Feature

Benzion Netanyahu, 1910–2012

The hawkish father of Israel’s leader

Benzion Netanyahu’s principled obstinacy was apparent from a young age. The father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won $20 in a poetry contest while a university student. But when he went to collect his winnings, he was given only $10 and the explanation that his poem was too short for the full reward. In protest, he never wrote another poem, becoming instead a historian and a major ideologue of modern Zionism.

Benzion Mileikowsky was born in Warsaw. His family migrated to Palestine in 1920, said The New York Times, and his father, a rabbi, changed the family name to Netanyahu, Hebrew for “God-given.” As a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the young Netanyahu became involved with revisionist Zionists, who believed in the absolute separation of Israel and the Arab states. There, he developed the “relentlessly hawkish” views for which he would later become known, including that “efforts to compromise with Arabs were futile.” 

Netanyahu soon became secretary to the revisionists’ leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, said the Associated Press, and traveled to the U.S. with him in 1940 to build American support for revisionist ideals. When Jabotinsky died that same year, Netanyahu became executive director of the New Zionist Organization and played a crucial role in persuading the Republican Party to put a call for a Jewish state in its 1944 platform. 

After the founding of Israel, in 1948, said the Los Angeles Times, Netanyahu and his family “returned to the fledgling state,” but alternated between there and the U.S. throughout the 1950s and ’60s, when he taught Jewish history and Hebrew literature at the University of Denver and Cornell. The family returned to Israel for good in 1976 after Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yonatan, was killed as an Israeli commando rescuing hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. 

Two years ago in a television interview, said Ha’aretz, Netanyahu said the Jews were “very simply in danger of extermination today.” His views have had a “great influence on the worldview of his son, Benjamin,” who frequently quoted and consulted his father. “Father is a smart man, very smart,” he once said. “This wonderful ability allowed him to see time after time what others didn’t.”

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