By Peter L. Rothholz/JNS.org
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the screening of a movie about his father Benzion (pictured on screen) at the Begin Center in Jerusalem, May 28, 2012. Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Flash90.
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 …read more