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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.

Jason Epstein
April 30, 2012
Benzion Netanyahu and his son Benjamin, then Likud party leader, meeting in Benzion’s Jerusalem home on election day, February 8, 2009.(Michal Fattal/Likud via Getty Images)
Benzion Netanyahu and his son Benjamin, then Likud party leader, meeting in Benzion’s Jerusalem home on election day, February 8, 2009.(Michal Fattal/Likud via Getty Images)

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.

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.

Jason Epstein was a founder of The New York Review of Books and co-founder with the late Edmund Wilson of the Library of America.

Jason Epstein was a founder of The New York Review of Books and co-founder with the late Edmund Wilson of the Library of America.

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