All eyes were on Bibi Netanyahu yesterday as he delivered his AIPAC speech. At times he was disarming, at others bellicose, both emphasizing that Obama has Israel’s back, but that if need be, Israel would go it alone. “The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future,” he thundered. “That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
It has escaped no one that Bibi Netanyahu is acutely aware of history. He draws distinctions with the Jewish situation today and the one in Europe, circa 1940, but one gets the sense that that’s only his attempt to appear more rational. Like many Jews, he is ridden with the fear that a Holocaust-like scenario is imminent—given rogue leaders like Ahmadinejad, a sly if still certain anti-semite, who’s on a sprint for a nuclear bomb. But rather than address this highly questionable assertion here, it’s worth pointing out where Netanyahu’s historical sense comes from: mostly obviously, his father.
Benzion Netanyahu, who recently turned 102, was the subject of a special birthday tribute at the 92nd Street Y this Sunday, which his son Bibi was scheduled to attend. Alas, he was holed up at the AIPAC meeting in D.C., and had to send in a video message as back up. I was out of town too, but I was eager to listen in on the event. (Tablet covers it here.) It featured prominent Spanish Inquisition scholars who were assessing the impact of Benzion Netanyahu’s influential thesis, made in his book “The Origins of the Spanish Inquistion,” published in 1995.
In it, Netanyahu argued that the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, which expelled Jews from the Iberian peninsula, was not because Jewish converts to Catholicism (conversos) were secretly practicing Judaism, as many have argued. They attacked Jews because, Netanyahu countered, Spanish authorities never saw conversos as true Catholics to begin with. Jewish converts, he went on, actually did believe in their new faith, but no amount of proof could please Catholic authorities—blood-line anti-semitism simply ran too deep.
Benzion today has his critics, and many of them get voice in Cullen Murphy’s new book, “God’s Jury,” an erudite and brisk account of the academic wars now raging over the Spanish Inquisition. Whatever you make of Benzion’s son’s historical mindset—and I, for one, don’t make much of it; Bibi Netanyahu is a politician, and like any pol, employs history merely as a political weapon, not something to be engaged with on its own terms—you cannot doubt his passion for it. So Bibi, I admire your passion for history, only wish you would less often abuse it.