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.
It was this perfunctory acceptance by historians of the perpetrators’ word that attracted Benzion to the subject. Why should the murderers and thieves who led the Inquisition be believed? Benzion’s great achievement is to have shown that the allegations of clandestine Judaism were a pretext. He proves beyond a doubt that by the end of the 15th century all but a handful of conversos were true Catholics, integrated into the mainstream of Spanish society. Many held high positions in church, state, law, and the military, and this was the problem, for these positions were coveted by their envious “full-blooded,” so-called Old Christian, rivals. Benzion shows that the conversos were tortured, killed, and their property seized not for their secret Judaism, for which there is scant evidence, but for their ancestral blood: the inescapable otherness of Jews. Limpieza de sangre—purity of the blood—was the unspoken issue that explains the attack upon the conversos. For the Old Christians these conversos remained a resented alien minority. Benzion also shows that it was King Ferdinand himself who instigated the Inquisition not only to augment royal revenues depleted by his imperial wars but, more significantly, to strengthen his alliance with the Old Christian majority. The conversos were punished not for their faith but for their blood and their achievements.
The significance of this discovery for later generations of assimilated Jews and their racist antagonists is self-evident. The Office of the Inquisition in Spain survived until the 19th century, and its conditions—for example, that a single Jewish grandparent conferred Jewish blood—were later embedded in Nuremberg law. Benzion’s aim however was not to exploit the Inquisition as a warning to assimilationists but to clarify a persistent and profound historical falsification.
As happens often upon the publication of a radical revision of accepted theory the first reviews of Benzion’s book were predictably marked by faint praise and underlying resentment by traditional historians of the Inquisition. Some of this resentment probably arose from Benzion’s impolitic but principled refusal to acknowledge recent scholarship, which simply repeated standard misconceptions. (See, for example, Wikipedia on the subject: “the monarchs decided to introduce the Inquisition to discover and punish crypto-Jews.”) But the tide soon turned. Even before publication Benzion was able to mention in his preface that the “celebrated historian … Cecil Roth, who had stood for the thesis of Marrano Judaism, retreated from his own much publicized position and embraced more or less the same view of the Marranos that I had presented in my studies of the subject.” Then the great scholar Henry Kamen wrote in a lengthy review that Benzion’s conclusions regarding the conversos “which are central to [his] entire argument seem to me wholly convincing.” Professor Bennett D. Hill of Georgetown called the book “the finest study of the Inquisition to appear in this or arguably any century.”
It often happens that book editors who spend years working with an author begin to think of themselves as something more than midwives if less than collaborators. The process requires, in addition to tactfulness, immersion in the author’s subject and care that the narrative is intelligible to nonspecialized readers. The book’s success is the editor’s reward. A greater reward is the learning acquired as the editor becomes familiar with the author’s material. I hope I will not seem presumptuous therefore if I reprint a note sent to me by Benzion on his publication day:
Dear Jason: This is a great day for me and today, more than at other times, I feel the need to tell you that I well remember your instant grasp of my new historical concept, your insightful understanding of its various aspects, and the enormous effort you made in behalf of the book, editorially and otherwise. I cannot make it clear enough how grateful I am to you. My heartfelt congratulations and best wishes.
But it was not an enormous effort, or even an effort at all, but the rarest of pleasures to work with this great scholar and to ignore the vast and immovable political divide between us for the sake of a scholarly revolution and the friendship that followed.
The Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy is being smeared as an imperialist for calling out gender apartheid in the Mideast. She’s dead right.