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Bibi failed his father’s test

Time and again in Jewish history, leaders missed the signs that disaster was imminent. Netanyahu was supposed to be different
Benjamin Netanyahu with his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, in his Jerusalem home on February 5, 2009. (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)
Benjamin Netanyahu with his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, in his Jerusalem home on February 5, 2009. (Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

With fury mounting over Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen Israel on his watch, it is worth considering the many grounds on which he might be expected to do so. One is a total lapse in what he himself considers the most basic task of Jewish leadership as taught to him by the person he deems the most impressive Jewish leader he has ever known: his father.

When Benzion Netanyahu passed away in 2012 at age 102, Benjamin eulogized him as a wise man who “always foresaw the future.” Addressing Benzion, he observed: “You always told me the condition for the existence of a living body — and a nation is a living body — is the capacity to identify danger in time.” Describing his father’s response to the loss of beloved son, Jonathan (Yoni), in the Israeli counterterrorist operation at Entebbe in 1976, Bibi again extolled his father’s “capacity to foresee the future,” which led him “to mobilize a global intellectual effort against international terrorism.”

Beyond a capacity to envision “what is aborning” (ro’eh et ha-nolad), the eulogy lauded another virtue of Benzion Netanyahu, this one as attested in his many scholarly works devoted to medieval Spanish Jewry. “Your books showed that you were distinguished not only by your ability to discern the face of the future but also to decode the secrets of the past.” For his part, Benzion stressed how these feats of decipherment went hand in hand. If one failed to comprehend the past, one could not grasp the present, and if one did not understand the present, how (Bibi paraphrased his father as saying) “was one to decipher the obscurities of the future”?

Thus did Benjamin Netanyahu pay final homage to his father as that rarest of Jewish leaders, able to foresee existential danger to the Jewish nation, the better to forestall it. Such a capacity was crucial since, as Benzion preached, Jews faced danger throughout their history. Little wonder that he proclaimed clairvoyance as the key quality of a leader, not only when assessing the medieval past but also when appraising the foremost figures of modern Zionism such as his mentor Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, founder of Zionism’s Revisionist wing.

In 1940, at Jabotinsky’s behest, Benzion Netanyahu arrived in America where he spent years tirelessly lobbying for the establishment of a Jewish state and, as awareness of horrors unfolding in Europe grew deeper, for European Jewry’s rescue as it faced extermination. With the war over, Benzion turned to academic pursuits, completing a doctoral dissertation on the leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of its 1492 expulsion, Isaac Abarbanel. Turning the dissertation into a book (Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher), Netanyahu explained that he had been drawn to his subject by what he took to be Abarbanel’s role as the “father of the messianic movements” in Judaism in early modern times. Writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, however, Netanyahu could not help but reflect more broadly on Jewish history’s ups and downs as shaped by leaders like Abarbanel and what he cast as the “blindness manifested by the Jews in the Diaspora for developments laden with mortal danger” — a blindness that he cast as “nothing short of proverbial.”

While granting his virtues, Netanyahu could not forgive Abarbanel for what he saw as a grievous flaw in his leadership. Despite all his “experience in politics, his analytical mind, and his vast knowledge of human affairs,” Abarbanel “saw the world through a veil” which encouraged him, and thence Spanish Jews, to breathe “the atmosphere of dreams rather than reality.”

Over and over, Netanyahu blamed Abarbanel for failing to “read the signs of the times” or grasp “the realistic conditions of the Jews in the world.” Had there been a “measure of realism” in the Jewish leadership of which Abarbanel was the outstanding figure, the catastrophe that befell Spanish Jewry might have been averted. As it was, the “political Jewish leader of the age was agitating against a realistic approach.” In short, Abarbanel embraced a “falsely optimistic view” instead of “a cold and piercing realistic view” and Spain’s Jews paid the price.

Though Netanyahu warned against judging Abarbanel and 15th-century Spanish Jewry by “present-day standards and concepts,” he could not resist a contemporary analogue. “Just as the Jews of Germany failed to foresee Hitler’s rise to power at any time during the period preceding that rise, so the Jews of Spain failed to notice, even a few years before the expulsion, the mountainous wave which was approaching to overwhelm them.” From 15th-century Spain to Nazi Germany, it was all the same. Jews faced and face implacable enemies. Living at what Netanyahu cast as “the most sensitive moment in Jewish history,” Abarbanel, failing to appreciate this sufficiently, did not issue “a timely warning to his brethren when means of rescue were still possible.” (What those means were he did not deign to say.)

In a television interview spurred by the appearance of a Hebrew translation of his Abarbanel book (conducted with complete lucidity at age 95!), Benzion Netanyahu issued the sweeping observation that, “in general, the Jewish people did not produce national leaders of a high caliber.” In a lecture delivered decades earlier, however, he had called attention to the exceptions. Contending that “systematic prognostication” able to aid the Jewish nation in mapping out its future was a product of modern Zionism, Netanyahu hailed Herzl and Jabotinsky, whose coffin he had carried four decades earlier, as exemplars of such powers of prognostication in a supreme degree. Nowhere was this more striking than in a speech of Jabotinsky delivered in Warsaw in 1938 in which, as cited by Benzion, he implored Jews to flee Europe since “the catastrophe was nigh.” Benzion could only marvel as the foresight of one who spoke “one year before the beginning of the Holocaust, 10 years before the founding of the State of Israel.” Here was a leader who, far from being an “ordinary political forecaster,” was one in whom the “light of prophecy shone” (emphasis in original).

Similar praise of the powers of prognostication appears in the pages of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent autobiography (Bibi: My Story), now heaped on his father. As Herzl foresaw European Jewry’s destruction decades in advance, so “Father” foretold World War II and the Holocaust three years prior to their onset. Benzion was “one of those remarkably perceptive people who sensed what was coming,” foreseeing where Hitlerism was headed. “After the Holocaust, it was often said that few, if any, foresaw its horrors” but Bibi insists that this “is patently not true.” Not only did his father show otherwise, but Bibi draws from this fact a momentous conclusion: “Perhaps the history of the 20th century and the fate of multitudes, including six million Jews, would have been different” if more had paid heed to his father’s prescient warnings.

Asked on October 6 whom he more resembled, Abarbanel in his father’s portrayal of him or Jabotinsky, Benjamin Netanyahu would undoubtedly have identified himself as a latter-day Jabotinsky, perhaps citing, in order to clinch the point, his insistent early warnings about the dangers of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. One wonders how Benzion Netanyahu would have assessed things a day later after seeing one horrific image after another of the countless Hamas atrocities that his son had failed to foresee, let alone forestall. Would he have condemned Israel’s prime minister for operating in an “atmosphere of dreams” (Saudi peace deals; divisive judicial reforms) rather than reality? For maintaining a “falsely optimistic view”? For displaying that blindness characteristic of Jews in the Diaspora for developments laden with mortal danger that Benzion had diagnosed and lamented so long before?

Or perhaps, contemplating the most murderous day in Jewish history since the Holocaust, Benzion Netanyahu would have recalled a verdict that he issued near the end of his book on Abarbanel in which he cast Abarbanel as an embodiment of the tragedy of medieval Jews generally. It was, he said, a tragedy that saw the Jewish nation’s soul floating in the heavens while its body was “dragged on the ground, torn and bleeding from a hundred wounds.” Viewing thousands of murdered, raped, and mutilated Israelis being dragged on the ground of the Jewish state that his son led, he surely would have had to concede that the capacity to “identify danger in time” on which the Netanyahus had long prided themselves had failed in ways that will cast a dark shadow over the Jewish nation for many generations to come.

About the Author
Eric Lawee teaches in the Department of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. His most recent book, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic, won the 2019 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Scholarship.
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