On October 1, at the conclusion of a lengthy speech demanding prolonged sanctions against Iran and pledging Israel’s willingness to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned back to the nightmare of 19th century Europe. He told of how an anti-Semitic mob brutalized his grandfather, Natan Milikovsky and his younger brother, Judah, using the story to present Israel as the only sanctuary for Jews in an eternally hostile world:
Ladies and gentlemen, one cold day in the 19th century, my grandfather Nathan and his younger brother Judah were standing in a railway station in the heart of Europe. They were seen by a group of anti-Semitic hoodlums who ran towards them waving clubs, screaming death to the Jews. My grandfather shouted to his younger brother to flee and save himself and he then stood alone against the raging mob to slow it down. They beat him senseless. They left him for dead. And before he passed out covered in his own blood, he said to himself, “What a disgrace. What a disgrace. The descendants of the Maccabees lie in the mud powerless to defend themselves.” He promised himself then that if he lived, he would take his family to the Jewish homeland and help build a future for the Jewish people. I stand here today as Israel’s prime minister because my grandfather kept that promise….
Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit described the moment as “chilling,” citing the story as proof that Netanyahu “meant every word” of his threats against Iran. But Bibi has deployed the harrowing tale at least once before, and in a far less dramatic setting than the UN General Assembly.
In January 2011, at the July 2011 Manufacturers Association Conference in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu described his grandfather’s beating during the conclusion of a diatribe in which he demanded the mass expulsion of non-Jewish African asylum seekers to save Israel’s Jewish demographic majority and declared his refusal to remove an illegal settlement outpost.
Complaining that Israel has “turned into almost the only first-world country that refugees can walk to from the third world,” Netanyahu warned, “A stream of refugees threaten to wash away our achievements and harm our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Currently, Saharonim Prison in the Negev Desert holds around 2000 African migrants and asylum seekers, including women and children who have fled genocide and war. Under an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act, which Netanyahu supported and signed into law, but which was recently overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, the state was authorized to arrest any non-Jewish African resident without charges or trial and hold them in prisons like Saharonim for as long as three years. Reuven Rivlin, the former speaker of the Knesset, has called the prison a “concentration camp.”
Netanyahu brought his speech to the Manufacturers Association Conference to a close with the story of his grandfather’s beating. According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu recalled:
“[My grandfather] said that once he was at a train station with his brother, and rioters yelled ‘Yid’ at them and beat them with clubs. They threw his brother into the mud, and he jumped in the mud to save him. Then, my grandfather said to himself – what an embarrassment that the descendants of King David and the Maccabees are stuck in the mud. If I live, I will move to the Land of Israel.”
Saharonim and Ketziot prisons for non-Jewish Africans (photo by Noam Sheizaf)