Benzion Netanyahu, one of Israel’s founding Zionist thinkers and the father of current Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, died Monday Morning, April 30, 2012, at the age of 102.
Mr. Netanyahu was born in Warsaw, Poland on March 25, 1910. He was the son of the writer and Zionist activist, Nathan Mileikowsky. The family moved to what was then called Palestine in 1920. In that era, many of the new Jewish arrivals changed their family name to Hebrew. Benzion’s father renamed his family to Netanyahu, which is based on the Hebrew translation of Nathan (God’s Gift).
Benzion Netanyahu was married in 1944 to Tzila Segal, who pre-deceased him in 2000. They had three children: Yonatan (b. 1946), former commander of Sayeret Matkal, who was killed in action leading Operation Entebbe in 1976; Binyamin, (b. 1949), Israeli Prime Minister (1996–99, 2009–present); and Iddo (b. 1952), an Israeli physician, author and playwright.
The elder Netanyahu was a renowned historian. He specialized in the study of Jewish History in Medieval Spain and his book, “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain”, is considered to be one of the most original and important studies of the Spanish Inquisition. According to Jacob Epstein, “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.”
Mr. Netanyahu was active in Zionist politics during his university studies. He became the editor of the Revisionist Zionist daily newspaper, Ha-Yarden, in Jerusalem and when the British authorities closed the paper in 1935, he moved to New York City. In America, Netanyahu was secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the American Revisionist Zionist movement. He also found the time to study for his PhD at Dropsie College in Philadelphia (now The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies), where he wrote his dissertation on the 15th century Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier, Isaac Abrabanel.
In 1949, Netanyahu returned to the fledgling state of Israel, where he attempted to start a career in politics. He was unsuccessful as a politician and decided to concentrate on teaching. He had an acclaimed career as an educator; first at Dropsie College, where he became a professor of Hebrew language and literature, and chairman of the department, (1957–1966), then as a professor of medieval Jewish history and Hebrew literature, (1966–1968). He later taught at the University of Denver as professor of Hebraic studies, (1968–1971) and at Cornell University as professor of Judaic studies and chairman of department of Semitic languages and literature, 1971–1975.
After the death of his eldest son, Yonatan, who was killed leading the famous hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda, Benzion Netanyahu decided to once again make Israel his home. Living in Jerusalem, he continued his academic career as an associate professor at the Academy for Jewish Research, as a member of the Academy for Fine Arts, and as a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Cornell University. He also served as the Editor in Chief of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica. Benzion Netanyahu died at his home in Jerusalem, Israel, early Monday morning.
Benzion Netanyahu was a strong supporter of Greater Israel. He firmly believed in the faith and hopes of the Jewish people, which he summed up with this quote, made before the Passover Holy Days: “Through oceans of blood, our blood, through oceans of tears, our tears, hated, persecuted, beaten, wandering and homeless, we assemble at the Pessah Seder to thank God for our liberation from Egypt, and to express once again the hope of the Haggada: ‘This year we are still slaves – next year we shall be free men. Only a nation of our spiritual caliber could come through the ages of unparalleled sufferings with its spirit unbroken; still alive; still striving for liberty. Next year we shall be free men.”