Benzion Netanyahu’s History
The Israeli scholar, and the prime minister’s father, died today in his Jerusalem home. He was my political opposite, but also my teacher and friend.
The article was originally published in Tablet Magazine on July 6, 2010. His New York Times obituary is here.
There can be few friendships stranger than Benzion Netanyahu’s and mine, for on the urgent question of Israel’s security we could not be more opposed. Benzion, a disciple and former secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and to this day an uncompromising Zionist Revisionist, believes that the State of Israel should occupy both banks of the Jordan, presumably by force. At the time of the Oslo Accords, when my wife and I visited Benzion, surrounded by his books in his comfortable Jerusalem home, he denounced the accords as “the beginning of the end of the Jewish State” and admonished his son Bibi, then as now prime minister, for having relinquished Hebron to the Palestine Authority under the agreement. For me, on the other hand, Oslo promised an end to a futile quarrel in which both sides stood to lose their homes and their souls. The predictable collapse of Oslo proved both of us wrong, me in my hopefulness, Benzion in his prophecy of doom. It was Benzion’s Revisionist tenacity that led Menachim Begin of all people to accuse him of right-wing extremism. Unmoved by this criticism, Benzion scorned Begin in a conversation with me as a weakling, a compromiser. Yitzak Shamir was beneath his contempt. Yet my admiration for Benzion is akin to love, and I like to think these feelings are to some degree reciprocated.
For Benzion, the Arabs are implacable enemies. For me, they are indispensable partners who with their Jewish counterparts might once have created—and perhaps still may find the wisdom to create—a flourishing bi-national state, an exemplary multiethnic enclave within a stable Middle East or, failing that, a two-state solution. If my position underestimates the dark side of human nature, Benzion’s ignores the futility and horror—the sadness—of a military solution. Since our immovable polarity is understood by both of us our discussions of Middle East politics tend to be brief. Our affection flourishes on different ground.
This unlikely friendship began by chance in the late 1970s when my friend Herman Wouk called me at Random House to suggest that I publish a book of letters by Jonathan Netanyahu, the heroic leader of the Entebbe raiders and their only fatality. Herman said the letters were remarkable, and when I read the manuscript I agreed. Jonathan was an articulate and sensitive young soldier whose modest tone hardly comported with his Homeric military exploits. I was struck however by an unexpected apocalyptic note: “any”—not just a, but any—“compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t want to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish state in the twentieth century as … a transient episode in the thousands of years of wandering, I wanted to hold on here with all my might.” When these letters were written an Arab-Israeli compromise still seemed barely possible. That this soft-spoken hero should see no such hope was puzzling. I would soon discover the source of his iron determination.
On one of his frequent trips to New York Benzion stopped at Random House to discuss the publication of Jonathan’s letters. The meeting with a proud and grieving father that I had expected to occupy an hour instead lasted most of the afternoon, prompted by my having asked about his own work, which I had been told had something to do with the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. His answer led to one the proudest moments of my publishing career, the publication some 15 years later of his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. The 1,400-page work of scholarship overturned centuries of misunderstanding, and predictably it was faintly praised and in a few cases angrily denounced or simply ignored by a threatened scholarly establishment. Dispassionate scholars soon prevailed, and today Benzion’s brilliant revisionist achievement towers over the field of Inquisition studies. The iron will that sustained Jonathan on the battlefield sustained his father in his lifelong campaign to uncover the actual origin and cause of the assault upon the third generation of Spain’s Christianized Jews—the so-called conversos—by the Spanish Inquisition.
I have always considered my work in publishing an extension of my formal education, in which my authors were the faculty and their work my curriculum. Whatever I have learned I have learned from them. The prevailing scholarship of the Inquisition had accepted the word of the Inquisition itself that its aim was to exterminate as heretics the conversos, otherwise known as New Christians or Marrranos, to use Benzion’s favored term. These were descendants of Spanish Jews who at the end of the 14th century had been forced to convert to Catholicism or face death. Now, a century later, the Inquisition claimed that many of these third-generation descendants were secretly still committed to their ancestral Judaism, therefore Catholic in name only and a polluting influence upon true Christians. Thus they could be tortured, dispossessed of their property, and in some cases murdered as heretics. The scholarly consensus accepted these dubious charges as true.
The Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy is being smeared as an imperialist for calling out gender apartheid in the Mideast. She’s dead right.