NADAV SHRAGAI: “BENZION NETANYAHU- A LIFE” FILM
Film director Moshe Levinson completed his film “Benzion” this week – the same week that Professor Benzion Netanyahu died at the age of 102 • In an interview with Israel Hayom, Levinson shares new discoveries about the man whose genius is now being recognized by the general public.
In the final seconds of the film “Benzion,” Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who died this week, recalls that when he studied the Bible as a child, he had difficulty identifying with “King David, the glory of the Jewish people.” Professor Netanyahu told Moshe Levinson, the film’s director and producer, “David is not an honest man. Saul, who was persecuted, the man who had to fight everyone who was against him, was the one I supported.” It seems that the film’s epilogue, which ends 53 fascinating minutes about Professor Netanyahu, sums up the personality of the elder Netanyahu, who stuck to his truth even when it was unpopular.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a portrait of his father, Benzion, in a photo from 2006.
Photo credit: Ziv Koren
The film “Benzion,” which will be broadcast next month as part of the series “The Real Story” on Channel 1, accompanies Benzion Netanyahu and his two sons, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his younger brother Iddo (a physician and writer) among major milestones in the life of the man who lived among us for 102 years and whose genius and work have only posthumously become known to the general public.
The film’s weakness is also its strength. “We hardly touched on politics and current events,” Levinson said. Indeed, the film that we watched this week makes no mention of the fact that Netanyahu and other intellectuals signed an open letter describing the evacuation of settlements as “a crime against humanity.” Nor does it include his statements about “the groundless belief among the left wing that the Arabs have renounced their desire to destroy us” or his strong opinion that “our nation is completely blind, like a mole, which has been through all possible trials on earth… but time after time proves that it is incapable of seeing the outcome of events.” (The quotes are from an interview that Benzion Netanyahu gave to Ari Shavit of Haaretz in 1998.)
Inventor of “the Jewish vote”
Levinson, who spent dozens of hours with Netanyahu (there are 20 hours of filmed material), chose to focus on his life story. It is unclear whether anyone knew until this past week that Benzion Netanyahu was one of the major factors in building the force known as “the Jewish vote in the United States.”
The historian Dr. Rafael Medoff says in the film that Netanyahu was the first person to make the Jewish vote a crucial factor in American politics. The Democrats feared losing the Jewish vote, the Republicans thought that they had a chance of getting it for the first time, and Netanyahu, who persuaded Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky to move his operations from London to the U.S., ran between them, deriving the maximum out of the new situation.
The film shows rare photographs of the 1944 convention of the Republican party, which preceded the Democrats in supporting Israel’s establishment. It also shows a film clip from 1942, after Jabotinsky’s death, in which Netanyahu, the head of the Revisionist Zionist delegation in the United States and Jabotinsky’s successor at the time, gives a speech before thousands of people, stating, “This is the time for a Jewish army and a Jewish state.”
Much later, in 2004, Benzion himself would recall those days and sound alarms about the future. “There are two main factors in the United States: the government and public opinion. The government was and remains anti-Zionist, but public opinion, which was won over by Jabotinsky’s students, became pro-Zionist, and that was what overcame the government’s position. Today, we face the same danger of surrendering to the American administration, because in America today there is no force to win over public opinion for us.” His son, the prime minister, said, “My father always told me: When you talk with statesmen, talk about interests, and when you talk to an audience, talk about justice.”
The question of the father’s relationship with and influence on his son, Benjamin Netanyahu, is woven throughout Levinson’s film. Netanyahu explains that his father gave him tools “to analyze things, to think about them, but the main thing that he taught me when I was a boy was that a statesman adapts himself to changing policy. Don’t be set in your ways, except when it has to do with ensuring the future of the people and the state.”
The elder Netanyahu was also aware of the situation when he said 14 years ago that it was obvious to him that his son Benjamin was not fully implementing “the views of political Zionism. Maybe he is right. After all, he had to navigate within a hostile world…. I have no right to judge in such matters…. I don’t have enough information to say what Bibi is doing correctly and whether he could have done more. At times I think, deep in my heart, that if Jabotinsky or Max Nordau had been in charge, they would have acted differently. But the truth is that Jabotinsky was not a tactician at all. He excelled as a guide and a human being who was capable of far-reaching political analysis, but in political life he did not succeed in doing even part of what he wanted to do, and he lost the battle more than once. Now, however, we must not lose. We absolutely must not lose” (Haaretz, Sept. 18, 1998).
Benzion Netanyahu refused to sugar-coat his beliefs, his doctrine or his memoirs. When his grandson, Yair, asks him in the film whether he grew up in a religiously observant home, his grandfather talks about his own father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, a follower of Herzl, “who was not religious in the same way that ordinary religious people are.” When did you become non-religious? his grandson asks. Benzion answers, “I was generally secular. I didn’t wear a hat, and in the synagogue I would try not to pray.” He recalls that his father, the rabbi, was very busy, and, actually, “My mother was my main teacher. She would read me stories, and I would lean my head against her breast. About 10 minutes later I would start to cry, in terrible sorrow, over what was happening in the story. She would stop reading, and I would demand: ‘Keep going.’”
A meeting on the day Arlozorov was murdered
Benzion was born in a Hebrew-speaking home in Warsaw. In 1920, when he was 10 years old, his family immigrated to pre-state Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Benzion attended the teachers’ academy headed by David Yellin, where he sat next to the poet Yonatan Ratosh during class. “He would show me his poems, and I would advise him: ‘Take this out, put this in.’ I also went to school with Avraham Even-Shoshan. We did our homework together.”
The riots of 1929 made a deep impression on him. He grew close to the three intellectuals – Abba Ahimeir, the writer Yehoshua Yavin and the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg – who left Hapoel Hatzair movement and joined the Revisionists. Benzion recalls, “Abba Ahimeir said that we had to go out with guns in our hands, pay no attention to the prohibitions of the British and kill as many Arabs as possible. To show the British that we could kill Arabs more than they could kill Jews….” In 1932, together with Ahimeir, Benzion disrupted the ceremony inaugurating the chair for international peace at the Hebrew University, which members of the Brit Shalom movement, who advocated a binational state, were holding. Benzion’s brother, Elisha, later a professor at the Technion in Haifa, prepared stink bombs – film rolled up in paper that, when set alight, produced a terrible odor. Opponents of the binational state planted them in the auditorium. The president of the university, Judah Magnes, called the police. Ahimeir was arrested.
Benzion managed to flee.
Two years afterward, at the Technion, Netanyahu founded the newspaper, Hayarden. The historian Joseph Klausner, and afterward Yavin, Ahimeir and Netanyahu himself, served as editors. In those days, most of the paper was devoted refuting the “blood libel” against the Revisionist movement after the assassination of Dr. Haim Arlozorov on the beach in Tel Aviv in June 1933.
After protracted trials, the two members of the Revisionist movement, Abraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt, were acquitted, but Ahimeir was tried for having founded Brit Habirionim (which led to armed struggle against the British). Ahimeir was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. Levinson lingers a bit over the affair, but in a conversation with Israel Hayom, he reveals that Benzion told him that on the day of the murder, he met Stavsky and Ahimeir in front of Steimatzky’s bookstore. Levinson says, “This strengthened the implausibility of the claim that Stavsky and Ahimeir were involved in the murder.”
Another story that did not find its way into the film is a first-person account by Benzion Netanyahu of anti-Semitism in Poland during World War I, when Jews who took long journeys on trains and fell asleep would awake to find that their beards had been cut off by anti-Semites. The film devotes a considerable segment to Netanyahu’s lifelong project: research on the Jews of Spain and the Marranos (forced converts to Christianity who secretly kept practicing Judiasm).
Professor Netanyahu changed the conventional view of history that maintained that the Inquisition persecuted the Jews for religious reasons. Netanyahu believed that by that time, the Marranos were already completely Christian, and asked: Why did the Inquisition come into existence at all? Netanyahu challenged the “romantic view,” as the historian Joseph Kaplan describes it in the film, “that recounts how the Marranos held underground Passover seders in accordance with Jewish religious law, and the Inquisition police broke in and took them all to prison.” He asks whether this is correct and answers that it is not.
Netanyahu believed that the myth of the Marranos was incorrect and that it was created as Inquisition propaganda.
Netanyahu was convinced that “at first, there really were Marranos, but 20 years after the forced conversion, one of Spain’s great scholars, the Rashba, appeared and said, ‘At first by force, and in the end, willingly.’ The reason for this is that it was impossible to live a double life, to earn a livelihood while living a double life or teach one’s children in such a situation. They climbed to great cultural, economic and political heights. The Spanish masses demanded expulsion or destruction, and the solution that King Ferdinand found was to have the Inquisition drain the blood of a few thousand Marranos while at the same time leaving the rest unharmed.”
Professor Angel Alcala says, “Netanyahu asked the right question: Why create the Inquisition if they were already Christians? His wonderful answer was that the Inquisition was not a religious institution at all, but rather a political one. His research made great scholars change their minds about the history of the Inquisition.”
Professor Kaplan says, “Besides the conclusions of his research, Netanyahu’s message is that even when Jews try to wipe out their identity and assimilate into a non-Jewish environment, that environment rejects them in the end.”
Not surprisingly, Levinson takes us from that point to Iddo Netanyahu’s play, “A Happy Ending,” which tells the story of assimilated Jews in Berlin in 1933 who cling to the familiar and close their eyes to the danger.
One of the moving things in the film is the segment in which the family members recall the moment that they received the news of Yonatan Netanyahu’s death during a 1976 rescue operation in Uganda. “A very great personality. If he had lived, he definitely would have been the country’s leader,” says his father, Benzion.
Benjamin Netanyahu recalls, “I remember that it was like a knife cutting into my heart. I said to myself: We have to go to Father and Mother. It took six hours to get from Boston to Cornell University, and I went over to my father. I saw him pacing back and forth, ruminating, deep in thought as he often was.
Suddenly he turned around and saw me. A look of wonder spread across his face, as if to say: Bibi, what are you doing here? Then, in the blink of an eye, he realized what had happened and a terrible scream broke from him. I went inside, and afterward, Mother heard. I still hear those screams today.”
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