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Benzion Netanyahu dies at 102

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Benzion Netanyahu, left, and his son Benjamin attend a memorial service for Yonatan Netanyahu, the eldest Netanyahu son who was killed at the Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda in 1976. [Israel Sun photo]

JERUSALEM — Benzion Netanyahu, a noted Jewish historian and Zionist thinker, and father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has died.

Netanyahu died early Monday morning at his home in Jerusalem. He was 102. Benjamin Netanyahu visited his father for the last time on Sunday evening, a statement issued Monday from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Netanyahu was born Benzion Mileikowsky in Warsaw in 1910, and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1920. He studied at the David Yellin Teachers’ College and later at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research 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, and his major work, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain.

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 the editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia for over a decade beginning in the 1950s. He served as professor of Jewish studies at various universities in the United States and concluded his academic career as professor emeritus at Cornell University.

From his time as a student in Jerusalem, he was involved in public Zionist activities. He was a supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and edited a newspaper that also featured Prof. Joseph Klausner and poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg on its staff.

In 1939, Netanyahu travelled to London and persuaded Jabotinsky to relocate to the United States and from there, to mobilize support for the Jewish state. Jabotinsky died shortly after their arrival in the United States, and Netanyahu continued to raise support for the Jewish state throughout the war and afterward.

In this context, he met with many U.S. Jewish leaders of the period, as well as with senators, congressmen, authors, poets and leaders. Upon the establishment of the State of Israel, he returned from the United States and moved with his young family to Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighbourhood.

Many people believe that Benzion Netanyahu will also be remembered for his influence on the worldview of his son, Benjamin. The prime minister frequently mentions his father in speeches, speaking of what he has learned from his father.

The prime minister has recounted that the greatest trauma in his father’s life was the death of the Benjamin’s older brother, Yoni, during the 1976 Entebbe operation in Uganda. Netanyahu has spoken of how he travelled to deliver the news of his brother’s death after he received the news from his brother Ido, when he and his parents were living in the United States.

“It was the longest, most difficult journey of my life,” Netanyahu said.

Speaking about that eight-hour journey from Boston to Cornell University, where his father taught, Netanyahu said, “After that difficult journey, I reached the path leading to the house, and I saw my father walking in the living room. He looked out the window, our gazes met and a look of surprise was on his face. When I entered the house, he asked: ‘Bibi, what are you doing here?’ A second later he understood and cried out in pain. His cry was followed by that of my mother – I will not forget those cries.”

Netanyahu has said the most important lesson he learned from his father is that “whoever doesn’t know his past, can’t understand his present, and therefore can’t plan for his future. He predicted the attacks on the Twin Towers back in the early ’90s. He also predicted the threat of tyrannical Islamist regimes attempting to attain nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.

The elder Netanyahu always denied he had any influence on his son’s decisions.

Benzion Netanyahu was married to his wife, Tzila, for over 50 years. She died in 2000. He was predeceased by son Yonatan, who was killed at Entebbe, and is survived by sons Benjamin and Ido, a doctor, author and playwright.

–With files from Ha’aretz

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