The historian and father of the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, died today. Jeffrey Goldberg eulogizes him:
He was the hardest of the hard — a man for whom compromise was anathema — but he was all too often tragically correct about the nature of what he called "Jew hatred".
Neo-fascist Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman goes further:
“Anyone who ever spoke with him could not help but be impressed by his precise ideological stances.”
One of the best aspects of Peter Beinart's must-read new book is his exploration of the thought of this man, Ben-Zion. He never conceded any partition of land in Palestine with the Palestinians. As early as 1944, his Zionews argued that "the partition of the land was an utter impossibility." He was so far right even Menachem Begin called him a rightwing extremist – when Netanyahu opposed the land-for-peace deal with Egypt. Netanyahu also called the Oslo Accords "the beginning of the end of the Jewish state." As recently as 2009, he wanted a reinvasion of Gaza:
"We should conquer any disputed territory in the land of Israel. Conquer and hold it, even if it brings us years of war … You don't return land."
Ben Zion's newspaper in the 1940s editorially backed the physical transfer of resistant Arabs out of Israel "to one of the rich and underpopulated Arab territories in the Middle East, preferably to Iraq". As recently as 2009, he uttered the following words:
"The Jews and the Arabs are like two goats facing each other on a narrow bridge. One must jump into the river … [The Arabs] won't be able to face the war with us, which will include withhholding food from Arab cities, preventing education, terminating electrical power and more. They won't be able to exist and they will run away from here."
"The tendency toward conflict is the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won't allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn't matter what kind of resistance he will meet. His existence is one of perpetual war."
His work on the racial aspects of the Inquisition was, by all accounts, a real act of scholarship. And his insistence on the ubiquitous and eternal toxin of anti-Semitism is necessary – even vital, as it resurges today. He also lost a son in the heroic raid on Entebbe airport, to free a hundred hostages. He had reason to be bitter, vigilant and angry.
But he also appears as someone who tragically could not forget – let alone forgive – and who became a Zionist in the least liberal sense: prepared to crush or forcibly transfer or starve populations of a rival people because of their racial and cultural "essence" – and fully comfortable with the idea of collective punishment of Arab women and children as a tool in the for-ever war aganst the enemy.
You can call this, as Jeffrey does, "the hardest of the hard". And Israel exists in a very hard environment, and the anti-Semitism that consumed Netanyahu also burned millions in ovens at the heart of "civilized Europe" and is still real and violent in the Middle East. You can see in Ben Zion the pain and tragedy and evil in all of this – and try to forgive. Or you can simply sigh with Auden in his observation of what
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
(Photo: In this handout photo, Benjamin Netanyahu (R), head of the right-wing Likud party, confers with his father Ben Zion Netanyahu in his father's house February 8, 2009 in Jerusalem. By Michal Fattal/Likud via Getty Images.)