Benzion Netanyahu, father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and emeritus professor of Judaic studies who taught at Cornell from 1971 to 1975, died April 30 at his home in Jerusalem. He was 102.
He was born Benzion Mileikowsky in 1910 in Warsaw, then part of the Russian empire. His father, Nathan, a rabbi who traveled in America and Europe giving speeches supporting Zionism, moved his family to Palestine in 1920, changing the family name to Netanyahu, meaning "God-given." Benzion Netanyahu attended a teachers' seminary and studied medieval history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he became involved with revisionist Zionism, writing and editing Zionist publications.
Netanyahu came to the United States in 1940 to work with the New Zionist Organization and succeeded its founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, as executive director from 1940-48 after Jabotinsky's death. The organization's goal was to create a state of Israel that included present-day Jordan rather than dividing Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Israel ultimately was based on that partition, and Netanyahu was recognized for his role in building American support for Israel.
While he was living and working in the United States, Netanyahu lobbied for the creation of the Jewish state. He met with policymakers including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and persuaded Republican Party leaders to call for a Jewish state in its 1944 platform.
After Israel declared its independence in 1948, Netanyahu returned to Jerusalem and became editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica.
Netanyahu earned a Ph.D. from Dropsie College in Philadelphia and in the 1950s and '60s divided his time between Israel and the United States, teaching at Dropsie, the University of Denver and Cornell, where he was also chair of the Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures, now the Department of Near Eastern Studies. He was named an emeritus professor in 1978.
In the 1960s, he edited two major reference works in English, the Encyclopedia Judaica and "The World History of the Jewish People." In recent years he was a behind-the-scenes adviser to his son Benjamin, Israel's prime minister from 1996-99 and 2009 to the present.
His eldest son, Jonathan, commanded the 1976 rescue of more than 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages on an Air France jet at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Jonathan was the only Israeli soldier killed in the raid.
As a historian, Netanyahu was a leading authority on the Spanish Inquisition and Judaism in Spain. In his best-known work, "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain" (1995), Netanyahu traced the history of anti-Semitism back to ancient Egypt, before Christianity, and supported a radical view of the Inquisition. He offered new evidence that Jews were not persecuted for practicing their religion but because they were perceived as an evil race.
Netanyahu said in a 1998 New Yorker interview that "Jewish history is a history of holocausts." In a 2009 interview, he said he believed Jews remain endangered in the Middle East. His books also include "The Founding Fathers of Zionism" (2012).
He is survived by his sons Iddo and Benjamin. His wife, the former Cela Segal, died in 2000.