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Why Netanyahu Gave Pope Francis His Father’s History of the Spanish Inquisition

It might seem undiplomatic, but it was actually pretty clever.

Yair Rosenberg
December 02, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis at the Vatican, on December 2, 2013.(Flickr)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis at the Vatican, on December 2, 2013.(Flickr)

Today, Benjamin Netanyahu had an audience with Pope Francis in Rome, where he invited the supreme pontiff to Israel and presented him with a variety of gifts. One of them, as you can see in the photo above, was a Spanish translation of a history of the Spanish Inquisition, written by Bibi’s late father, Ben Zion Netanyahu. At first glance, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain looks like a rather awkward selection. After all, when visiting with the pope, it’s probably best not to remind him of his institution’s role in the infamous persecution and torture of innocent Jews. Certain things would seem better left unsaid on state visits.

But this isn’t your typical history of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, Ben Zion Netanyahu’s revisionist account of the event was so controversial that when he passed away in April 2012, the New York Times chronicled the debate over it in his obituary. Understanding the book’s unique argument enables us to understand why Netanyahu chose to give such an ostensibly undiplomatic gift to the Pope. The Times recounts:

As a historian, Mr. Netanyahu reinterpreted the Inquisition in “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” (1995). The predominant view had been that Jews were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion after pretending to convert to Roman Catholicism. Mr. Netanyahu, in 1,384 pages, offered evidence that most Jews in Spain had willingly become Catholics and were enthusiastic about their new religion.

Jews were persecuted, he concluded — many of them burned at the stake — for being perceived as an evil race rather than for anything they believed or had done. Jealousy over Jews’ success in the economy and at the royal court only fueled the oppression, he wrote. The book traced what he called “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity.

In other words, Ben Zion Netanyahu’s argument shifted the root blame for the Inquisition from religion to ingrained racial animus–from the spiritual to the secular. If one was going to give the pope a book about the Inquisition, then, this would be the one. Moreover, not only does the book’s revisionist reckoning partially absolve Christianity for Spanish persecution of the Jews, it offers a contemporary message of pressing relevance. At a time when Christian anti-Semitism has receded–evidenced not least by the friendly relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel–secular and racial forms of anti-Semitism have been on the rise, particularly in Europe, where a nearly a quarter of Jews say they are afraid to publicly identify as Jewish. The anti-Semitism diagnosed by Ben Zion Netanyahu is alive and well.

The elder Netanyahu’s account of the Inquisition then, whatever its merits as a reconstruction of the past, serves as a powerful warning about the dangers lurking in the present–one that his son doubtless intended to convey.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.