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Prof. Elisha Netanyahu
by Professor Larry Zalcman¹
Elisha Netanyahu was born on December 21, 1912 to a Hebrew-speaking family in Warsaw, Poland, the third of nine children of Natan and Sarah (née Lurie) Mileikowsky. Natan Mileikowsky was a preacher of considerable note, whose eloquence as a tireless campaigner for Zionist causes gained him a. reputation as the foremost Yiddish orator of his day. The family emigrated to Palestine in 1920, settling eventually in Jerusalem, in the newly established neighborhood of Beit Hakerem. It was at about this time that they adopted the Hebrew name Netanyahu.
Elisha received most of his secondary education at the Reali School in Haifa, which provided an extremely strong preparation in mathematics as well as a sympathetic environment for the cultivation of his obvious talents. Particularly important at this stage of his development was the influence of his mathematics teacher, Yirmiyahu Grossman, later head of the Mathematics Section at the Technion. After graduating from Reali in 1930, Elisha matriculated at the Hebrew University, receiving his M.A. in mathematics in 1935. He taught mathematics at Reali for several years. Later, he returned to Jerusalem to complete work on his doctorate and wrote a. thesis under the direction of Professor Michael Fekete and Dr. Binyamin Amira, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1942.
That same year he joined the British Army as a volunteer, first serving in Egypt and then in Siena, Italy, as an officer in a unit (Field Survey Company 524) of the Royal Engineering Corps charged with the preparation of aerial bombardment maps for the invasion of Sicily. Demobilized in 1946, he joined the staff of the Technion as a lecturer, rising to the rank of professor in 1958. During the War of Independence, he served as a major in a map-making unit of the newly created army of Israel and supervised the preparation of maps of the south of Israel for use in the campaign for the Negev.
In 1949 Elisha married Shoshana Shenburg, a former student of his at the Reali, who was to go on to a distinguished career as a jurist. Their two children, Natan (born 1951) and Dan (born 1954) are graduates of the Technion.
During the period 1956-1968, Netanyahu occupied a number of important administrative positions at the Technion, serving first as Head of the Mathematics Section, then as Dean of the Faculty of Sciences, and finally, after the creation of a separate Department of Mathematics, as its Dean. The transformation of the Mathematics Section at the Technion from a service unit to a full-fledged department of international stature is in large measure a direct result of his astute and energetic administration.
Netanyahu was a frequent visitor of the United States and Europe and a familiar face at conferences on function theory. He spent sabbaticals at Stanford (1953/54 and 1954/55), the Courant Institute (1961/62), the University of New Mexico (1969), the University of Maryland (1973 and 1979), and ETH Zürich (1979). In the 1960's he was a frequent summer visitor at Cornell. In 1980 he served as Royal Society - Israel Academy Visiting Research Professor at Imperial College, London.
In 1980, Elisha retired from the Technion; and following Shoshana's appointment to the Supreme Court, the Netanyahu's moved to Jerusalem. On April 3, 1986 Netanyahu died of cancer after a valiant struggle.
Always quite modest about his accomplishments in research, Netanyahu collaborated with men such as Erdös, Loewner, Nehari and Schiffer on equal terms. Nor were his contributions to mathematics limited to his personal achievements in research. By training a whole generation of complex analysts and attracting a constant stream of scientific visitors of the highest caliber, he built the Technion into a center for research in function theory which enjoys worldwide repute. The Special Year in Complex Analysis, held at the Technion in 1975/76 and graced by the participation of leading function theorists from throughout the world, undoubtedly represented a particular triumph and remains a model for all subsequent activities of this sort today.
Elisha was also a teacher of rare gifts. At Reali, he managed to convey something of the excitement of mathematics not only to the scientifically inclined students but to students specializing in the humanities as well. As a lecturer at the Technion, he was extremely impressive, rarely (if ever) referring to his notes, no matter how complicated the formulas to be inscribed on the blackboard. In the role of thesis advisor, he sought the development of the young researcher into an independent mathematical personality.
Elisha was an unforgettable character; an individual of broad and deep general culture; a student of history; a lover of poetry, which he could declaim from memory in several languages; a man of high principle and strong opinions strongly expressed; generous in his assessment of the accomplishments of others, yet demanding in the standards he set for himself; an extraordinary friend. He will be fondly remembered and sadly missed by all who were fortunate enough to know him.¹ Reprinted from Journal d'Analyse Mathematique, Vol. XLVI, 1986.