‘Everyone Feared a Lawsuit’: Joshua Cohen on Winning a Pulitzer for ‘The Netanyahus’

People ask Joshua Cohen if he’s heard from Benjamin Netanyahu about his book that satirizes the former prime minister’s years in America. Yet it was another leader who inspired him, he tells the Haaretz Weekly podcast

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Joshua Cohen, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "The Netanyahus."
Joshua Cohen, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "The Netanyahus."Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Joshua Cohen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family” was rejected by 12 publishing houses in the United States.

And when the time came to sell the Hebrew translation rights, no Israeli publisher was interested.

In an interview on the Haaretz Weekly podcast, Cohen recounts how his book was deemed “too niche” by his previous publisher and a long list of others. In Israel, meanwhile, “everyone was afraid of a lawsuit” over a novel that shoots spiky satirical arrows into the family history of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – portraying Benjamin Netanyahu and his two brothers as the perpetrators of hijinks involving both sex and excrement.


LISTEN: Joshua Cohen On Winning a Pulitzer for ‘The Netanyahus’

Cohen, 41, who grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was inspired to write the novel after hearing the late literary scholar Harold Bloom’s tales of escorting Benzion Netanyahu, his wife and three sons for a job talk on campus and the boisterous Israeli family’s encounters with staid U.S. academia in the late 1950s. (They were living in Philadelphia, “in self-exile” from Israel, at the time.)

“I realized that it was a perfect structural metaphor and allegory for so much,” Cohen explains. Indeed, his initial thoughts were as much about the U.S. president at the time he heard the story as they were about the relationship between Israeli and American Jews.

The book jacket for "The Netanyahus."Credit: /AP

“This is really a book about the [Donald] Trump years,” Cohen says. “It’s about a family coming to crash – quote, unquote – a ‘good liberal’ who’s living the life of the mind, who thinks that’s sufficient. And then this raucous family comes and upends his liberal pieties. That was essentially my condition under Trump.”

Cohen is asked frequently whether he ever heard from Benjamin Netanyahu about the novel, but says he wouldn’t blame the former prime minister for disliking it.

“The idea that some stranger from Jersey – and people from Philadelphia typically look down on people from South Jersey – is writing about his father? I understand how to him it’s nonsense.”

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