Benzion Netanyahu, historian, Zionist activist and influential father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, died Monday in his Jerusalem home. He was 102.
His son, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, managed to visit him one last time on Sunday night.
The elder Netanyahu was scheduled to be laid to rest at 5 p.m. (Israel time) at the Givat Shaul (Har Hamenuhot) cemetery in Jerusalem in a public ceremony.
Benzion Netanyahu was born Benzion Mileikowsky on March 25, 1910, in Warsaw, Poland. His father, Nathan, a rabbi, moved the family to Palestine in 1920 and changed its name to Netanyahu.
Professor Netanyahu was among the great historians of the Jewish people. In his research, he focused on the history of the medieval Spanish Jewish community and the history of Zionism. Among his books are a biography of Don Isaac Abravanel, a history of the Spanish Marranos (forced converts to Christianity who secretly continued to practice Judaism) and his major work, "The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain," which received global acclaim. He also authored "The Founding Fathers of Zionism" about the lives of the founders of political Zionism – Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill and Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Netanyahu was also an expert on anti-Semitism and a great supporter of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who advocated Jewish military strength and the establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. During his decades-long career, Netanyahu also edited the "Encyclopedia Judaica," "The World History of the Jewish People" and the "Encyclopedia Hebraica."
During the Second World War, Netanyahu lived in New York, where he served as one of the leaders of the Revisionist Zionist movement in the U.S.
In 1939, Netanyahu traveled to London to persuade Jabotinsky to relocate to the U.S., due to the belief it would be a rising global power and that it would be possible to mobilize support for the Jewish state from there. Jabotinsky died in 1940, shortly after their arrival in the U.S. Netanyahu continued to raise support for the Jewish state throughout the war and afterward.
He met with many U.S. Jewish leaders at the time, as well as with senators, congressmen, authors, poets and other dignitaries, including Dean Acheson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Upon the establishment of Israel, he returned from the U.S. and moved with his young family to Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood. He dedicated himself to his research, with the help of his wife Tzila, a native of Petach Tikva who was his life partner for more than 50 years. In 1952, the Netanyahu family moved to its home at 4 Haportzim Street in Jerusalem, where he passed away early this morning.
Due to his academic career, Netanyahu's family frequently moved between the U.S. and Israel. Netanyahu edited right-wing Jewish publications in the U.S. and earned a Ph.D in history from Dropsie College in Philadelphia. Later, he was a professor of Jewish history and Hebrew literature at the University of Denver and Cornell University, where he served as chairman of the department of Semitic languages and literature.
He was best known in academic circles for his research into the Spanish Inquisition against the Jews of Spain. His best known work was "Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain," an opus in which he argued that the crackdown on Jews was driven by racial hatred rather than just religious zeal.
Netanyahu also disagreed with scholars who argued that the Marranos secretly kept practicing Judaism after being forced to convert. Instead, he believed those Jews were assimilationists and converted of their own volition, and that the Marrano myth was fostered during the Inquisition as an attempt to prove broader resistance.
Netanyahu and Tzila had three sons: Yonatan, Benjamin and Iddo, all of whom served in the same elite Israeli military commando unit. Yonatan, known as Yoni, commanded the Sayeret Matkal unit and was killed in action during a daring 1976 hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda.
Following his death, the elder Netanyahu returned to Israel full-time. His middle son Benjamin, nicknamed Bibi, went into politics and was elected prime minister of Israel in 1996 and again in 2009. Iddo, the youngest of the three, is a radiologist and writer.
Netanyahu is believed to have had great influence over his son Benjamin Netanyahu's politics and openly criticized him when his government made concessions toward the Palestinians.
Several analysts speculated that Benjamin Netanyahu was emotionally unable to sign off on a comprehensive peace deal with Israel's Arabs neighbors as long as his father was still alive, a notion the prime minister dismissed as "psychobabble."
In newspaper interviews late in life, Benzion Netanyahu was forceful in his skepticism of Middle East peace.
"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," he told the Maariv daily in 2009. "The Arab citizens' goal is to destroy us. They don't deny that they want to destroy us."
President Shimon Peres who spoke at a cornerstone laying ceremony at the Air Force's new technological college in Karmiel on Monday, asked participants to stand for one moment of silence in memory of Netanyahu. "A great historian and great Jew passed away," Peres said.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin commented on Israel Radio about the influence that Benzion Netanyahu had on his son Benjamin (referring to the latter by his nickname). "Bibi learned the pure Zionism from a man who was so close to Jabotinsky," he said.
"He was educated in a home where Zionism was a Zionism with no compromise ... though Bibi's realpolitik was much more developed," Rivlin added.
At a party to celebrate his father's 100th birthday, the Jewish Chronicle quoted the prime minister as saying, "I learned from you to look into the future."
In his own speech at the same event, Benzion warned of the dangers Iran posed as it forged ahead with a nuclear program that many in the West believe is aimed at acquiring atomic bombs.
He said Israel should be ready to strike Iran when "there is a reasonable chance of success."
The Zionist ideology that Netanyahu advocated was based on the belief that Jews had the right to live in all the biblical land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, east Jerusalem and parts of modern-day Jordan. In 2004, Netanyahu was among the signatories to a petition that called the disengagement from the Gaza Strip a "crime against humanity."
In 2011, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar awarded Benzion Netanyahu the Dona Gracia medal in recognition of his work on the subject of Spanish Jews.