Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!: Ben[insert noun here] Netanyahu and European History

Caveat lector: This is not an academic article on the historiography of the Spanish Inquisition or of the implications of Benzion Netanyahu’s historical thinking, although I am certain that such an article could be written. Nor is it even a “long-read” or a well-documented, meticulously argued think piece for an interested lay audience; although my ultimate goal is to use this space to do that kind of better-developed essayistic writing, I will not realistically have the time or the intellectual energy to do so until early next calendar year when my book manuscript will be done and out of my hands. And yet, in my capacity as a medievalist in this modern world, I think I have something original and perhaps of some value to say about an issue that arose this week; and so I am writing about it rather than waiting too long for a proper, full-length, exquisitely footnoted essay to be relevant or of interest. This, then? This is still just a blog post. It is the beginning of the articulation of a thought. It is a mere observation. If you are a reader who needs to consider every bit of another academic’s output in the terms of the academy, then perhaps think of it as an abstract.

Wa-amma ba’d: Several years ago I was teaching a seminar centered around the four seminal events in Spain of the year 1492: The fall of Nasrid rule in Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, and the publication of the first grammar of Spanish with its provocation to empire through language. When the students turned in the annotated bibliographies for their research papers, I noticed that one student had written something to the effect that it made sense that one of her sources, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, took such a defensive line about anti-Semitism because it obviously fell within the author’s political goals as prime minister of Israel. I explained to her in my written comments that the “B. Netanyahu” whose name was on the cover was not the prime minister of Israel, but rather his father; I explained how she could use WorldCat or the Library of Congress web site to look up the full name of an author and discover that this weighty volume was written by Benzion and not Benyamin. Privately I shook my head in disbelief that it wouldn’t have occurred to her to question whether it was plausible that the prime minister of Israel might or might not have written such a book. The next time this question arises — and I can say with greater certainty now that it will — I will have no plausible reason to be surprised.

netanyahuFar be it from me to propose a psychoanalytic reading of text, but the prime minister of Israel appears to be moonlighting in his father’s footsteps as a revisionist historian, claiming that Hitler had planned an expulsion of Jews from Germany in the 1930s, and that it was the grand mufti of Jerusalem who spurred him to genocide. My reluctance to resort to Freud aside, there are some striking similarities to the world his father fashioned as a historian; and it is worth considering the consequences of applying a midcentury historical model of the fifteenth century to twentieth-century teleologies of a twenty-first century conflict. I’m surprised this hasn’t come up sooner in the backlash against Netanyahu’s remarks.

In the academic circles in which I travel, Netanyahu Pere is not considered to have been  a first-rate historian. The Origins is recognized as a monumental work, but also as perhaps the apogee of what Salo Baron criticized as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” predicated upon a kind of eternal Jewish suffering. Baron ushered in a glass-half-full approach to Jewish history, while Netanyahu remained steadfastly with his glass half empty, famously reducing Jewish history to “a history of holocausts.”

The Origins is two separate, yet intertwined, things: First, it is a religious history that centers the source of the Spanish Inquisition in a doctrinally, spiritually-motivated, historic hatred of Jews rather than a racial one. Second, it is a universalizing history, the kind that tries to situate the experience of the Jews in medieval Spain within the wider experience of the Jews of the rest of Europe and, ultimately, the Jews of the rest of history. He traces the roots of the Spanish Inquisition back to Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Josephus’ Against Apion was not just a book that spoke to the interests of Spanish Jews; it was their own history. Benzion Netanyahu’s historiography, at least in part, sought to make distal causes (both temporal and spiritual) proximate.

By attempting to trace a direct cause of a European genocide back in time and across space, Netanyahu Fils sublimates its proximate and tangible causes to a far more abstract, essentialized, and universal picture. By focusing upon a Muslim agent while informed by a contemporary conflict (largely) between Muslims and Jews, he deploys his own experience of the world to cast hatred of Jews a primordial phenomenon and a religious one rather than a question of race with specific and local historic antecedents. The ends and the context are, of course, very different from each other, but this is also quite clearly an entry into his father’s school of historical thinking.

Benyamin Netanyahu has very directly and actively tried to leverage his father’s work to further his own agenda within the political arena. Yet while doing that and claiming that his father’s work was amongst his greatest influences, he has alternately claimed that his father’s work had no influence upon his own political career; it is a contradiction that does seem to invite an exploration of the Freudian tension in the Netanyahu School, as goes the father, so goes the son. Bad history is bad history, and written or lived, perhaps that is what is the only universal thing.

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