Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Benzion Netanyahu: Where the Middle Ages and the Middle East Collide

Erich Follath’s “Is war between Iran and Israel inevitable?” (Originally run in Der Speigel but translated for Salon) is a good example of liberal moral equivalency. Its essential premise, after hypocritically acknowledging that the two are not morally equivalent, is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are very much alike and the combination of the two of them makes it likely that a major conflict in the Middle East will erupt. Forget the fact that Israel recognizes Iran as a Shiite Muslim state and desires to have peace with it. Forget the fact that Netanyahu is a secular Jew with no apocalyptic pretentions. What caught my attention in this otherwise banal article was that it refers to my area of interest, medieval Jewish history. Follath mentions Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu and his book, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. (A few years ago, during Passover, I asked my father for a deluxe Spanish Inquisition action figure set as my way of requesting this book. Once you are finished reading it you can hit people over the head with it in the hope of doing serious bodily harm.) As Follath notes:

In his more than 1,300-page opus, the key points of which he conveyed to his sons in hours of family readings, the historian argues that the Spaniards were more strongly motivated by racism than religion in their pogroms against the Jews during the Inquisition. He also argues that militant anti-Semitism is always an expression of unmotivated hatred, and that there is only one possible response to it: militant and, if necessary, preventive Jewish self-defense.

I am not sure what Follath’s background in Jewish history is or if he actually bothered to read Benzion Netanyahu for himself, but pogrom violence is certainly very different than Inquisition violence. A basic point of the senior Netanyahu’s is that the Spanish Inquisition only came about in the years after the major anti-converso riots. This is important because Netanyahu wants to argue that the Inquisition only came about after Judaizing conversos had stopped being a real issue and therefore the real purpose of the Inquisition could only have been to eliminate Christians of Jewish descent.

I am not a fan of Benzion Netanyahu’s work precisely because it speaks too much to a modern historical agenda. In Netanyahu’s case, as a man nearing his 100th birthday, this “modern” agenda is the failure of pre-war secular Jewry, particularly in Germany, to forestall the threat of Nazism, a brand of anti-Semitism that had nothing to do with religion. When discussing Benzion Netanyahu with other people I often find myself walking the exact opposite path as Follath. Benzion Netanyahu happens to be the father of a certain right wing Israeli politician of the same name, which is a good indicator of his politics. This is a right wing secular Zionist, who left Israel and became a history professor at Cornell because Israel was being run by a bunch of leftists.

Follath simply shoehorns Netanyahu into the needs of his article. Another useful of thinking of the senior Netanyahu’s politics as it plays out in his history books is that Jews should not put their trust in gentiles like Follath, however well meaning they might be, in the hope that they will protect them from the likes of those like Ahmadinejad, who wish to kill Jews simply because they are Jews.

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