In all of our many conversations that took place over the better part of the past decade, I never asked Prof. Benzion Netanyahu what led him to become an historian. Certainly it was a function of his concern for his nation and his recognition that our very existence hung in the balance. Certainly, too, it was a function of his insatiable intellectual curiosity.
I don’t know whether his decision was the function of a specific event or simply a natural progression of his life’s path. But through the lessons that he taught me both directly, and through the books he wrote, I can understand why once he embarked on his journey into Jewish history, the path he eventually took became inevitable.
Netanyahu died April 30th at the age of 102.
A good place to begin a study of his long life and its impact on his actions is with his first major work, his biography of Don Issac Abravanel, the leader of the Jews of Spain at the time of Spain’s final expulsion of the community in 1492. Abravanel was an extraordinary scholar of philosophy and Jewish teachings as well as a financial genius. The former brought him renown among his people. The latter attracted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain and the leaders of Italian city states.
One of the shocking aspects of the tragic end of the Jewish community in Spain is that Abravanel, and his fellow communal leaders failed to anticipate the expulsion order. For all of his proximity to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Abravanel had no idea that they were planning to expel the Jews and so was unable to either cancel the expulsion decree or to make preparations for the community to move to another land.
In his biography, Netanyahu described the exiled Jews of Spain as they sought and were denied refuge in port after port.
In his words (translated from the Hebrew edition): “On 24 August 1492 nine caravel ships arrived in the Port of Napoli bearing expelled Jews from Spain. The journey from Spain was one of continuous suffering. The ship owners were unsympathetic, cruel and greedy. The ships were overloaded and lacked sufficient food. The sanitary conditions invited disease, and the plague quickly spread among the passengers. All these conditions left the expelled in a state of abject penury after weeks of suffering. The historian Genovani, who saw some of these exiles when their ship passed through his town’s port, wrote, ‘It was possible to mistake them for ghosts; they were so hollow; their looks were so frigid, their eyes so sunken in their sockets. They looked just like the dead, aside from the fact that with great difficulty, they were still able to move.'”
Netanyahu proceeded to do the only thing he could, when faced with this description. He made the comparison between the plight of the expelled Jews from Spain, and the Jews of Europe during and after the Holocaust. And from this direct line of suffering, one can begin to understand not only the continuity of the form of Jewish suffering – but the continuity of the persecution of the Jews over the course of the long exile that began in 70 CE with the destruction of the Second Temple.
Netanyahu’s research into the life of Abravanel led him to his most important historical discovery. While working in one of the libraries in Spain, he came across the writings of Jewish leaders in Spain from the years leading up to the Inquisition and expulsion in 1492. He discovered that in the early and mid-15th century, the Jewish community hated and feared the former Jews who were forcibly converted en masse to Christianity during the first state offensive against the Jews in 1391.
Until Netanyahu came across these writings, he shared the popular view that the so-called Conversos were heroes who led a double life. On the outside, they were Christian, but they remained Jews in secret.
What he discovered was that this heroic posture lasted at most one generation. The children of the Conversos were enthusiastic Catholics. Many rose to power in the Catholic Church.
Whereas the Jews who remained in Spain after 1391 were by and large a pitiful, impoverished remnant of what had once been a magnificent community, the Conversos quickly became the leaders of Spain, and in so doing, angered their fellow Catholic Spaniards who envied their success.
Netanyahu’s findings led to his revolutionary conclusion that the Spanish Inquisition did not target the Jews as a religion, but the Jews as a race. Most of those who died by Torquemada’s sword were loyal Catholics whose only crime was their possession of Jewish blood. The real Jews were not killed. They were expelled. His conclusion from his finding was that there was nothing unique or new about the Nazis’ racial and genocidal hatred of the Jews.
Netanyahu’s intellectual journey shaped and sharpened his perception of the Jewish condition. It fortified his conviction that Zionism is the only means of securing the lives of Jews as individuals and the existence of the Jewish nation. Netanyahu’s Zionism was not a hyphenated one. It was not Labor Zionism, like the Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and his socialist followers. It was not religious Zionism, like that of the Lovers of Zion movement which formed the core of the initial modern Jewish settlement drive in the Land of Israel.
He learned from the early Zionist leader Yehuda Pinsker’s seminal pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation, that Zionism rejects utopianism. Netanyahu’s own lesson from the Spanish Inquisition is that for Jews, assimilation is as much of a utopian path as socialism. As Pinsker, and later Theodor Herzl made clear, the only way for Jews to be redeemed is by doing it themselves.
In his study of Pinkser from 1944, Netanyahu wrote, “Pinsker thought that normal relations between national groupings are not based on mutual affection but on mutual respect.”
According to Pinsker, what distinguished exile Jews from all other nations was the Jews’ failure to understand this basic truth. For the Zionist movement to succeed in liberating the Jews, its leaders needed to demand and command the respect – not the sympathy – of other nations.
As Netanyahu showed in his 1937 article on Herzl’s Zionist doctrine, Herzl, the man who built the diplomatic and legal edifice upon which the State of Israel was created, believed that Zionism rested on two essential foundations: international recognition of the Jews’ right to sovereignty over the Land of Israel; and Jewish military capacity to defend those sovereign rights.
Until his death in 1904, Herzl worked feverishly to build international recognition of the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel in its maximalist borders – from the Nile Delta to the Euphrates River. As Herzl understood, it is much harder to secure international recognition of sovereign rights than it is to give them up, and once they are renounced, they are all but impossible to regain.
What Herzl found was that it was much easier to secure international recognition of the rights of the Jewish people than it is to convince the Jews to muster the courage to demand, seize and defend those rights.
Netanyahu wrote his study of Herzl at the same time as the Zionist leadership in pre-state Israel was debating Britain’s Peel Commission’s partition plan. Although it provided for the establishment of a tiny, indefensible Jewish statelet, the plan involved Jewish renunciation of their sovereign rights to the overwhelming majority of the land they had lawfully received sovereign title to under the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. That sovereign title included all of present day Israel as well as Judea and Samaria, and arguably present-day Jordan as well.
Netanyahu argued that the tragedy of Zionism is that the leaders who took over after Herzl’s death – first and foremost Ahad Ha’am and Chaim Weizmann – lacked the courage to demand the rights of their nation, preferring to be loved than respected.
Lamenting this failure of will and what it was liable to mean for the future of the Jews as the drums of the next war grew ever stronger, Netanyahu wrote that the one thing that Herzl worked towards but failed to achieve was to change “the character of the nation.”
“This change,” he wrote, “which Herzl believed was critical, was not manifested in the spirit of its leaders, or more precisely, in the spirit of those, who conducted negotiations in the name of the Jewish people, and afterwards managed its affairs. When it was necessary to demonstrate the courage of a sovereign, which Herzl spoke of, when it was necessary to dare and demand from the world the Jewish State and sovereignty over that state, the nation’s representatives issued no such demand.”
In the end, despite Netanyahu’s reiteration of Herzl’s warning, the Zionist leadership accepted the Peel Commission’s partition plan, just as 10 years later they accepted the UN Partition Plan.
Fortunately for their ill-served nation, their willingness to renounce the Jews’ sovereign rights under the League of Nations Mandate was never binding, because the Arabs rejected the plans and so rendered them null and void. The Jewish nation’s sovereign rights to the Land of Israel remain in force today.
In 2005, Netanyahu republished his profiles of Pinsker and Herzl, as well as profiles on Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which were written between 1937 and 1981, as one collection. He called this book of essays The Founding Fathers of Zionism.
In his introduction to the collection, Netanyahu wrote, “The articles included in this book were written decades ago. They are published here as first written because I saw no reason to correct them….”
And he was right.
Zangwill once wrote, “The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.”
The challenges the world Netanyahu departed last week present to the Jews bear striking similarities to those that faced the Jews throughout our history, and certainly since the dawn of modern Zionism. Unlike the options Abravanel had to weigh, since the dawn of modern Zionism, our leaders have had the option of demanding and commanding the respect of the nations of the world and so securing the lives of the Jews and nationhood of the Jewish people in our land.
Today the heirs of the failed utopian movements of the last century have joined forces with the jihadist heirs of the Mufti of Jerusalem to deny the Jewish people our sovereign rights to our land. If they succeed they will finally and irrevocably destroy Herzl’s greatest achievement.
The most ardent hope that comes through clearly in Netanyahu’s life work is that the Jews find a leader of Herzl’s stature, capable of demanding and commanding the world’s recognition and respect for our rights, and the ability to finish Herzl’s work by convincing the Jewish people that it is our right and our duty to assert and secure our destiny in our land.