachel Bluwstein was also on board, as were dancer and painter Baruch Agadati, architects Zeev Rechter and Yehuda Magidovitch, painter Yitzhak Frenkel; Yisrael Gurfinkel (later, Guri), who would go on to be the father of poet Haim Gouri; Rosa Cohen, mother-to-be of Yitzhak Rabin; and Moshe Glickson, who would go on to edit Haaretz from 1922 to 1937, and whose face “turned green” as the ship “swayed like a drunk,” in Klausner’s words. Klausner was 45 at the time. Netanyahu, who was born in Warsaw in 1910, and arrived in British Mandatory Palestine a few months later, was then 9.

Seven years earlier, Klausner, who was born in 1874, had visited Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt for the first time. In a series entitled “Olam Mithaveh: Rishmei Masa Be’Eretz Israel” (“An Emerging World: Impressions of Travels in Palestine”), published in installments in 1913-1915, in the journal Hashiloah, which Klausner edited, and later in the book “Am Va’aretz Kamim Litihiya” (“People and Land Come Back to Life,” 1944), Klausner described his impressions from the region and portrayed the Arabs who lived there – not only them, and not only negatively – as savages.

Joseph Klausner. Warned of the influence of Arab culture on the Jews. Credit: Central Zionist Archives

Earlier, during a stop in Istanbul, Klausner was captivated by the bustling chaos of “wild Turkey.” “Everyone is shouting and loudly arguing and debating and gesticulating in strange ways when at a loss for words. The women among us were frightened by all the tumult and the odd ‘pouncing’ – as all sorts of these strange creatures were pouncing on us and it seemed as if we’d soon be torn to shreds. But the Jews who had already been in the ancient land reassured them and explained that this was the way of the hot-tempered Orientals, to make a big fuss out of nothing and that in reality they would not hurt anyone. But I myself enjoy all this tumult.”

Klausner, who was born in the town of Olkeniki near Vilnius, was not accustomed to such sights. They reminded him of tales from the Bible. The Middle East mesmerized him. The landscapes, the buildings, the men, the women, the children, the animals, the plants – all ignited his imagination, and he described his experiences there with an array of Orientalist imagery.

‘The great virtues of the Arab’

Initially, he had had good things to say about the Arabs in Palestine: “The quickness and diligence of these sailors are marvelous,” he wrote about the local people who rowed the boats that brought them from the ship to Jaffa. “You can trust them even at the time of greatest danger. Once again I was made aware of the great virtues of the Arab people and learned that we ought not to ‘dismiss’ them or talk of them ‘like donkeys’ (as Ahad Ha’am warned), as we are wont to do.” Yet Klausner later would repeatedly refer to Arabs as “savages,” mainly to indicate an absence of culture or civilized behavior.

Klausner had earlier used the term “savage” in his book “Ha’adam Hakadmon” (“Prehistoric Man”), on the foundations of anthropology, published in Warsaw in 1900 by Tushiya Press. There, Klausner referred to Sigismond Zaborovsky’s work “The Prehistoric Man,” published in French in 1878; a pair of books on the prehistoric age written by Moriz Hoernes and published in German in 1892 and 1897, as well as on works by race researchers like Karl Penka, author of “The Aryan Origin” (1886) and Ludwig Wilser, author of “The Origin of the Germans” (1885) and “The Prehistoric Origins of the Aryans” (1899). Decades before the Nazis, Penka and Wilser laid the groundwork for the racial doctrines glorifying the purity and supremacy of the Aryan race. Klausner’s book was a collection of excerpts from these works, translated into Hebrew. For the sake of the translation, Klausner introduced some new words into the Hebrew language, such as “dayig” (“fishing”), “karnaf” (rhinoceros – a combination of “keren” – “horn” and “af” – “nose”) and “karhon” (“iceberg”).

The savage plays a key role in the book. “We are now on the threshold of a new era,” wrote Klausner in a chapter entitled “The Antiquity of the Semites and the Inception of the Aryan Races.” “Nations come to be in a land; that is, the individual ceases to be savage in the true sense of the word. ... The tribes that grouped together and became a single nation capable of establishing a kingdom for itself, are no longer savage. Among them are quasi-savages, for example the people of Mexico and Peru in the past, and among these there are some who attained a great and very developed culture yet one lacking in continual forward motion, life and progress, and therefore one that had no influence upon the development of the world as a whole, for example the kingdom of China.” In contrast to them, “The human races from which great nations with a broad and progressive culture emerged that has influenced all of ancient and modern history to this day, and of which many very talented nations are still vibrant and progressing — these great races number only two: the Semites and the Indo-Europeans or Aryans.”

Klausner’s quasi-savage category included the Arabs. In a short article entitled “Suspicion,” which he published in 1907 in the journal Hashiloah under the pseudonym Ish Ivri (Hebrew Man), he warned of the influence of Arab culture on the Jews. “I would not at all want,” he wrote, “for the Jews to imitate the Arabs and the Bedouin, by which I mean be influenced by primitive culture... We, the Jews, who for 2,000 years and more have been dwelling in the midst of cultured nations cannot – nor should not – descend once again to the cultural level of the quasi-savage nations.”

Indeed, a few years later, in a 1912 travel journal, he describes his visit to Tiberias: “I observed the strange and quasi-savage Jews there. ... How amazingly it had declined! How it had become a town that rears savages!”

Visiting the Jerusalem village of Silwan, Klausner wrote: “Adjacent to the Arab village is a small village of Yemenites, who live in peace with the Arabs in the area, who are known as a harsh and savage people.” The inhabitants of Metula were “isolated and neglected ... inside a settlement of savage Arabs – Muslims, Christians and Druze – who loathe them.” And when he traveled further north to Nabatieh, in Lebanon, he wrote that the people who lived there are “the fiercest and harshest of all the Arab tribes in the north of the Land of Israel. It is they whom the settlers in Metula fought for a number of years, until at long last the Jews implanted respect for themselves even in the hearts of those cruel savages.”

Two articles from 1929, “An Examination of the Horrors in the Land of Israel,” which was published in Moznaiyim, and “Conclusions from the Disturbances in the Land of Israel,” which was published in Hadoar, present Klausner’s worldview and his attitude toward the Arabs in that period. In these and other articles, Klausner argued: “The truth is that the Arab nation as a whole is not savage but rather quasi-savage, and the Arab leaders are not educated but rather quasi-educated. And this is the great tragedy.” According to him, “These leaders incite the masses by means of mendacious slogans and allusions to robbery, which fall on receptive ears among robbers and quasi-savages.”

The problem, he argued, is that the British see the Jews and not the Arabs as “natives,” instead of relating to the former as emissaries of European culture. “In every location where there is European settlement in an Asiatic or African land,” wrote Klausner, “the European government sees the settlers as pioneers in the work of civilizing, the purpose of which is to transform the quasi-savage into a civilized place. The Jews, too, came to the Land of Israel as pioneers of civilization: They have in actuality transformed sand, swamps and rocky ground into flourishing colonies and have brought the highest European culture into the neglected and declining land of quasi-savages. The Arabs hate the Jews for this: There is no place in the world where the ‘native’ will not feel loathing toward the European for the culture he has brought into the country, and in so doing has ‘ruined’ the women, the younger generation and in general the entire ‘good old’ order of things. Because of this hatred, the English have apparently became alarmed and instead of protecting the civilized people who have enriched the entire land – and above all, the Arabs – they have taken the side of the Jew-haters.”

‘Millions of redskins’

The young Benzion Netanyahu also adopted this position with regard to the Arabs and their depiction as “quasi-savages,” mainly in some of his articles in the Revisionist newspaper Hayarden, which he edited until his father’s death in 1935. In the article “The End of Silencing the Disgrace!” which was pubished in Hayarden on August 6, 1934, “B.N.” argued: “Just as the savages of Arabia hunted down Jewish refugees from Spain on the cliffs of Algeria in the 15th century, so they are now hunting the refugees from the inferno of the Diaspora at the gates to the homeland.”

In another article, “Rural Settlement and Urban Settlement” published in Hayarden in December of 1934, “B. Netanyahu” compared the Land of Israel to America, the Jews to the citizens of the United States and the Arabs to the Indians. “The conquest of the soil is one of the first and most fundamental projects of every colonization,” he wrote. “The state is not simply an arithmetic concept of the number of people but also a geographical concept. A member of the Anglo-Saxon race, who was in constant conflict with the redskins, did not content himself with establishing the huge metropolises of New York and San Francisco on the shores of the two oceans that border the United States. Along with that he strove to ensure for himself the route between those two metropolises. ... Had the conquerors of America left the lands in the hands of the Indians, there would now be at most a few European metropolises in the United States and the whole country would be inhabited by millions of redskins, as the tremendous need for agricultural produce in the European metropolises and European culture would have led to the tremendous natural population growth of the natives in the agricultural areas and ultimately they would have overrun the cities as well.”

In a short article entitled “On the Roads,” published in Hayarden on November 21, 1934, under the pseudonym “Nitai,” Netanyahu related to the news about seven armed men in the country’s center who violently robbed Arab and Jewish travelers on the road between Nablus and Jenin.  The labor federation newspaper Davar had reported on November 18 on a “new band of robbers in the Ephraim hills” and quoted one of the drivers who had been robbed. On the following day Hayarden reported “An Attack by Robbers Near Shechem,” using the biblical name not only for Nablus but also the name of the biblical locale identified with Jenin: En Ganim. The robbery, claimed Netanyahu, was proof of the danger awaiting Jews in the Land of Israel, who are concentrated in the towns, believe that their economic and security situation is safe and do not understand the extent of their own blindness. They are not aware that their situation is like that of the ancient Roman city Pompeii, which was destroyed in the 1st century C.E. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. They are not aware, he wrote, of the Arabs’ true nature, as “quasi-savages,” and their evil intentions.

“Nitai” wrote: “Every day you read in the newspapers, in all the newspapers, about a single topic, a single issue that engages the millions of citizens of the countries of the world and it is: “Weaponry! The battle lurking behind the screen of time! The terrible Day of the Lord! May it come already! ... In every place – iron! ... Only here – Olympian calm! Only here – we are fighting against ‘war’ with wonderful poetic pathos, with talk of conquests and the assault of ‘imperialismus’ – we are doing everything humanly possible except for one ‘small’ thing: We are not teaching the nation to defend itself, with the staunchest resistance when ‘the great and terrible day comes’ – which it is not within our powers to prevent! Military education abroad – unacceptable; in the Land, amidst the desert savages, between Haifa and Suez, on the crossroads to India, Egypt, Sudan – unacceptable! Only one thing is acceptable: to abandon the masses of our people to the whirlwind of human slaughter! With no defender!”

Five years later, in February of 1939, Netanyahu set out on a short journey of his own to Egypt, France and Britain. Some few months before his trip, he wrote of his disappointment with world and local politics. “I, in any case,” he wrote on July 4, 1938, in a letter to Klausner, “am still entirely inclined to bleak pessimism. I never imagined that the British would suddenly be so wicked. In this too I see Hitler’s victory, the decline of the value of Judaism in the world, the waves of cruelty, pushing us away back into the ghetto, the narrow-mindedness and profound stupidity that are dividing us from within, the final end to all of Zionism’s political plans.”

At the Extadey Hotel in central Cairo, Netanyahu wrote a number of letters to Klausner. “It has been a week now that I’ve been in Cairo and I don’t know what this city is – Oriental or Western, civilized or Levantine, Arab or a mixed rabble,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter dated February 14. “However, this I do know, that there is a need for seven whole days to become accustomed to the strange smell that fills the spaces of this city, or more precisely: After seven days your sense of smell becomes stupefied and apparently you can’t smell anything at all. And here is proof: This morning I woke up and I couldn’t smell the strange odor any more. This too is a good thing!”

‘They lounge like mice’

During his visit to Egypt, the purpose of which was to find funding for the publication of Klausner’s works, Netanyahu was disappointed by the absence of commitment to the Zionist idea on the part of the Jews there and by their own dependence on philanthropy. “May the devil take the Zionists, who made Zionism fail,” he wrote in his February 14 letter. “They don’t have a clue, those creatures, as to how a movement is created and how a nation is awakened to liberation. And creatures like them are aiming to fight Hitler! They lounge like mice on their golden dinars (the wealth here is tremendous and the Arabs will inherit it!) and they prattle about ‘the pleasure of living in Cairo’ and ‘the redemption of Israel’ in a single breath.”

In his letters from Egypt, Netanyahu hoped to gain Klausner’s trust in conducting negotiations for the translation of his works, and asked him to be patient until he returned to him with an answer. “Believe me and trust me!” he urged.

Netanyahu’s initial efforts proved futile, and in a letter he sent from Cairo on February 24, he described both his painful feeling of loneliness and his political aspirations: “My teacher and great friend, I received your letter ... and I must hereby thank you sir, once again, for your attitude toward me – the attitude of a friend, a teacher, a father. You cannot imagine how wounded I am to my very depths by the baseness of many, how great my disappointments have been – for having believed in human beings, their integrity, their friendship, the purity of their intentions – and how much inner strength I have had to husband in order to reconcile myself to those disappointments. As God is my witness, in everything I have done I have always assigned myself and my own wellbeing the lowest priority. ... In any case – I am feeling such terrible loneliness, that sometimes it is hard for me to bear it. And when into this loneliness comes the voice of my great friend, the voice abundant with integrity, trust, simplicity and wisdom, it is only natural that I am somewhat encouraged – even though my strength has never plummeted to the extent of giving up on my plans, which in my opinion are far-reaching and definitely aimed at our great national purpose.”

Netanyahu also wrote, employing a very formal register: “Good and dear friend and teacher! The truth, sir, is that I might have despaired and linked my personal life to valuable national activity. If I do not despair because of this, it is not because the crude blows with which I have been hit have not hurt me, and not because of the small amount of mental stupefaction that visionary plans encounter within us. The reason I do not despair is that I cannot find – after the spirit that my father who instilled within me from my childhood – any other point to my personal life and because I have a definite feeling – No! A clear certainty! – that I see the way to creating a large national movement and because I am able to help this in some way. May you not think, sir, that I am being arrogant. Not at all! I am certain that many do see the path this way but no one wants to make the effort to traverse it himself and lead others along it. This is the Jewish apathy that lets things move along down the old slope, this apathy that must be shaken out of us by storm.”

Adding to Netanyahu’s frustration in Cairo was his deep disappointment with Klausner’s response to his letters, which apparently expressed discontent with the way Netanyahu was depicting him to others. On March 1, 1939, Netanyahu wrote, again using very formal langauge: “Dear, exalted Prof. Klausner, I have received your letter, sir, and I am hereby replying to it at once. To my regret, I must admit, that a number of lines in it have caused me much distress. It was sad for me to read that you, sir, think I am making you into a mere ‘writer’ of the well-known sort, precisely when I am fighting like a lion here for your honor and the esteem of your unique character. ... It was sad for me to read that after I had aroused admiration for you even in circles that previously had not heard your name, sir, and had aroused general interest in the project, which these days looks like a utopia. ... I am compelled to read that I am making you a ‘writer’ and so on. ... You, sir, are mistaken of course in assessing the state of things, and this error has caused you to feel sorry for yourself and to sadden me greatly.”

Netanyahu concludes his complaint with a plea for trust: “Dear Prof. Klausner! I ask you most sincerely, sir, not to be angry and not to relate to the matter from within inner tension and impatience and – moreover – distrust. May God preserve me from such feelings, which have no place in the heart of a great individual like you, sir!”

From Cairo, Netanyahu went on to Paris and from there to London, arriving in March of 1939, half a year before the outbreak of World War II. From there, too, he reiterated in a letter dated March 15 his feelings every time he was disappointed by Klausner’s letters: “I would be delighted if you knew, sir, how dear your honor is to me, how much I guard it and how careful I am about it. Therefore I was a bit upset and also was angry. I admit this openly!”

Netanyahu perceived a positive response from Klausner to a letter of as “evidence of precious trust on your part, sir – strengthening my spirit, which has often been pricked by loathsome barbs and was in need of encouragement.”

In London, which he saw as characterized by “an atmosphere of mold,” Netanyahu did not feel well, though he was “certain that there will not be a war in the near future (at any rate, not this year). Anyone who reads the English press here can see this immediately,” he wrote to Klausner on April 5, 1939. During that period he met Ze’ev Jabotinsky, with whom he discussed the possibility of working for the Revisionist movement in the United States. He also met Celia (Zila) Ben-Tovim, who would eventually leave her husband Noah, Benzion Netanayhu’s close friend from their days at Hebrew University, and would marry Netanyahu in New York in 1944.

Netanyahu went to the United States in 1940, and before his departure, on February 25, he asked his spiritual father for a letter of recommendation. He concluded his letter thus: “Of course I will write to you en route, sir. The God that is in my heart knows what I feel for you and dear Mrs. Klausner. Your images have been engraved deeply in my heart for all the days of my life and it will be a joyful day when we meet again. Yours, dear sir, your admirer who loves you heart and soul, B. Netanyahu.”

Teacher and pupil

Klausner and Netanyahu, the teacher and the pupil, were partners in their hostility toward Arabs and in relating to them as “savages,” dangerous natives. The teacher first encountered Arabs during his trip to the Land of Israel prior to World War I. His attitude toward them, which was initially characterized by Orientalist enchantment, gradually reversed itself in the wake of the violent clashes between Jews and Arabs in the 1920s. The pupil, who had grown up in the Land of Israel in the days of the British Mandate and was younger than his teacher by more than 30 years, related to the Arabs as an enemy from the very first moment. His opinion of them did not change until the day he died.