The Zionist Organization of America mourns his passing
By Morton Klein, President
Monday, April 30, 2012 (The 8th of Iyar, 5772)
Professor Benzion Netanyahu passed away today in Jerusalem at the age of 102. Professor Netanyahu, a world-renowned scholar of Jewish history, was the father of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, who was killed leading the 1976 Entebbe rescue mission and Dr. Iddo Netanyahu, the distinguished radiologist and writer. In 1940, Professor Netanyahu served as secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism.
Born in Warsaw in 1910, Benzion Netanyahu received his BA from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his PhD from Dropsie College in Philadelphia, where he later became a professor and later still head of the Department of Language and Literature. He took up a professorial post at Cornell and later became head of Cornell’s Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures. While living in Israel, he became chief editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. His magnum opus, the 1,400-page Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, completely altered our understanding of the history of the Jews in Spain.
In the United States, Professor Netanyahu served as the executive director of the New Zionist Organization of America during the 1940s, making him a prominent Revisionist Zionist activist in the United States. He was also editor of the group’s biweekly U.S. publication, Zionnews.
In one editorial, he wrote of Jewish suffering through the ages had failed to break the connection between Jews and their faith: “Through oceans of blood, our blood, through oceans of tears, our tears, hated, persecuted, beaten, wandering and homeless, we assemble at the Pesach 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.” (‘Benzion Netanyahu to be laid to rest in Jerusalem,’ Jerusalem Post, April 30, 2012).
In 2007, at the age of 98, Benzion Netanyahu flew from Israel to New York to be keynote speaker at the ZOA’s Louis Brandeis Dinner. After being introduced by Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News & World Report and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Professor Netanyahu stated to the 1,000 plus crowd, “I know you are working against heavy currents towards dissolution and dismemberment [of Israel] and this occurred in the days of President Truman. We had to work hard then to overcome opposition, lack of interest, and the disbelief of American Jews. You, too, have experienced this situation and you have managed to overcome the first obstacle which is always the worst. I hope you will not falter. Compared to the past, your task is considerably easier … It is vital not to tolerate a [Palestinian] terrorist state in any way or form. This is first in importance. This is why your president must first concentrate on the fulfillment of this commitment, without which we cannot solve any issue … This is the greatest Zionist meeting I have ever attended since the days of Jabotinsky. It was something to see such enthusiasm for Zionism from the crowd. It made me more optimistic.”
ZOA President Morton A. Klein said, “I am personally deeply saddened by the passing of Prof. Benzion Netanyahu” “I am proud and privileged to have been able to call Prof. Netanyahu my friend. Almost every week, we had long conversations about the ongoing Arab war against Israel. His thoughts were always strong, principled, and insightful. But he remained a kind and loving gentleman, always offering me tea and cake at his home in Jerusalem and discussing our families and my work.
“He was very proud of his sons, praising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his brilliance, his oratorical skills, and for his political acumen. He once proudly told me that in 1967, while living in Philadelphia, his sons wanted to leave high school during exams to go fight in the 1967 war – Prof. Netanyahu pleaded with them to stay and complete their exams – but their love of Zion and commitment to Israel caused them to leave and fight for the Jewish State.
“Prof. Netanyahu told me of the gratitude he felt of the frequent visits of his sons to his home in Jerusalem. The Prime Minister took time off from his busy schedule to visit his father regularly.
“Prof. Netanyahu often complained to me that Jewish leadership throughout the world wasn’t strong nor courageous enough – but explained that as a Jewish historian, he knew that this was true throughout Jewish history, not just during this era.
“Over the 17 years that I knew him, he predicted Oslo would never bring peace; that the Gaza withdrawal would never bring peace; and that Arafat and Abbas had no interest in real peace. Painfully, he was right about all of that.
“He told me that his greatest Jewish heroes of the 20th century were Theodore Herzl and Vladimir Jabotinsky.“I told him that he, Professor Netanyahu, was a personal hero to me. I loved Professor Netanyahu and will miss him terribly.”