Ben-Zion Netanyahu (1910-2012)

Ben-Zion and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: GPO)
Ben-Zion and Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: GPO)

Prof. Netanyahu was one of Israel’s greatest historians. His research focused on medieval Spanish Jewry and the history of Zionism. His books include: “Don Isaac Abarbanel”, “The Conversos of Spain” and his world-renowned masterpiece, “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain”.

He was also the author of the book “The Five Fathers of Zionism”, in which he summarized his research on the lives and teachings of the founders of political Zionism: Pinsker, Herzl, Nordau, Zangwill and Jabotinksky. Prof. Netanyahu was the Editor-in-Chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia for over a decade, as well as the founding editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica. He served as Professor for Jewish Studies in various universities in the United States and served as professor emeritus by the prestigious Cornell University.

Ben-Zion Netanyahu was born in Warsaw in 1910, the eldest son of the well known Zionist advocate, Rabbi Nathan Milikovsky, and Sarah (née Luria), whose father was among the first members of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) in Lithuania. The Milikovsky family was among the very few Diaspora families who spoke Hebrew at home. In 1920, the family immigrated to Israel, initially settling in Safed, where Netanyahu’s father taught, and later moving to Jerusalem.

Between 1936-1939, Netanyahu was engaged in research of the history of Zionism and in the establishment and organizing of the “political library”, which included works by the founders of political Zionism – Herzl, Nordau and Zangwill, which had not previously been published in Hebrew.

In March 1939, at the age of 29, Netanyahu traveled to London to meet with Jabotinsky in an attempt to persuade him to transfer the majority of his activities from Britain to the United States. Netanyahu understood that the United States would ultimately be the country to determine the international agenda and decide on the question of the establishment of a Jewish state, and believed that intensive, large-scale propaganda was needed there. Jabotinsky was convinced and in 1940, a Hatzohar delegation, headed by Jabotinsky, arrived in New York.

Several months later, following the death of Jabotinsky – at whose funeral Netanyahu served as pallbearer – Netanyahu became head of the delegation and head of the New Zionist Federation in America. For the next seven years, the movement, under his leadership, would become an active and influential factor in Jewish and general public opinion in America. The bulk of the delegation’s activities, headed by Netanyahu, included: large assemblies, at which American statesmen and prominent public figures delivered speeches, huge advertisements in major newspapers, numerous propaganda articles and intensive negotiations with administration officials and Congress members from both parties.

Netanyahu himself met with a series of key American figures, including Dean Acheson and General Eisenhower (who would later become President of the United States), to convince them that America must support the establishment of a Jewish state and press Britain to change its anti-Zionist policies. A researcher of that era, Dr. Rafael Madoff, said that “Netanyahu’s (and his team’s) success in introducing, for the first time, a clearly pro-Zionist platform at the 1944 Republican Convention would forever change the face of American politics”, as it compelled the Democrats to start competing for the Jewish vote, which prompted them to adopt a pro-Zionist platform of their own. In the years following Roosevelt’s death, the Jewish vote became critical, as the Presidential race was tight and many estimated that Truman would lose the 1948 elections.

In the San Francisco meetings between representatives of nations which led to the establishment of the United Nations, Netanyahu represented the movement and, in addition to the comprehensive public campaign he conducted there, he met with numerous heads of delegations from around the world to persuade them to support the establishment of a Hebrew state.

During Netanyahu’s intensive activities in the United States, he found time to write his doctorate on Don Isaac Abarbanel’s philosophical writings. During his stay in the US, he married Tzila (née Segal). The two met years earlier at the Hebrew University and renewed their relationship when they met again in New York during World War II.

Following the establishment of the State of Israel, Netanyahu abandoned his political activity for good. In October 1948, the couple returned to Israel with their eldest son Yoni (who would later become commander of “Sayeret Matkal” – the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and in this capacity, at the age of 30, be killed while leading the Unit’s rescue force in Entebbe).

Shortly after his return to Israel in 1948, Netanyahu was appointed general editor and later Editor-in-Chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia, and was responsible for ten of its initial volumes. He was also the founder and first editor of the “World History of the People of Israel” and among the editors of the Jewish Quarterly Review. In 1963, Netanyahu left the Hebrew Encyclopedia to devote himself to his academic studies, which focused on a study of the origins of the Inquisition. For this purpose, he relocated to the United States with his family, where, in addition to his research, he served as Professor of Hebrew Literature and the History of Israel at the Philadelphia Dropsie College and the University of Denver, and between 1971-1978, he was employed as an associate professor at Cornell University. Upon his retirement, he received the title of Professor Emeritus by Cornell University.

Netanyahu continued his extensive research work even after he and his wife returned to Israel, when he was 85, after decades of research, during which he published various articles and the book “The Conversos According to Jewish Sources”. His greatest work, “The Origins of the Inquisition”, a thick 1,400-page book, was completed after his son Yoni was killed in Entebbe. The book received much international attention and critical acclaim by some of the major critics and researchers specializing in medieval and world history.

Jason Epstein, who edited the book and was the legendary editor of Random House Publishers, which published “The Origins of the Inquisition”, stated that “the publishing of this masterpiece by Netanyahu was one of the highlights of my career… I worked with other historians, but I do not believe that there are any left who possess such profound insight and comprehensive knowledge. It is wonderful to know a man like him and he has become very dear to me”. Mr. Epstein, together with others who research the history of Spain, recently participated in a New York conference in honor of Netanyahu’s academic work, initiated by the Spanish consulate in New York.

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