Netanyahu Patriarch Dies at 102, Leaves Hawkish Legacy

On Monday morning Benzion Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister’s father, died at 102. Mitt Romney was the first American politico to send condolences to ‘my friend, Bibi,’ further solidifying the Republican contender’s image as a staunch ‘friend of Israel.’

Romney’s message:

I extend my sincere condolences to the family of Benzion Netanyahu. Not only was he the father of my friend Benjamin, the Prime Minister of Israel, and the father of Israel’s hero of the Entebbe raid, Yonatan Netanyahu, he was also a distinguished historian and leader in his own right. This is a loss for all of Israel and for all who care about Israel. 

And thus the news Monday of the elder Netanyahu’s death was quickly folded into the US presidential campaign. Recently, Mitt Romney has been referring to the Israeli Prime Minister as ‘my friend,’ and invoking memories of the short period when the two ambitious young businessmen were working for the same Boston consulting firm in the 1970s. The elder Netanyahu’s death has given Romney yet another opportunity to position himself as ‘pro-Israel’—or in his words, a champion of “all who care about Israel.” 

The implication, of course, is that Obama, and liberals in general, do not care about the Jewish state. This most recent opportunity to praise Israel’s right-wing leadership, and at the same time throw down a challenge to the White House, builds on Romney’s startling rhetorical flourish of a year ago:

President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace. He has also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.

To understand the profound influence the elder Netanyahu had on his three sons and a whole generation of right-wing Israeli cultural and political figures we need first to look at the family name, which was not Netanyahu but Mileikowski—when Benzion was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1910.

Benzion’s father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowski, whose ardent Zionism was reflected in the choice of his son’s name, Benzion (son of Zion) was both a rabbi and a Zionist, a very unusual combination in an era when most rabbis, of all persuasions, were highly skeptical about the movement and its politics. When, in 1920, Rabbi Nathan moved his family to Palestine, he “Hebraized” the family name to Netanyahu, not, as the New York Times suggests in today’s obituary page, because it means ‘God-given,’ but rather because Nathan’s name in Hebrew is ‘Natan’—from which the family name Netanyahu presents itself as an obvious choice.

Rather than see himself or his fate as ‘God-given,’ Benzion Netnayahu jettisoned almost all Jewish religious practices and beliefs and became a staunch secularist. He adopted the ideology of Revisionist Zionism articulated by Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the 1930s Zionist Revisionists, in deep disagreement with the policies of the socialist-leaning and politically pragmatic Labor Zionists, broke with the official Zionist movement and formed their own organization. Eventually, the Revisionists would form their own military organization, the Irgun—led in the mid-1940s by Menachem Begin. As one of the intellectuals of the movement Netanyahu fell out of favor with the people who were to lead Israel in the first three decades of statehood.

Though an accomplished historian and fluid writer, Netanyahu wasn’t able to get an academic job or government position in Israel. He moved to the U.S., completed a PhD in history, and taught for many years at Cornell University. He traveled frequently from the U.S. to Israel and eventually constructed a life in which he lived and worked in both countries.

In 1977 Benzion Netanyahu’s former colleague and comrade, Menachem Begin, became prime minister of Israel, and it was then that Benzion Netanyahu and other the Revisionists were able to move into positions of influence in government, media, and politics. In the decades that followed Begin’s 1977 overturn of the Israeli socialist paradigm, the Revisionists of the elder Netanyahu’s generation were too old to yield power. But their children (the so-called “Revisionist Princes,” Benjamin Netanyahu foremost among them) could contend for the prize of the prime minister’s office and win it—not only once, but in Benjamin Netanyahu’s case, for a second time.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has dismissed the speculation that his father’s ideas still hold sway over his decision-making; he has deemed all such speculation ‘psychobabble.’ But reading what his father Benzion had to say in a 2009 interview with Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, one can only wonder:

The tendency to conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn’t matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price he will pay. His existence is one of perpetual war. The Arab citizens’ goal is to destroy us. They don’t deny that they want to destroy us.

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