March 25, 1910, is the birthdate of Benzion Netanyahu, the late historian of Spanish Jewry, disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and father – as well as ideological guide – of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Benzion spent much of his intellectual career outside the mainstream, but in the last decades of his long life, people began to pay more attention to his work and pronouncements, in part in the hope of gaining insight into the intentions of his son. If there was a change, however, it was in the society that surrounded the elder Netanyahu; he remained consistent and true to himself to the end.
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Benzion Mileikowsky was born in Warsaw, then under imperial Russian rule. He was the eldest of nine children of the former Sarah Lurie and Nathan Mileikowsky. Nathan was a rabbi, educator and Zionist activist who traveled frequently in Europe and the United States, lecturing about the cause.
In 1920 the Mileikoswkys made aliyah to Palestine, where, after an initial period in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Nathan became principal of a school in Rosh Pina, in the northern Galilee. He also continued writing about the Zionist cause, sometimes using the pen name “Netanyahu,” which his children later adopted as their family name.
In 1924, the family moved to Jerusalem. Benzion enrolled at the Hebrew Institute for Teachers (later the David Yellin College), before moving on to the Hebrew University to study history. It was during this period that he became actively involved in the political movement led by Jabotinsky.
In June 1933, Haim Arlozorov, the influential director of the political department of the Jewish Agency, was murdered, and three radical Revisionists were charged with the crime. One of them was Abba Ahimeir, a close friend of Benzion’s. Nathan Mileikowsky organized a defense organization for the group, and was assisted by his son in his efforts. (All three of the defendants were ultimately acquitted.)
After graduating from Hebrew University in 1933, Benzion began working as a journalist and editor, among other places at the Revisionist monthly Betar and then as editor of the daily Hayarden, until it was shut down by the British mandatory authorities.
In 1939, having persuaded Jabotinsky to pursue his efforts to create a Jewish state from New York (rather than London), Benzion joined him there and became his secretary. He remained in New York after Jabotinsky’s death in 1940, becoming the head of the New Zionist Organization. At the same time, he pursued a doctorate in Jewish history at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning.
But Benzion did not succeed in getting an academic appointment in Israel. Until he left the United States once and for all, returning to Israel in 1977, he moved back and forth between the two countries. During that time, Benzion held appointments at Dropsie, Cornell and the University of Denver. He also was an editor of the Encylopaedia Judaica.
Benzion Netanyahu was not sanguine about the possibility of Israel ever being accepted by the Arab world. In 2009 he told Maariv that the “vast majority” of Israel’s Arab citizens “would choose to exterminate us if they had the option to do so.”
A similarly dark view of humanity informed what is almost universally acknowledged as a great work of scholarship, his 1,400-page magnum opus from 1995, “Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain.” In it, he posited that the large numbers of Spanish Jews who converted in the century before the 1492 expulsion did so intending to live as Christians and integrate into Catholic society. His research convinced him that the numbers who secretly remained Jews were limited, and that the Inquisition was established because of the blood-based racial hatred that really characterized Catholic Spain.
In 1944, Benzion Netanyahu married Cela Segal, a London-trained lawyer who relinquished a career to raise the couple’s three sons: Yonatan, who died at age 30, in 1976, while leading the Israeli army raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to free the hostages being held there by Palestinian terrorists; Benjamin, born 1949; and Iddo, a physician and playwright, who divides his time between Israel and New York.
Benzion Netanyahu died at his home in Jerusalem on April 30, 2012. He was 102. His middle son did better than widely expected in a national election last week and will apparently soon be starting his fourth stint as Israel’s prime minister.