The death of Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, aged 102, was announced by the office of his son, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, early Monday, April 30.
A historian of note, editor of the Hebrew encyclopedia, professor and lifelong Zionist, Prof. Netanyahu believed that Jews would never be free of discrimination and that efforts to compromise with Arabs were bound to fail.
Until a year ago, Prof. Netanyahu was academically active and had begun working on his memoirs.
In 1940, he became secretary to Zeev Jabotinsky, founder of the “revisionist” Zionist movement, which broke away from the mainstream as too conciliatory to the British who ruled Palestinian and to the Arabs.
A successful lobbyist for a Jewish state as a young man in America, he once said that all US administrations are anti-Israel unlike the American people which has a close affinity to the Jewish state.
The young Netanyahu opposed the UN 1947 resolution which partitioned Palestine. In 1948, after independence, he brought his family to Jerusalem and tried unsuccessfully to enter politics. During the 1950s and 1960s the family lived alternately in Israel and the US, where Prof. Benzion taught at Dropsie, the University of Denver and Cornell, as described by the New York Times in a long obituary dedicated to Benzion Netanyahu’s life and works.
His researches into the roots of the Spanish Inquisition led to the radical conclusion he published in 1995 in his book, “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” that the “Anussim” (Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism under duress while secretly practicing their religion) were in fact willing assimilationists, who were later persecuted as a race and for their economic success – not their beliefs. Another book traced “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt.
In the 1960s, Prof. Netanyahu edited the Encyclopedia Hebraica and the World History of the Jewish People.
In 1976, his eldest son, Maj. Jonathan (Yoni) died in a daring rescue operation he commanded to rescue 100 Jewish and Israel hostages on an Air France jet held hostage by Palestinian and German Baader-Mainhoff terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
The late scholar, an uncompromising hawk, consistently denied he influenced the thinking and decisions of his son, Binyamin, now serving his second term as prime minister. But paternal influence behind the scenes was undeniable, just as the father, born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw on March 25, 1910, was the product of his father, a rabbi who went around Europe and America making pro-Zionist speeches.
He is survived by two sons, Binyamin and Iddo, a radiologist and writer. His wife died in 2000.
Prof. Benzion Netanyahu will be laid to rest on Har Hamenuhot at 17:00 hours Sunday, April 30.