This story was originally published on May 28, 2021.
As Benjamin Netanyahu ascended the Israeli political ladder in the 1980s and ’90s, the world became increasingly aware of his historian father. But Benzion Netanyahu, who died in 2012 at age 102, had been active on both the academic and political scenes since long before Israeli independence in 1948. Active, but not beloved or accepted even in his own camp – to the extent that he spent much of his adult life in exile in the United States, where his three sons grew up.
It is during the period when Benzion – a prophet who had failed to find honor in his own country and had little more success abroad – was wandering from one academic job to another that Joshua Cohen’s startling new novel “The Netanyahus” is set.
Narrated by (fictional) retired economic historian Ruben Blum, the book imagines a January 1960 visit by the real Benzion Netanyahu to the (equally fictitious) Corbin University, where he has applied for an opening on the academic faculty. Blum, who is Corbin’s only Jewish professor, has been asked to host Netanyahu, who shows up in a borrowed and ancient automobile (“one of the last model cars with a face”) with his entire family in tow.
Cohen says in an afterword that his narrative was inspired by a real campus visit by Benzion Netanyahu, apparently to Cornell University, where in the ’70s the Israeli historian genuinely chaired the department of Semitic languages and literature. (If Netanyahu’s actual visit to Cornell was anything like that imagined in the novel, it’s tough to imagine him even landing a job flipping burgers in the campus pub.)
In Cohen’s telling, Benzion has a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar; his sons – Jonathan, 13, Benjamin, 10, and Iddo, 7 – are savages; and his wife, Tzila, is reasonably described by a Corbindale resident who encounters her as “that mean foreign lady with an accent.” The visit has all the ingredients of a ’60s TV sitcom that makes you cringe and roll off the sofa laughing at the same time.
Having Netanyahu hosted by an American, who is enjoying the advantages of a postwar period when barriers were falling for Jews left and right, allows the author to make Blum a wonderful foil to the Warsaw-born Revisionist Zionist, who has seen the remnant of his people gain a state but is certain it could be lost at any moment. These men are opposites in every way and both are intelligent enough to recognize that fact, which makes for a profound and thoughtful narrative, in addition to the slapstick.
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The real Benzion Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1977, a year after his first son, Jonathan (aka Yoni), died heroically while leading the IDF rescue operation at Entebbe airport. That May, Benzion was able to witness the coming to power of the Revisionist Zionists under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Sweetening that victory was the fact that it came at the expense of the Labor Zionists Netanyahu so despised, who had ruled Israel for its first three decades not only politically but also in academia, including at the Hebrew University, where he was unable to find employment.
In 1995, Benzion published his magisterial, 1,400-page study “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain,” on which he had labored for many years. In it, he advanced the novel thesis that the Spanish crown, and later the Portuguese monarch, exiled the Jews from their realms not on religious grounds but because of racially based hatred of Jews that wasn’t much different from that of the Nazis five centuries later. Furthermore, he argued, this pathological hatred of Jews had origins as far back as ancient Alexandria, and had accompanied the Jews through all of history.
As an acolyte of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Benzion Netanyahu also had an uncompromisingly pessimistic view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which he believed only one side could be victorious. Hence, as my friend Stuart Schoffman wrote in a review of “The Origins” in the Jerusalem Report, shortly after its publication, “Netanyahu’s book can be read, in the end, as a classical argument for secular right-wing Zionism. … [He] has seen fit, in his magnum opus, to enshrine the idea of Jew as victim, and scant the vitality of Jewish civilization.”
By all accounts, Netanyahu maintained these views until the end of his long life. But this insistence on not changing might just be a historical curiosity if it weren’t so clear that his second son, who has been Israel’s premier for 15 of the past 25 years, himself embraced, if not inherited, so many of his father’s ideas. He also inherited the rigidity of Benzion’s worldview.
Such thoughts are almost inevitable as one reaches the end of “The Netanyahus” (full title: “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”), an extended riff on that campus visit – though in recreating the visit long lost to the sands of time, Cohen had to make up many details and create all the dialogue.
In his long afterword, Cohen purports to distinguish between fiction and fact in “The Netanyahus,” though his own reputation as a bender of just that line in so much of his work should put the reader on guard. (In our conversation, Cohen said he was “trying to be very open” about what aspects he had fictionalized and those he hadn’t. But I keep thinking of the logical conundrum inherent in the claim, “Everything I say is a lie.”)
After offering a concise history of the Netanyahu family, the author explains that he got the idea for the book from Harold Bloom, the late Yale University professor of literary studies who befriended Cohen toward the end of his life (Bloom died in 2019), and received him at his home in New Haven.
During one of those visits, Bloom mentioned, almost offhandedly, that he had once hosted Benzion Netanyahu and his family when the then-middle-aged historian visited his school for a job interview.
So intrigued was he by this nugget of information, Cohen says, that he decided to develop it into a story, which serves a wonderful vehicle for his talents as both a comic writer and novelist of ideas who, much as he rejects Benzion Netanyahu’s lachrymose view of Jewish history, takes it seriously.
In fact, he gives Netanyahu several opportunities to lay out his philosophy for an unprepared Corbin community, including at a public lecture. Ruben recalls, six decades later, how he watched as “the academic prose fell away and I could make out the wrath of the veteran propagandist, the touring public-relationist touting his own delusions as definitive.”
The Benzion Netanyahu we meet in “The Netanyahus” is touchy, confrontational and superior in his attitude, which may partly explain why no one likes him. So irritating is the fictional Benzion that one of his Jerusalem colleagues writes a “recommendation letter” on his behalf to Corbin, in which he is unable to keep himself from revealing that “few if any of us here at Hebrew University – including even those who refused to officially support him with a letter – would object to Netanyahu obtaining a position for himself at some American institution of higher learning; indeed, at any institution of higher learning beyond the borders of Israel.”
Cohen, 40, is widely regarded as one of America’s most talented writers – and also one of its most audacious. Two of his six novels, “Witz” (2010) and “Book of Numbers” (2015), run more than 800 and 500 pages, respectively, and pushed both the boundaries of genre and the patience of readers who were courageous enough to take them on, at the same time they landed on numerous critics’ 10-best lists. Cohen’s books also include four collections of short fiction, another of essays, and an editing credit for Edward Snowden’s 2019 memoir “Permanent Record.”
Raised Orthodox in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he was educated in a Jewish day school, and later studied composition at Manhattan School of Music. In his early 20s, he served as the central and Eastern European correspondent for the Forward. Cohen says he has as much family in Israel as in the U.S., and that the past year was the first since his high school days that he didn’t spend any time here (due to coronavirus restrictions).
Perhaps Cohen’s feeling at home in both Israel and the U.S. – and maybe, being a writer and a Jew, a little estranged in both places as well – is what makes the confrontation he envisions between the fictional Blums and fictionalized Netanyahus so authentic and funny. Ruben Blum is the first-generation son of Polish-Jewish immigrants to the Bronx and he believes in the American Dream, which he is living in his own modest way. Ruben’s wife, Edith, is the daughter of German-American Jews who are sure Ruben is not good enough for her – the evidence being that his first academic job is an untenured position at a school in rural New York. Their teenage daughter, Judy, is obsessed even more than is necessary with the idea that a new nose is the answer to all her problems.
Ruben is the only Jew on Corbin’s faculty, and there’s no question that this is why he is asked to be the campus host of the visiting historian. He’s lived with far worse slights based on his background, and takes it in stride. What he isn’t prepared for is Benzion bringing the family with him and informing them that they will be lodging with the Blums, once the campus inn turns out to be fully booked.
The Netanyahus are not gracious guests, to say the least. But, not wanting to deny you the pleasure of experiencing “The Netanyahus” in its fullness, I will say no more – other than that, like Jewish history itself, it’s not pretty.
I spoke with Joshua Cohen recently by phone from his home in Manhattan. Our conversation has been edited for both length and clarity.
‘An American in America’
Your book is devastating for me, because I can see a direct line between your subject, Benzion Netanyahu, and his middle son, who has been leading my country for the past dozen years.
“And who thinks he is the only man who can save it. Netanyahu is not only the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but he’s also been the prime minister for a large part of my life. Because of his presence on American television when he was United Nations ambassador [1984-1988], for me he was the face of Israel for a long time. And because I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which is where all the Philly Jews ‘park their cars,’ my childhood was filled with people who had Netanyahu Philadelphia stories.”
He went to my high school, Cheltenham, in suburban Philadelphia, though he graduated in 1967, some years before me.
“My favorite fact is that he was three years behind [retired Major League Baseball star] Reggie Jackson at Cheltenham. I love that fact. Of course, they played different sports.”
I have a copy of a picture from the Cheltenham yearbook, of “Ben Netanyahu” playing soccer for the school in the ’60s. He’s beautifully graceful in it.
“Yes, I’ve seen that photo. He does look beautiful: he’s young and his eye is on the ball. And he was such a presence, and it was so much the face of Israeli life for Americans. There are ways in which he could be like an American in America – what we now call ‘code-switching’ – or he could lean on these American media presentation tactics and articulate a very un-American vision in very American language. It was always fascinating to me.”
Is it really true that the kernel for this story comes from Harold Bloom?
“Yeah, yeah, that’s true. Harold, toward the end of his life, his mind was intact but his body was really failing him, and he was housebound. And as the scholar of influence, he was never going to sit down and write a memoir. He was not a memoir sort of guy. So, I really thought this was the time to pull some stories from him, because he had led a long and very colorful life. [During one of my visits] Netanyahu was on CNN, I think, on mute in the background, And Harold happened to mention, ‘I met him.’ And I think I was wondering, in the ’90s, in the ’80s? And he said, ‘No, I think he was 10 years old.’ And then he proceeded to tell this story about Benzion Netanyahu.”
I like your narrator, Ruben Blum. I like his humor, his self-awareness, the fact he won’t put up with too much crap, but he’s willing to put up with some. And he loves his family. Is there something wrong with me, or are we supposed to identify with him?
“I identify with him very much. Certainly, he’s not a portrait of Harold, he’s not a scholar of romantic poetry, he’s a scholar of ‘American Taxation Studies,’ which I don’t think even exists – or it certainly didn’t exist in 1959 and 1960.
“Ruben is that rare thing – an honorable man. An honorable man who’s most concerned with his immediate surroundings; he isn’t thinking in world historical terms, as is his guest. He’s thinking about his wife and he’s thinking about his daughter, and he’s thinking about his own standing in the community. There are elements, of his own neurosis about how he’s perceived, which certainly, from an Israel perspective, would make him seem like a sort of worthless and weak Ashkenazi … but those tics aside, I think of him as someone who, when you ask him what his politics are, he will say they are local. When you ask him what his concerns are, he will say local. I think he’s someone who’s concerned with ‘what is owed.’ I think the phrase I said to myself was, ‘Honest accounting to those around him.’”
At the same time, Cohen says he found himself drawn to Benzion Netanyahu, almost in spite of himself.
Cohen: “You know, it always happens: I developed an enormous sympathy for the man. Here’s a man for whom, during the most consequential decade of Jewish history, is not being slaughtered in Europe and is not founding the state. He’s hanging out in New York and then in suburban Philly. He’s a person who feels excluded from history. He has an enormous amount of resentment. He’s basically saying, ‘Put me in, coach!’ to everyone. ‘I can do this, I can build this country.’ Or, ‘I can run this history department,’ and no one gives him that opportunity.
“And then he becomes the sort of writer that I feel very close to. He begins with facts, but also begins with a bias, with a story. In a sense, Netanyahu’s an amazing fiction writer. He selects facts. Part of the selection is what you exclude. He marshals them very fluently, toward a preconceived thesis in which the past justifies the political decisions of the present.
“Benzion Netanyahu, who was a Revisionist with a large R and a revisionist with a small R, was, at least in his own mind, serving a higher purpose – and if not, then he was delusional. His idea of creating history provided a justificatory pretext for not just statehood but a certain type of statehood. Who’s going to listen to a dean when you feel you are ultimately answerable to a people?
“So, I had sympathy, as someone who has had to earn part of his living at institutions. I’m writing a book so that something meaningful is there after I’m dead, and Benzion Netanyahu absolutely had this idea. The problem is that it curdled in him and that sourness was transferred to his children, who didn’t have the intellectual access to the international arena and the facts.
“In many ways, the very way that he raised his children in the U.S. is very close to the way that Haredim live in the U.S. – they create these bubbles to keep their neighbors at bay. And living in that hothouse, I think you begin developing ways of justifying it to yourself. That’s a great incubator for rhetoric, a great incubator for propaganda, and I think [Benjamin] Netanyahu really grew up in a bubble like that. I don’t think he ever went through any psychoanalysis, or that he has that self-reflective impulse that would allow him to realize that that was the environment he grew up in. Actually, I believe the true flaw in his intelligence is doubt and a lack of reflection. Every moment is a panic, every moment is an important if not existential event.
“And a lot of his rhetoric comes from his father – the idea that in every generation there is an Amalek that will rise up to kill us. In this generation, it’s Iran; Iran is going to destroy us. All of this, for him, is a view of Jewish history, and a view of Zionist ideology, that actually are just proxies for the way he was raised.”
For me, this is the great paradox of Bibi Netanyahu. On the one hand, he seems completely instrumental in his politics, willing to do most anything to retain power. But on the other, he does have a certain ideological consistency. His pessimism seems genuine.
“This is one of the most difficult things when, at a certain point in life, especially past middle age, you have to surrender the history with which you were raised. He was raised with this history of cyclical European Jewish oppression, and [taught] that the actual messianic redemption is Jewish political autonomy, at all costs. And this history was something that was instilled in him by his father, which was instilled in him by his [own] father, who was a rabbi and the first of the family to travel in the United States, and try to raise money for Palestine. And to ask someone at [Bibi’s] age to surrender a historical worldview is a very, very large act. And very few people are capable of it.”
Cohen says he sees evidence in Jonathan Netanyahu’s collected letters that the older brother was undergoing a political change of heart before his death, though he’s sure that talking about it is the sort of thing that makes “the hairs on the back of the [Netanyahu] family’s neck begin to rise.”
“This is not a statesman in his 70s or 80s. This is a kid, or a young man, writing these letters and poems, and essentially taking this turn leftward,” Cohen says. “Maybe that’s a crude way of putting it, but he’s a person who, in our jargon today, is traumatized by fighting and is saying, ‘This is not the solution, this is not the way.’
“In letters to his girlfriend,” he adds, “there’s a kind of depression … and maybe it’s convenient for me to see a depression or an individual trauma as the beginning of an ideological shift, but I think we are talking about an era in which there were different ways to express ideology. And I do think that, in someone disclosing these feelings of sadness and being able to attribute them at least to some of the situations and experiences that he had, it’s a very different level of self-awareness. And it’s a true self-inquiry and self-doubt that I’ve never seen expressed, ever, by his younger brother.”
‘The gulf has never been wider’
Cohen’s father, Barry, is a lawyer whose family had its origins in Germany. When the author’s grandfather came to America, all his siblings ended up in Israel. The family of his mother, Ronnie, a speech pathologist, were Hungarian and more religious; many of them are in Israel as well.
Cohen says he went to “a very frum” Jewish day school in Atlantic City and spent eighth grade in Israel. His fluency in Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish subjects is evident in much of what he writes.
He says his 2008 novel “A Heaven of Others” was inspired by a cousin in Jerusalem who, together with his son, was injured in the terror attack at the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem seven years earlier.
“He’s probably my closest family there,” Cohen says. “He’s from the more frum side of the family, and he’s a scientist, and it was following his own odyssey and his son’s odyssey, and that of his wife, and how that marked them, that played a large part in a ‘A Heaven of Others.’ It also played a large part in my own spending time there, and my interest in the place.”
Did it cause a political reconsideration on his part?
“It actually made a sort of rational and – to the extent that one can be – apolitical person incredibly hard-line. My generation in the States, and certainly younger, is the furthest left of any generation since the depression. And my generation in Israel, including a lot of family members, is probably the farthest right I have ever encountered. And it’s amazing to me how wide the gulf is. I don’t think the gulf has ever been wider.
“People in Israel of my age, they came of age with the second intifada [in the early 2000s]. They couldn’t go anywhere, and things were blowing up every weekend. They would go to a café, and they’d turn around and it was gone.
“Observing the disparity between my friends here, and my friends and family there, over the past 20 years has been fascinating. To watch people getting out of the [Israeli] military around 2002-2003, and grow up and have families, and enter life, and watch them drift in a certain direction, and to try to see them from my perspective, with the drift that people of my age would be taking here, it’s been probably one of the most interesting educations – both distressing and illuminating – [and] experiences, I think.”
Do you feel any sense of encouragement and optimism in the U.S. politically today?
“One thing we have in common with Israel is, we make a great art of complaining. And in many ways, our recovery has been proof that we’re still capable, that government can actually do some things. But I think that the nature of our complaints – and this is something I was trying to write about when I was working on the book – right now are vindications of [Benzion] Netanyahu’s theses. Which is to say that the kind of transnational, or multinational, empire fails when you can no longer convince the citizens that their primary identity is that of a citizen of the empire. And that they are honored and dignified by their citizenship, and that they are respected and have a place in society. If you can’t convince people that it is dignified and honorable to be an American, they will splinter into their tribal groups of Black, Latino, gay, trans – start making the list.
“Netanyahu’s critique of empires, which I think really comes from looking at Austro-Hungary – he’s from Warsaw, right? – so, looking at Austro-Hungary after the First World War, and the idea that your identity as an Austro-Hungarian is nothing compared to your identity as a Croat or a Serb or a Pole. It was these identities that gave you a sense of dignity and honor, because otherwise who were you, what did you mean in Vienna? You didn’t mean anything to Vienna. You were a vassal at the edge of empire. And your language was unimportant.
“I think that one of the other things that you would fall into, in that type of tribalism at the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was of being a Zionist. And your primary identity was as a Jew, because you didn’t feel like you had a place in the empire. Netanyahu also pointed out that there’s a historical pattern to this. And so, the idea that the American empire is going through something similar is very attractive to me.
“The idea that, if we can’t feel noble as Americans, we’re going to backslide into ancestral identifications, and so, ancestral hatreds … and I’m very concerned about what that looks like. Especially when some of the rhetoric of the current left begins to resemble some of the rhetoric of Benzion Netanyahu’s right wing – which is that your identity should determine your ideology. That if you’re Black, you should have Black politics. If you’re Jewish, you should have Jewish politics. If you’re gay, you should have gay politics.
“This idea of the fragmentation – not just the fragmentation of the mainstream of shared reality, but the fragmentation of a shared aspiration – is something that is worrying. I do think there are some weird, uncomfortable lessons to be drawn from Benzion Netanyahu’s history. It really is one in which the only people you can trust are the ones who are your own. And I really do see this now, not just in Israeli society but down my block.”
You don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, right?
“I moved up in the world. I moved into Manhattan, a floor below my aunt, with the onset of COVID to take care of things. And now I’m like a termite, you’ll never get me out.”
Cohen says his parents also moved to New York, in their case from New Jersey: “My brother started having children, and when he couldn’t stop having children, my parents moved into the city to be near to him.”
What about you? You’re still not married? You’re not having children of your own?
“I’ve learned how to answer this question in a better fashion as I’ve gotten older. Look, all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life is to write and, honestly, right before COVID was the first time that I had enough money that I could live and felt like, if I had a family now, they wouldn’t die.
“Truthfully, the life of a writer has always been precarious, and I don’t know that a writer is supposed to earn all of their money from writing, but it’s the only job I’ve been able to do, and to get. And the life is enormously precarious – and even more so when you seem to have this disease that I do, of only writing about problematic Jews. As if I wouldn’t write a Netflix series if I were able to. I don’t think it’s my snobbishness that keeps me from that, I think it’s what I know how to do, and what I feel. … For me, it was always the freedom to do that – that was more important than having that family. But thankfully my brother had it for me. … All of which is to say: Yes, not married yet.”
“The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” by Joshua Cohen, is out in paperback in America on June 22, published by New York Review Books, priced $16.95. It is out now in Britain, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, priced £12.99.
Follow David B. Green on Twitter: @davidbeegreen