By Peter L. Rothholz/JNS.org
Although the late Benzion Netanyahu wrote four of the five essays in “The Founding Fathers of Zionism” years before his middle son Benjamin Netanyahu was born, let alone before Benjamin entered politics, Benzion’s insightful volume may very well be the playbook by which the current prime minister governs Israel. As such, it should be mandatory reading for everyone with an interest in the Jewish state.
A native of Poland, Benzion Netanyahu came to Israel in 1920 at the age of 10. He became active in the Zionist movement as an undergraduate at Hebrew University, and through his publications and political activities played a significant role in the drive for statehood under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. He eventually broke off from the dominant Labor Party, advocated “political Zionism” and became active in the Zionist Revisionist Party.
In 1940, he came to the United States to serve as executive director of the New Zionist Organization. He later pursued an academic career and earned an international reputation, especially for his seminal work, “The Origins of the Inquisition.” He retired as professor emeritus at Cornell University and returned to Jerusalem, where he died last year at age 102.
As a historian, Netanyahu wrote insightful and very personal essays about the five men whom he identifies as the founding fathers of Zionism. They are Leon Pinsker, best known as the author of “Auto-Emancipation” and the concept of “Political Zionism;” Theodor Herzl, author of “The Jewish State;” Max Nordau, the distinguished philosopher and diplomat; Israel Zangwill, the British-Jewish author who forged the links that led to the Balfour Declaration; and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the soldier-philosopher whose doctrine of militant resistance inspired resistance to the British administration in Palestine and continues to guide current Likud policies.
The earliest of Benzion Netanyahu’s essays, on Herzl, was written in Hebrew and was first published in Israel in 1937, when Netanyahu was just 27 years old. The essay’s clarity and prescience are remarkable. The most recent essay, about Jabotinsky, was published in 1981, also in Israel, but with the benefit of hindsight of World War II and the Holocaust. The Zangwill essay was written in 1938, when Hitler was preparing for war and much of world Jewry looked to Britain for its salvation. The Nordau and Pinsker essays were published during World War II, in 1941 and 1944, respectively.
By reading the essays not in the order in which they were written but in the order in which they appear in Benzion Netanyahu’s 2012 book, “The Founding Fathers of Zionism,” one easily sees the thread that leads from the shtetl of 18th-century Eastern Europe to the Knesset of 21st-century Israel. Along the way, the reader learns how the meek ghetto Jew was eventually transformed into the self-assured sabra, and why religion played virtually no role in the development of the form of secular Jewish nationalism known as Zionism. We also come to better understand some of the choices made by recent Israeli governments.
“The Founding Fathers of Zionism” was the subject of a book event this July at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY. Joel Cohen, an attorney and member of the synagogue, discussed the book with Dr. Iddo Netanyahu, a physician, playwright and the youngest of Benzion Netanyahu’s three sons. In response to several questions, the current prime minister’s brother explained that his father broke with Ben-Gurion and the Labor Party because “he did not like giving in to the British.” Moreover, he felt that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin “was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel more than any other person.”
Iddo Netanyahu went on to explain that his father believed in political Zionism because he considered it a realistic way to look at the world.
“Anti-Semitism will not disappear, and there’s no sense to appeal to the humanity of the nations,” Iddo said. “As long as we are militarily strong, there will be an Israel—if not, I’m not optimistic.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that sentiment in the foreword to Benzion’s book, writing, “The anti-Semitism which the founding fathers warned against, and which ultimately culminated in the Nazi horrors, has been replaced by the current onslaught of militant Islam on Israel and the West. Then, as now, the supporters of the Jewish people and all free peoples, have much to gain from studying the insights of these prophetic men of genius. Ideas matter in the battle for freedom. They were crucial to the success of Zionism, the Jewish national movement. And they are crucial today.”
“The Founding Fathers of Zionism.” By Benzion Netanyahu, 2012. Balfour Books, co-published with Gefen Publishing House Ltd. 230 pages. $25.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-933267-15-9.
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