His descriptions of playing on the white-hot sand dunes of pre-state Tel Aviv are mesmerizing. To have seen the still-forming Jewish state in 1920, a short generation after Herzl, must have been sublime.
Benzion Netanyahu was there.
An immigrant from eastern Europe (his father was smart enough to heed the warnings and leave the continent), young Benzion – who of course would go on to raise an iconic family in the state of Israel – saw up close the challenges faced by a growing number of Jews longing for a safe refuge from the millennia-old anti-Semitism that has plagued this peculiar people since biblical days.
Here’s the best part: Benzion is still with us (he just turned 102), and his latest book (you read that correctly) has just been released: “The Founding Fathers of Zionism.”
A collection of profiles of five men who helped promote the idea of statehood for the exiled Jews, “The Founding Fathers of Zionism” has the feel of putting the reader “right there.” In fact, the profiles were mostly written years ago, and Netanyahu’s personal interaction with Ze’ev Jabotinsky puts flesh on the old bones.
Some of the profile subjects are familiar, such as the famous Theodor Herzl. The Austrian Jew spent the last years of his life devoting himself to rallying support for a Jewish state by networking. He predicted the establishment of the state and was very close in his prediction.
Indeed, in his profile of Herzl (as with the others), Netanyahu presents the most nuanced discussion of the challenges facing the Jews in this endeavor – the information in “The Founding Fathers of Zionism” is highly relevant even for those who oppose Israel today.
“With genius simplicity,” Netanyahu writes of Herzl, “he derived his conclusions from the universally known fact that every attempt by the Jews at infiltration had ended in failure because they had never possessed the right of national settlement. Therefore, it was necessary to reverse the order: it was necessary first to secure the right to national settlement, only after which the attempt at immigration will not end in failure. Therefore, before the moment comes when this right is secured, Herzl opposed any infiltration.”
The remaining profiles – of Leo Pinsker, Jabotinsky, Max Nordau and Israel Zangwill – offer each man’s unique perspectives on the difficulties facing Jews in Europe, especially those who saw the rising tidal wave of anti-Semitism. In short, they fairly shouted their warnings that unless the Jews had a state of their own in which they could defend themselves, all would be lost.
Nordau, a Hungarian Jew and co-founder of the World Zionist Organization (along with Herzl), shared with his other philosophical mates a prescience that today is breathtaking: “Distress and bloodshed, many crimes and deeds of violence; peoples will rage against each other, and whole races will be pitilessly crushed out of existence; tragedies of exalted heroism will be played along with tragedies of human baseness; cowardly multitudes will allow themselves to be emasculated without resistance; armies of brave men will fall with glory in the combat.”
He died in 1923, but accurately predicted the bloodbath begun by Hitler.
Netanyahu’s historical documentation is so rich and so relevant to the situation on the ground today that any student of history will be almost overwhelmed by the importance of this book. An historian of great stature, Benzion Netanyahu long ago embraced a perspective on Zionism that rubs some the wrong way, but in the end will be vindicated by history.
While I am certain that secular folks will find much depth to this book, I would say that a segment of the population – notably Christian Zionists and Bible prophecy students – will be overjoyed to own a copy. For those who see a Guiding Hand in the re-establishment of Israel, Netanyahu’s historical detail (such as the Russian pogroms of the 19th century) will bring tears to the eyes, as the book is opened next to the Bible. Those readers will get it immediately.
A principled man like Benzion Netanyahu has some detractors, but he has never wavered from his vision of the Jewish state. Today, he lives in it as a living witness to the tenacity of the Jewish people and, may I say it, the justness of their cause.
The five men profiled in “The Founding Fathers of Zionism” have been held aloft by their chronicler in this book, but in reality, he can take his place alongside them. This book is an historical treasure, and its importance cannot be overstated.
“The Founding Fathers of Zionism” is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.