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Benzion Netanyahu’s History

The Israeli scholar, and the prime minister’s father, died today in his Jerusalem home. He was my political opposite, but also my teacher and friend.

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Benzion Netanyahu and his son Benjamin, then Likud party leader, meeting in Benzion’s Jerusalem home on election day, February 8, 2009. (Michal Fattal/Likud via Getty Images)
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The article was originally published in Tablet Magazine on July 6, 2010. His New York Times obituary is here.

There can be few friendships stranger than Benzion Netanyahu’s and mine, for on the urgent question of Israel’s security we could not be more opposed. Benzion, a disciple and former secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and to this day an uncompromising Zionist Revisionist, believes that the State of Israel should occupy both banks of the Jordan, presumably by force. At the time of the Oslo Accords, when my wife and I visited Benzion, surrounded by his books in his comfortable Jerusalem home, he denounced the accords as “the beginning of the end of the Jewish State” and admonished his son Bibi, then as now prime minister, for having relinquished Hebron to the Palestine Authority under the agreement. For me, on the other hand, Oslo promised an end to a futile quarrel in which both sides stood to lose their homes and their souls. The predictable collapse of Oslo proved both of us wrong, me in my hopefulness, Benzion in his prophecy of doom. It was Benzion’s Revisionist tenacity that led Menachim Begin of all people to accuse him of right-wing extremism. Unmoved by this criticism, Benzion scorned Begin in a conversation with me as a weakling, a compromiser. Yitzak Shamir was beneath his contempt. Yet my admiration for Benzion is akin to love, and I like to think these feelings are to some degree reciprocated.

For Benzion, the Arabs are implacable enemies. For me, they are indispensable partners who with their Jewish counterparts might once have created—and perhaps still may find the wisdom to create—a flourishing bi-national state, an exemplary multiethnic enclave within a stable Middle East or, failing that, a two-state solution. If my position underestimates the dark side of human nature, Benzion’s ignores the futility and horror—the sadness—of a military solution. Since our immovable polarity is understood by both of us our discussions of Middle East politics tend to be brief. Our affection flourishes on different ground.

This unlikely friendship began by chance in the late 1970s when my friend Herman Wouk called me at Random House to suggest that I publish a book of letters by Jonathan Netanyahu, the heroic leader of the Entebbe raiders and their only fatality. Herman said the letters were remarkable, and when I read the manuscript I agreed. Jonathan was an articulate and sensitive young soldier whose modest tone hardly comported with his Homeric military exploits. I was struck however by an unexpected apocalyptic note: “any”—not just a, but any—“compromise will simply hasten the end. As I don’t want to tell my grandchildren about the Jewish state in the twentieth century as … a transient episode in the thousands of years of wandering, I wanted to hold on here with all my might.” When these letters were written an Arab-Israeli compromise still seemed barely possible. That this soft-spoken hero should see no such hope was puzzling. I would soon discover the source of his iron determination.

On one of his frequent trips to New York Benzion stopped at Random House to discuss the publication of Jonathan’s letters. The meeting with a proud and grieving father that I had expected to occupy an hour instead lasted most of the afternoon, prompted by my having asked about his own work, which I had been told had something to do with the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. His answer led to one the proudest moments of my publishing career, the publication some 15 years later of his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. The 1,400-page work of scholarship overturned centuries of misunderstanding, and predictably it was faintly praised and in a few cases angrily denounced or simply ignored by a threatened scholarly establishment. Dispassionate scholars soon prevailed, and today Benzion’s brilliant revisionist achievement towers over the field of Inquisition studies. The iron will that sustained Jonathan on the battlefield sustained his father in his lifelong campaign to uncover the actual origin and cause of the assault upon the third generation of Spain’s Christianized Jews—the so-called conversos—by the Spanish Inquisition.

I have always considered my work in publishing an extension of my formal education, in which my authors were the faculty and their work my curriculum. Whatever I have learned I have learned from them. The prevailing scholarship of the Inquisition had accepted the word of the Inquisition itself that its aim was to exterminate as heretics the conversos, otherwise known as New Christians or Marrranos, to use Benzion’s favored term. These were descendants of Spanish Jews who at the end of the 14th century had been forced to convert to Catholicism or face death. Now, a century later, the Inquisition claimed that many of these third-generation descendants were secretly still committed to their ancestral Judaism, therefore Catholic in name only and a polluting influence upon true Christians. Thus they could be tortured, dispossessed of their property, and in some cases murdered as heretics. The scholarly consensus accepted these dubious charges as true.

It was this perfunctory acceptance by historians of the perpetrators’ word that attracted Benzion to the subject. Why should the murderers and thieves who led the Inquisition be believed? Benzion’s great achievement is to have shown that the allegations of clandestine Judaism were a pretext. He proves beyond a doubt that by the end of the 15th century all but a handful of conversos were true Catholics, integrated into the mainstream of Spanish society. Many held high positions in church, state, law, and the military, and this was the problem, for these positions were coveted by their envious “full-blooded,” so-called Old Christian, rivals. Benzion shows that the conversos were tortured, killed, and their property seized not for their secret Judaism, for which there is scant evidence, but for their ancestral blood: the inescapable otherness of Jews. Limpieza de sangre—purity of the blood—was the unspoken issue that explains the attack upon the conversos. For the Old Christians these conversos remained a resented alien minority. Benzion also shows that it was King Ferdinand himself who instigated the Inquisition not only to augment royal revenues depleted by his imperial wars but, more significantly, to strengthen his alliance with the Old Christian majority. The conversos were punished not for their faith but for their blood and their achievements.

The significance of this discovery for later generations of assimilated Jews and their racist antagonists is self-evident. The Office of the Inquisition in Spain survived until the 19th century, and its conditions—for example, that a single Jewish grandparent conferred Jewish blood—were later embedded in Nuremberg law. Benzion’s aim however was not to exploit the Inquisition as a warning to assimilationists but to clarify a persistent and profound historical falsification.

As happens often upon the publication of a radical revision of accepted theory the first reviews of Benzion’s book were predictably marked by faint praise and underlying resentment by traditional historians of the Inquisition. Some of this resentment probably arose from Benzion’s impolitic but principled refusal to acknowledge recent scholarship, which simply repeated standard misconceptions. (See, for example, Wikipedia on the subject: “the monarchs decided to introduce the Inquisition to discover and punish crypto-Jews.”) But the tide soon turned. Even before publication Benzion was able to mention in his preface that the “celebrated historian … Cecil Roth, who had stood for the thesis of Marrano Judaism, retreated from his own much publicized position and embraced more or less the same view of the Marranos that I had presented in my studies of the subject.” Then the great scholar Henry Kamen wrote in a lengthy review that Benzion’s conclusions regarding the conversos “which are central to [his] entire argument seem to me wholly convincing.” Professor Bennett D. Hill of Georgetown called the book “the finest study of the Inquisition to appear in this or arguably any century.”

It often happens that book editors who spend years working with an author begin to think of themselves as something more than midwives if less than collaborators. The process requires, in addition to tactfulness, immersion in the author’s subject and care that the narrative is intelligible to nonspecialized readers. The book’s success is the editor’s reward. A greater reward is the learning acquired as the editor becomes familiar with the author’s material. I hope I will not seem presumptuous therefore if I reprint a note sent to me by Benzion on his publication day:

Dear Jason: This is a great day for me and today, more than at other times, I feel the need to tell you that I well remember your instant grasp of my new historical concept, your insightful understanding of its various aspects, and the enormous effort you made in behalf of the book, editorially and otherwise. I cannot make it clear enough how grateful I am to you. My heartfelt congratulations and best wishes.

But it was not an enormous effort, or even an effort at all, but the rarest of pleasures to work with this great scholar and to ignore the vast and immovable political divide between us for the sake of a scholarly revolution and the friendship that followed.

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Nachal says:

Bibi was not prime minister during the Oslo Accords. Rabin was. History will prove me right.

Roisin Gorman says:

It matters not what the author thinks, or what Benzion Netanyahu thinks, or what any human being wants to happen. If it does not line up with what Torah says, and with what the prophets say, it is just not going to happen no matter how hard we wish it would. There will not be a utopian state where Arabs and Jews live and work together until after Messiah comes. Read Genesis 16:12 where the angel of the L-rd says to Hagar about Ishmael “He will be a wild donkey of a man his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. And he will live to the east of all his brothers.” and Psalm 83 where it lists the nations that now, today, line up against Israel. And Obadiah chapter 1 says it all. Then read Zechariah 12:10-14 for the solution to the problem.

miha says:

To me, both Benzion Netaniahu and Jason Epstein are each a classical portrait of mensch.

Unrelated, I saw yesterday the movie Visual Acoustics, a documentary on the the life of Julius Shulman, and all I saw was a string of mensch our Jewish culture has contributed to humanity.

As long as someone is a mensch, it does not matter the political ideas and conflicting opinions.

Scott Davidson says:

As long as there are extreme Islamists in this world everyone in this world particulary Jews have to be prepared to defend themselves and their families lives against any attacks by these murderers.Scott

allenby says:

yes, Rabin was PM during the oslo “peeece” accord which led to a wave of extreme terroristic murders by arabs. I don’t want to mention these arabs as “palestinians”, because simply they are NOT, never been will never be. Amazingly all Israeli governments call these arabs “palestinians”,supporting this Grand SUPER-LIE. Why I’m mentioning this little detail, it’s because the Leftist Establishment of Israel has created many misconceptions like this one, all in purpose, to please the arabs, to show them how “sincere” is Israel’s desire for peace. Unfortunately these shtiks never work, even with arabs. Israel’s Left keeps begging and wining for peeece since 1948. The more Israel begs, the more animosity it creates. All these shtiks are characteristic to the old Jewish shtetl, where it was important for survival.
Israel must STOP begging for peeeece. eNOUGH!
Let THEM start begging, let UN start begging, let oBama start begging.
US is not US that it was. US today is an evil disintegrating empire. It’s a VILLAIN of all VILLAINS in : manufacturing food loaded with chemicals that kill millions of people, in pollution of our nature, in pollution of our water, our food(Monsanto corp. is one small example, DuPont…), pollution of farmland.
ISRAEL must start dealing with US as a Power not a beggar.

grant says:

This is a beautiful read. For those with open minds and a smattering of knowledge of this subject, it is very thought provoking. Excellent work.

Esther says:

Politics aside, B. Netanyahu has made a significant contribution to the academic world. His line of reasoning with respect to the motivation behind the creation of the Spanish Inquisition might be questioned by other historians… but the fact remains that to this date there is a prevailing sense of pride when a Spanish speaks of his/her “pureza de sangre!”

Bryna Weiss says:

I don’t know which is worse- Allenby’s hateful ignorance or Gorman’s fanatical and unacceptable ravings about the Torah.

Mr. Epstein, on the other hand is truly a delight!

Shmuel says:

But ultimately who cares about Jason’s politics? Safely living in NY he will not benefit from the wonderful peace his left wing politics promises nor will he ever have to take any risks to get there.

Such a fabulous conversation all of you got going. I love a combination of excellent and specific information coupled with a few intellectual viewpoints. It’s actually great to at last discover good posts where I believe I can rely on the information and also respect those who that publish it. Considering the web waste today I always appreciate finding some real presences on the internet. Many thanks for writing and continue the good work, please!!

David44 says:

A quick factual query. Mr Epstein implies that Netanyahu convinced Cecil Roth of his thesis about the conversos even prior to publication. But Cecil Roth died in 1970, more than 30 years before Netanyahu’s book was published (in 2001). So the chronology doesn’t seem to work – or did Netanyahu mean something different with his reference to Roth in his preface?

Doubter says:

Yes, it was brilliantly written to clear up the historical record. But that does not diminish its relevance for assimilationists of every generation – certainly not for the Nazis.
And now, radical Islam which makes no bones about its intentions. And the new $64k question: Is there any such thing as moderate Islam? If so, can it prevail or even survive in the incredibly tougher world of radical Islam?

Intrepid says:

Fantastic Article..Mr. Netanyahu is completely right about the hatred of Jews that travels through generations..One only has to look at the decision by the Methodist Church in England to realize that old hatred does not die, it just stays incubated until it is once more released…We should never forget the victims of the Inquisition, Pogroms, or the Holocaust…The victims died because they were Jewish or were perceived as being Jewish, no matter what other circumstance surrounded them…The hatred towards Israel according to an expert on anti-semitism Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is not about Israel or land, it is about hatred towards the Jews. We must always be vigilant…

Wesley Parish says:

Now that is interesting – the otherness of the Jews alleged as the cause for the Spanish Inquisition. I read in GK Chesterton’s Autobiography his analysis of European anti-semitism, and surprise, surprise, his analysis and Benzion’s are exactly the same – the “foreigner in the gates”.

Take a look at what the yishuv did during 1947-48, at the constant islamophobia of this current day and age, and you see not only a reprise of the Sephardic Expulsions, you also see the same fear of the “foreigner in the gates”.

You see why Israel has to make peace with the Palestinians and the larger Islamic world – that fear of the “foreigner in the gates” bypasses Jews for today – but if we keep up the islamophobia, it will call on us as well.

Nuchem says:

Benzion is reported to have remarked some time after Bibi was Prime Minister that Bibi would make for an excellent Foreign Minister.

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Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

Memo to Jason Epstein: A few quotes from your beloved Benzion from a recent interview with him by Maariv.
“The Jews and the Arabs are like two goats facing each other on a narrow bridge. One must jump to the river – but that involves a danger of death. The strong goat will make the weaker one jump… and I believe the Jewish power will prevail.”
Q: What does the Arabs’ jump mean?
A: “That they won’t be able to face [anymore] the war with us, which will include withholding food from Arab cities, preventing education, terminating electrical power and more. They won’t be able to exist, and they will run away from here. But it all depends on the war, and whether we will win the battles with them.”
Q: You don’t like the Arabs, to say the least.
A: “The bible finds no worse image than this of the man from the desert. And why? Because he has no respect for any law. Because in the desert he can do as he pleases. The tendency towards 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 perpetuate war.”
“No solution but force… strong military rule. Any outbreak will bring upon the Arabs enormous suffering. We shouldn’t wait for a big mutiny to start, but rather act immediately with great force to prevent them from going on…
If it’s possible, we should conquer any disputed territory in the land of Israel. Conquer and hold it, even if it brings us years of war. We should conquer Gaza, and parts of the Galil, and the Golan. This will bring upon us a bloody war, since war is difficult for us – we don’t have a lot of territory, while the Arabs have lots of space to retreat to. But that’s the only way to survive here.”

Mr. Epstein, this is exterminationism by another name — Zionism.

European student says:

Benzion Netanyahu’s “The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition” has just been convincingly REFUTED by a Spanish historian whose name is Garcia Olmo, in a recent book called: “Las razones de la Inquisicion española”.

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JehudahBenIsrael says:

יהי זכרו ברוך / may remembrance of him be of blessing

GTobler says:

May God be your comfort in your time of grieving.  

Siebenburgen says:

I have read the NYReview of Books for decades and can assure you that Jason Epstein was not a founder or even co-founder of the magazine. His former wife, Barbara, who died in 2006, is listed as a co-founder.

Ruth Gutmann

9Athena says:

When Disraeli  was PM of England he was derided in “Punch”, a popular magazine and in the newspapers for his race: the swarthy color of his skin consistent with his race. He endured constant jibes about his ‘foreign’ looks. The Red Book of the Inquisition and the Black Book of the Nazis searched out the faintest traces of the racial contamination.  

This new discovery has caused much excitement amongst many archaeologists from around the globe and causing some debate on this issue as it was previously thought that the Ark of the Covenant was permanently lost. Of all places in the world Panama it would seem to be the most unlikely place to have discovered this ancient relic the Ark of the Covenant, however new evidence substantiates the claims that the lost Ark of the Covenant was smuggled to Mesoamerica by Malchiah using the Phoenicians and was hidden in a cave in Volcan Chiriqui in the republic of Panama. Check out their link at Chiriqui archaeological sites.

YJ Draiman says:

No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in Israel – David Ben Gurion ‏
“No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in
Israel. (David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel and widely hailed as the State’s main founder). No Jew has the authority to do so. No Jewish body has the authority to do so. Not even the entire Jewish People alive today has the right to yield any part of Israel. It is the right of the Jewish People over the generations, a right that under no conditions can be cancelled. Even if Jews during a specific period proclaim they are relinquishing this right, they have neither the power nor the authority to deny it to future generations. No concession of this type is binding or obligates the Jewish People. Our right to the country – the entire
country – exists as an eternal right, and we shall not yield this
historic right until its full and complete redemption is
(David Ben Gurion, Zionist Congress, Basel, Switzerland, 1937.)

“No country in the world exists today by virtue of its ‘right’. All
countries exist today by virtue of their ability to defend themselves against those who seek their destruction.”


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Benzion Netanyahu’s History

The Israeli scholar, and the prime minister’s father, died today in his Jerusalem home. He was my political opposite, but also my teacher and friend.