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Bibi is extraordinarily respectful of his father. When Benzion Netanyahu died in April at the age of 102, Bibi sat shivah for the full seven days. Benzion was born in Poland and was one of the original Revisionist Zionists. They believed Israel should exist on both sides of the Jordan River, and they rejected almost any form of compromise with the Arab states. As a young man, Benzion went to the U.S. to work for Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, and after Jabotinsky died in 1940, Benzion lobbied top Republicans and helped get a plank in the 1944 GOP platform in favor of a Jewish state.
Benzion was the Israeli version of another political father, Joseph Kennedy. Like Kennedy, he put his hopes in his eldest son, Yoni, for a political future, and like Joe Kennedy Jr., Yoni was killed in combat--in his case, leading the famous 1976 raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue hijacked Jewish hostages. Bibi, like Jack Kennedy, was the second son, something of an afterthought in his father's eyes.
"My father gave me two pieces of advice when I went into politics," Bibi recalls. "Never touch money, and don't use ad hominem attacks on people. But when I became Prime Minister, I asked him, What attributes does one need to lead a country? He was older then, and he asked me, What do you think? I said, You need convictions and courage and the ability to act. He said, You need that for anything. He then said what you need to lead a country is education, and by that he meant an understanding of history, the knowledge to be able to put things in perspective." Bibi considers this for a moment. "I didn't expect that answer," he says and smiles.
Benzion's lifework was a 1,384-page history of the Spanish Inquisition. The book has a radical thesis: that the conversos, the Jews who had willingly converted to Christianity and were then killed by the thousands for allegedly practicing Judaism in secret, had done no such thing. Almost all of them were practicing Christians, Benzion wrote, and their extermination came from a deep and murderous anti-Semitism, not from religious persecution. Even conversion, he suggested, doesn't protect Jews from anti-Semitism. Benzion believed that the history of the Jews is a history of holocausts and that the enemies of the Jews like the Arabs will be happy only when the Jewish people no longer exist.
In the 1950s and '60s, Benzion taught at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia. "I cried when my father told me we were moving to America," Bibi recalls. Bibi enrolled at suburban Cheltenham High School. "Everyone was divided into nerds and jocks. I was both. I was in four honors classes. It was like being tutored in the best private schools."