The historian Benzion Netanyahu, who died today at 102, was sometimes asked to explain the miracle of Jewish survival through millenniums of persecution. Netanyahu -- the father of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin -- would answer the question in a way his interlocutors did not at all expect.
“The Jews didn’t survive,” he would say. About 1,900 years ago, he would explain, there were about 9 million Jews in a world population of roughly 300 million. Today, there are about 13 million Jews in a world of 7 billion. How is it that the number of Jews has stayed essentially stagnant, even as global population has grown exponentially?
Persecution, he explained, has driven the Jews nearly to extinction. So many murdered, so many forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, so many choosing the dubious path of assimilation as a defense against hatred and isolation. The Jews of today, he said, are a remnant of a remnant. It wasn’t merely the German Holocaust, but a “history of holocausts,” that brought the Jewish people to such a debased position.
This forlorn outlook shaped Netanyahu’s hard-right politics. As Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset, put it today, “With Benzion there was no place for compromise, and for that reason he sometimes showed displeasure with needs that his son had as a politician, both in the United Nations and as a person who was elected to serve as the prime minister of Israel.”
Was Benzion Netanyahu simply a paranoid who saw the half- full glass of Jewish history as entirely empty, or was he a clear-eyed realist with a tragic understanding about the eternal nature of anti-Semitism? The answer helps inform the debate about two surpassingly important questions in Middle East politics today. The first is whether Iran ultimately plans to try to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons; the second is whether the Arabs actually want to achieve a political compromise with Israel.
The prime minister derides the idea that he is simply a vehicle for his father’s militancy. At a meeting shortly after I wrote an article about their relationship, Benjamin Netanyahu asked me, only half-smiling, “Are you going to be doing more psychoanalysis today?” But it is possible to see Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the Holocaust -- he is very forthright in comparing a theoretical Iranian nuclear weapon to the reality of Auschwitz -- as a reflection of his father’s basic understandings of the world.
Benzion Netanyahu was a foremost scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, and he revolutionized his field by arguing convincingly that the Spanish weren’t motivated by religious feeling, but by racial hatred. In other words, conversion wasn’t enough to save the Jews: The Spanish hated the idea of Jewish blood mixing with their own. The Inquisition, then, presaged the Holocaust. He believed that physical acts of anti-Semitism are always preceded by years of hate-filled rhetoric meant to desensitize the world to the coming slaughter.
Thus Netanyahu, like his son, saw it as a foregone conclusion that Iran seeks to build a nuclear weapon with genocide in mind. But unlike his son, Netanyahu thought that Iran should have been attacked long ago. “From the Iranian side, we hear pledges that soon -- in a matter of days, even -- the Zionist movement will be put to an end and there will be no more Zionists in the world,” he said at a party marking his 100th birthday. “The Jewish people are making their position clear and putting faith in their military power. The nation of Israel is showing the world today how a state should behave when it stands before an existential threat: by looking danger in the eye and calmly considering what should be done and what can be done. And to be ready to enter the fray at the moment there is a reasonable chance of success.”
The elder Netanyahu was similarly militant on questions of compromise with the Palestinians. Just as he saw the Iranians bent on committing genocide, he saw the Palestinians and their Arab allies singularly focused on the destruction of Israel. He described the coming confrontation to an interviewer in 2009: “They won’t be able to face war with us, which will include withholding food from Arab cities, preventing education, terminating electrical power and so on. They won’t be able to exist, and they will run away from here. But it all depends on war, and whether we will win the battles with them.”
Netanyahu stood at the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, but his understanding of history is shared by many of his fellow citizens. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, himself a historian of note, told me today that he believes “Israeli society has internalized the interpretations of history of Benzion Netanyahu, that is, that Jews are hated not because of their beliefs but because of their peoplehood, and that anti-Semitism is an undying and powerful presence in history.” Oren went on, “He also believed that the Jewish people alone bear the responsibility of defending themselves. That is the clarion message of his life.”
Many Israelis have argued that Netanyahu’s death would eventually allow his son to show more willingness to compromise on Iran’s nuclear program and on Palestinian statehood. But we shouldn’t expect to see immediate or radical change. Many people underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu’s sincerity: He appears to truly believe that Iran poses a Nazi-like threat, and he doubts Palestinians seek something less than the entirety of Palestine.
He is a man very much shaped by his father, and his father’s worldview has helped shape the Israel of today.
But there is an opportunity: Benjamin Netanyahu, precisely because he is the son of a man like Benzion, is the only Israeli politician today who could deliver the majority of Israel’s Jewish population to a painful compromise with the Palestinians. He is also one of the few whose endorsement of a deal between Tehran and Washington over the Iranian nuclear program -- a deal that would allow the Iranians to have a supervised civilian program, for instance -- would allay the concerns of even more hawkish Israelis. The average Israeli trusts that Netanyahu would not sell out their interests for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Israel’s security depends in part on Benzion Netanyahu- style vigilance and militancy. But it also depends on recognizing that the Jews of today are not the Jews of 1938, and that Jewish history is not preordained to repeat itself forever.