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Where Persecuted Jews May Go: In Memoriam, Benzion Netanyahu (1910-2012)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl.
Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90

It is therefore fortunate that the book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism by Benzion Netanyahu, the recently deceased 102 year old patriarch of an important Israeli family — including Jonathan the celebrated hero who was killed while leading the mission to rescue Jewish hostages held by the PLO at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, Benjamin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Iddo, a prominent physician — has been translated from Hebrew and is being published for the first time in English. The author is well known both as a renowned scholar, especially for his 1400 page, controversial book, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th century Spain, dedicated to Jonathan.

Netanyahu’s book is a series of essays on five major writers — Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky — who contributed to the intellectual foundation of Zionism and thus indirectly to the establishment of the state of Israel.

In earlier years, Netanyahu was an activist in the Revisionist Zionist movement, for a time secretary to its founder, Jabotinsky, and head of the U.S. branch of the movement during World War II. In 1940 he approved the campaign of Jabotinsky, who had formed Haganah in 1920 as a separate fighting force, to create a Jewish military force to fight against Nazi Germany, and to call for a Jewish state. Although he never renounced his favorable opinion of Jabotinsky, his essays are eminently fair in their evaluation of all of his five founders.

Netanyahu traces Zionism back to late 19th century Russia and the rise in Eastern Europe of a national consciousness, partly as an outcome of religious longings, but largely as a result of attacks on Jews and the manifest anti-Semitism there.

It is of course true that some in the Jewish community do not acknowledge the land that is now Israel as the necessary homeland for all Jews. The founders in Netanyahu’s book thought otherwise. Their arguments, which played a major part of the intellectual foundations on which the state of Israel was built, were based on the understanding, which turned out to be prescient, that European Jews would be doomed without a Jewish state in which they would be protected and could defend themselves. For Netanyahu the motivation of Zionism, also as expressed by his founders, was not religious but political.

The declaration at the First Zionist Congress that Herzl convened in Basel in 1897 was that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” This implied an international charter for Jews to return to Palestine. The result, Herzl believed, would be not only a state but also the ending of anti-Semitism. Herzl emphasized the need for the Jewish people to rule, and to believe in their own powers. Netanyahu sums up Herzl in three words: “believe, dare and desire.” In Herzl’s novel, Altneuland, a character concludes, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Herzl’s contributions to Zionism, a combination of realism and optimism, emphasized a principle post-Zionists tend to reject: that Jews “are a people, one people.” Affliction he said “binds us together, and thus united, we suddenly discover our strength.” He urged the restoration of the Jewish state, in which a normal society could exist for Jews. The new state, he said, with an insistence that underscored his determined diplomatic efforts to get international approval, must have an assured right of sovereignty, and a legal right recognized by the international community.

Not surprisingly, the longest essay in Netanyahu’s book is on his hero Jabotinsky – orator, writer, and thinker with a mastery of languages, literature, and history. That hero saluted Herzl, the liberated strong personality who was a model of the proud, independent Jew, able to command, and necessary in a new Jewish entity.

Jabotinsky called for both political and military resistance to any concession of the rights to which Jews were entitled, as individuals or as a people. To this end he championed Jewish self-defense in Russia. As a private individual he created the Jewish Legions in World War I and after the War the Irgun Zva’i Leumi (National Military Organization). Netanyahu points out that he urged both a political and military struggle against British rule. The political struggle should be one of constant public pressure, going beyond diplomatic niceties. The military one would be a way of educating Jewish youth; at an extreme it would be an armed uprising against Britain.

Jabotinsky’s most controversial argument was his policy towards local Arabs. He predicted the Arab pogroms of April 1920 against Jews, and organized defense against it for which he was jailed for 15 years, although soon released. He recognized that Arabs would not voluntarily consent to the fulfillment of Zionism, and would fight against Jewish immigration, even though it would bring them cultural and economic benefits. Hence his famous advocacy of an Iron Wall, a strong legal military and political force to convince the Arabs that they could not force Jews to leave the area. For him the land of Israel would be obtained only through force.

About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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