Benzion Netanyahu — father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, controversial historian, and former chair of what is now Cornell’s Department of Near Eastern Studies — died Monday at the age of 102.
His former co-workers at Cornell described Netanyahu, who served as a professor of Jewish studies in the 1970s, as a scholarly man with rigorous standards for his fellow academics and his students.
Raymond Scheindlin, who also taught Hebrew studies at Cornell in the ’70s, described Netanyahu as an intimidating but learned man who was “very, very precise in everything he did, with extremely high standards for academic qualifications.”
“If you disagreed with him in person, you had better be ready with your footnotes,” Scheindlin said. “He was a hard person to argue with.”
In addition to his professorial duties, Netanyahu played a role in building and re-energizing the department of Semetic languages and literatures in its early years, Scheindlin said.
Netanyahu first came to Cornell in 1971 after the founding chair of what is now the Department of Near Eastern Studies retired, according to Alfred Ivry, who was a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy at the time. When the department was founded, Cornell administrators had been concerned that lobbyists for judaic and arabic causes would try to influence the academic study of the topic, Ivry said.
Netanyahu’s belief that Israel should take a hard-line position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely believed to have influenced his son’s political decisions. But Netanyahu’s influence can be traced back further, to when he played a key role in the Zionist movement in the U.S. in the 1940s, lobbying prominent American politicians to support a Jewish state in the Middle East, according to a press release from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.
Despite his controversial work as a historian and strong political views on Israel, Netanyahu was able to maintain a neutral academic environment at Cornell, according to Ivry.
“He didn’t force his ideas on the department, and didn’t try to move the department to any type of politicization,” Ivry said. “This has unfortunately been the case at other universities, with apologists for ethnic groups.”
Neil Goldsman ’81, who took a class Netanyahu taught in the 1970s on modern Israel, said he still draws upon what he learned in the class to this day.
“[Netanyahu] was an extremely captivating teacher and conveyed much of the history of Israel through personal anecdotes,” Goldsman said in an email. “It was a real privilege to learn about this history from someone that experienced much of it first hand.”
Ivry, however, described Netanyahu’s leadership style as “authoritarian in demeanor,” saying that the Near Eastern studies department lacked a participatory atmosphere during his tenure as its chair.
“There was nothing wrong with it, but he was a strong type of leader — that was his style,” Ivry said. “It wasn’t a clubhouse kind of department.”
Still, he maintained that Netanyahu helped set the department along a successful path.
“It was a small department but well-run, and [Netanyahu] continued to impress upon the University the legitimacy of such a department and its place in academic life,” Ivry said. “In recent years, the University has supported the department. It is now relatively small but has a graduate program and some very fine scholars.”
Despite holding different views than Netanyahu did, Scheindlin said that the educator ultimately stood out as a distinguished scholar.
“I don’t see Jewish history or Israeli history the way he did,” Scheindlin said. “But I had to respect his scholarship, his intellect and his standards.”