BEN-ZION NetanyAHU—his first name means “son of Zion”—is the world’s foremost historian of the Spanish Inquisition and a onetime secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the intractable, “revisionist” branch of Zionism. He is father to a tragic Israeli hero, Yonatan Netanyahu, who died while freeing the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976; and also father to Benjamin, who strives for greatness in his father’s eyes but has, on occasion, disappointed him, notably when he acquiesced, in his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, to American pressure and withdrew Israeli forces from much of the West Bank city of Hebron, Judaism’s second-holiest city. Benjamin Netanyahu is not known in most quarters for his pliability on matters concerning Palestinians, though he has been trying lately to meet at least some of Barack Obama’s demands that he move the peace process forward.
“Always in the back of Bibi’s mind is Ben-Zion,” one of the prime minister’s friends told me. “He worries that his father will think he is weak.”
Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s most important work, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain, upended the scholarly consensus on the roots of that bleak chapter in Jewish history. He argued that Spanish hatred of Jews was spurred by the principle of limpieza de sangre, or the purity of blood; it was proto-Nazi thought, in other words, not mere theology, that motivated the Inquisition. Ben-Zion also argued that the Inquisition corresponds to the axiom that anti-Semitic persecution is preceded, in all cases, by carefully scripted and lengthy dehumanization campaigns meant to ensure the efficient eventual elimination of Jews. To him, the lessons of Jewish history are plain and insistent.
Ben-Zion, by all accounts, was worshipped by his sons in their childhood, and today, the 60-year-old Benjamin, who has been known to act in charmless ways, conspicuously upholds the Fifth Commandment when discussing his father. At a party marking Ben-Zion’s 100th birthday, held this past March at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, before an assembly that included the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, Benjamin credited his father with forecasting the Shoah and, in the early 1990s, predicting that “Muslim extremists would try to bring down the Twin Towers in New York.” But he also told stories in a warmer and more personal vein, describing a loving father who, though a grim and forbidding figure to outsiders, enjoys cowboy movies and played soccer with his sons.
After a brief debate between Ben-Zion and another prominent academic about competing interpretations of the Inquisition—“It is an unusual 100th-birthday commemoration when a debate about the Inquisition breaks out,” said Menachem Begin’s son, Benny, who is a minister-without-portfolio in Netanyahu’s cabinet—Ben-Zion rose to make valedictory remarks. His speech, unlike his son’s, was succinct, devoid of sentiment, and strikingly unambiguous.
“Our party this evening compels me to speak of recent comments made about the continued existence of the nation of Israel and the new threats by its enemies depicting its upcoming destruction,” Ben-Zion began. “From the Iranian side, we hear pledges that soon—in a matter of days, even—the Zionist movement will be put to an end and there will be no more Zionists in the world. One is supposed to conclude from this that the Jews of the Land of Israel will be annihilated, while the Jews of America, whose leaders refuse to pressure Iran, are being told in a hinted fashion that the annihilation of the Jews will not include them.”
He went on, “The Jewish people are making their position clear and putting faith in their military power. The nation of Israel is showing the world today how a state should behave when it stands before an existential threat: by looking danger in the eye and calmly considering what should be done and what can be done. And to be ready to enter the fray at the moment there is a reasonable chance of success.”
Many people in Likud Party circles have told me that those who discount Ben-Zion’s influence on his son do so at their peril. “This was the father giving his son history’s marching orders,” one of the attendees told me. “I watched Bibi while his father spoke. He was completely absorbed.” (One of Netanyahu’s Knesset allies told me, indelicately, though perhaps not inaccurately, that the chance for movement toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state will come only after Ben-Zion’s death. “Bibi could not withdraw from more of Judea and Samaria”—the biblical names for the West Bank—“and still look into his father’s eyes.”)
On Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu frames the crisis in nearly the same world-historical terms as his father. “Iran has threatened to annihilate a state,” Netanyahu told me. “In historical terms, this is an astounding thing. It’s a monumental outrage that goes effectively unchallenged in the court of public opinion. Sure, there are perfunctory condemnations, but there’s no j’accuse—there’s no shock.” He argued that a crucial lesson of history is that “bad things tend to get worse if they’re not challenged early.” He continued, “Iranian leaders talk about Israel’s destruction or disappearance while simultaneously creating weapons to ensure its disappearance.”