A Shared Language Lost

A Shared Language Lost

The Netanyahus captures a time before American and Israeli Jews underwent a great fissure.

(Zach Stern/Flickr)

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family
by Joshua Cohen
New York Review Books, 2021, 248 pp.

Since Israel’s founding, what was once the Jewish people has undergone a great disaggregation. In the United States, non-Orthodox Judaism is post-ethnic, postmodern, post-God; in Israel, “Jewish” is a nationality, printed on state ID cards. In the United States, marriage between Jews and non-Jews is not just common but the norm: according to a 2021 Pew Study, 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married between 2010 and 2020 reported having a non-Jewish spouse. In the words of Israel’s newly elected president Isaac “Buji” Herzog, this feature of American Jewish life amounts to nothing less than a “plague.” In the United States, the Reform movement is the largest denomination; in Israel “reformi” is somewhere between a joke and a slur. More than half of American Jews believe that “working for justice and equality” is “essential” to their Jewish identity; meanwhile, a 2016 Pew Study found that 79 percent of Israeli Jews believe Jews should receive preferential treatment in Israel, and that more Israeli Jews agree that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel” than disagree.

This seemingly irrevocable fissure in Jewish collectivity is at the heart of Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, The Netanyahus. The novel is a fictionalization of a real event—when the literary critic Harold Bloom was asked to manage the visit of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, for a job interview at Cornell—and unfolds on the snowy New York campus of Corbin College. Cohen’s Netanyahus are hosted by the American economic historian Ruben Blum, whose research deals, in a veiled gesture toward Bloom, with debts, but of the material rather than literary kind: the history of taxation.

Less formally inventive and lexically adventurous than Cohen’s earlier novels, The Netanyahus traverses debates not only about Jewish history and memory but also about the contemporary campus culture wars. It is neither as funny or cutting as Moving Kings (2017) nor as ambitious as Book of Numbers (2015). Still, The Netanyahus is an amusing and often insightful re-envisioning of a moment in Jewish history when, as Cohen writes, “nearly all the world’s Jews were involved . . . in becoming something else”—in Israel, “reinventing themselves into a single people, united by the hatreds of contrary regimes,” and in the United States, “being deinvented, or uninvented, or assimilated, by democracy and market-forces, intermarriage and miscegenation.” It was also a time, early enough in the development of these parallel processes, when American and Israeli Jews still retained enough of a shared language to really talk with one another.

The book’s drama is set in motion by what today we might call a microaggression. Blum is summoned by his department chair, the affable WASP Dr. Morse, to accept a task for which he is technically unqualified. Corbin College is vetting a candidate for a joint appointment in history and the Bible: Benzion Netanyahu, who, as he was in real life, is an ardently right-wing Zionist polemicist, a long-frustrated scholar of the Spanish Inquisition and Sephardic Jewry, and the author of a 1,000-plus-page opus on the subject. Blum is an Americanist with little knowledge of European history, yet Morse places him on the hiring committee because Blum, like Netanyahu, is a Jew, and the only one on Corbin’s faculty. He is tasked with assessing not Netanyahu’s scholarship but what Morse calls “His Character. His fitness and aptitude . . . Whether he’d integrate well into the Corbin community.” In practice, this means allowing Netanyahu and his family to stay in Blum’s house and chaperoning him around campus. While such genteel anti-Semitism is hard to imagine in universities today, it resembles experiences that academics of color, especially Black academics, have more recently described. 

The parallel to contemporary campus politics is intentional. When the novel opens, Blum is with us in the twenty-first century, looking back on past events. He muses about the current-day preoccupation with history, represented by the toppling of statues, and with the ongoing search for “usable past,” that old New Left fixation, which he contrasts with his own desire to escape Jewish history—“what I thought of,” he remarks, “as a ‘useless past.’” In this first section, Cohen juxtaposes Blum’s blasé recounting of the many anti-Semitic slights he and his wife suffered over the decades at Corbin with Blum’s lament that “so many of my former students—especially those from my last stretch of teaching—were so tolerant of others’ psychological fragilities and resentments as to become intolerable themselves, junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with every remark, finding bigotry and prejudice everywhere.” Through Blum, Cohen gives voice to a frustration with the terms and tenor of much contemporary debate, a frustration that Cohen himself has echoed in interviews. More broadly, the novel conveys a skepticism about the cast of mind that sees oppression, bigotry, and subjugation of any kind as timeless, immutable, and inescapable—whether in the form of the Afropessimism that has come to inflect much of the U.S. discourse about race, or in the Judeopessimism undergirding the Zionism of the Netanyahus, père and fils, according to which it is always 1492 or 1939.

If the novel’s first half has a central flaw, it’s that it doesn’t deliver on a promise it sets up early on. Via Blum, Cohen acknowledges that postwar Jewish assimilation is well-trod terrain. “My Jewish anxieties are surely hackneyed by now—they might have been hackneyed even then—but that doesn’t discount their reality,” Blum observes. “They were real once. And at one point or another they were interesting.” The annals of angst about upward mobility are not only filled but dusty. The dilemmas of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Woody Allen, are barely comprehensible to their descendants, who have never heard of the Borscht Belt and are more likely to encounter Yiddish on the Duolingo app than in their grandparents’ homes. Yet Cohen proceeds to illustrate Blum’s life as a midcentury archetype. Blum lives with Edith, his depressed and thwarted wife, and Judy, his teenage daughter, a would-be student radical who wants nothing more than a nose job. In their family home, Cohen stages the obligatory bad meals with the in-laws and a scene with vanishing-nose cream erupting from its tube. The nod to this all having been done before doesn’t stop the section from dragging. If, in fact, Cohen wanted to demonstrate the utter exhaustion of such American Jewish topoi, he succeeds.

It is in the book’s second half where Cohen’s skills shine. After the Netanyahus arrive at the Blum house with words “screamed out in that language that in my youth had been spoken by God,” the pace quickens and the humor sharpens. Cohen conjures with precision the clash between the bourgeois American complacency of the Blum family—its crudité platters, table manners, plush carpets—and the belligerence, sanctimony, and chaos of the Netanyahu family. Cohen avoids the tropes typical of this kind of encounter in much Jewish-American writing: Netanyahu may be an ultra-hawk, but he is a struggling academic in pseudo-exile, not a war hero; Blum’s wife, Edith, does not get along with Benzion and especially not with his wife Tzila, but she evinces none of the guilt that American Jews often express when confronted with Israeli sacrifice. Still, this section is not without its own weaknesses. The antic scatology and the slapstick of young children transgressing the rules of a new place occasionally tips into the gratuitous. When Cohen takes the absurd, the grotesque, and the gross to their deafening crescendo right before the book’s end, the scene falls short of the Rothian demoniac for which it seems to be reaching: less Sabbath’s Theater than Meet the Fockers.

But Roth, to whom Cohen has said he’s grown tired of comparison, is not the most palpable influence on the book. “At his best,” the critic James Wood wrote of Cohen in a review of Moving Kings, “he resembles Saul Bellow: his sentences are all-season journeyers, able to do everything everywhere at once.” In The Netanyahus, too, it is Bellow whose aura blinks out from Cohen’s rich historical and philosophical digressions and the novel’s mélange of acid comedy and earnest ruminations on race and campus politics. As Blum accompanies Netanyahu across Corbin’s campus for his professorial auditions—a Bible lecture attended by Christian believers, a group interview with the hiring committee’s mediocrities—Netanyahu launches into Sammler-esque disquisitions on history, memory, the future of the Jewish people, and the need for the state of Israel. Cohen’s Netanyahu is wittier and more likeable than the real Netanyahu, who was by most accounts not an easy man to get along with.

The notoriously uncompromising Netanyahu, who died in 2012 at the age of 102, sought grounding for his ideology in scholarship. He dedicated his life to the territorial-maximalist Revisionist Zionist movement, whose inspirations included Mussolini’s fascists, and he served as secretary to Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, the Revisionists’ charismatic leader whom David Ben-Gurion referred to as “Vladimir Hitler.” In his most significant scholarly intervention, Netanyahu argued that the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition was not actually an attempt to root out the heretical, clandestine Jewish ritual observances of the Marranos, whose forebearers were forced to convert to Christianity under earlier inquisitions. Using rabbinic sources, Netanyahu claimed that the Marranos were practicing Christians whose attachment to Judaism had become attenuated over the centuries. But as they ascended Spanish society, the royal establishment came to see them as a threat and developed a new doctrine, limpieza de sangre—the purity of blood—to persecute those of Jewish descent. From here, Netanyahu drew a straight line to the racial laws of Nazi Germany. “Jewish history,” Netanyahu once told New Yorker editor David Remnick, “is in large measure a history of Holocausts.” This is not a historical analysis but a theology, as Blum observes in the novel—a conception of eternal Jewish victimhood out of which emerges the need for a powerful armed Jewish state with the ultimate historical task of vanquishing its foes.

If Cohen’s Netanyahu does not always sound like the real one, that is in part because many of his best lines are glosses on the ideas of another historian of Sephardic and Medieval Jewry, the Bronx-born Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. In his slim volume titled Zakhor (for which Harold Bloom wrote the foreword to the 1989 edition), Yerushalmi observed that while much Jewish ritual and liturgy is concerned, obsessed even, with the collective past, the Jews long neglected the study of their own history. “Historiography itself played at best an ancillary role among the Jews, and often no role at all,” Yerushalmi wrote. “While memory of the past was always a central component of Jewish experience, the historian was not its primary custodian.” Cohen’s Netanyahu—as well as Blum himself—makes many Yerushalmi-tinged observations about Jews’ relative disregard for history. “Even false messianism,” Netanyahu quips before the hiring committee, “is more Jewish a discipline than history.”

Novelists, of course, have no responsibility to remain faithful to the oeuvres of real-life scholars. By imparting to the fictional Netanyahu some of Yerushalmi’s erudition and self-reflexivity, Cohen has created a more compelling interlocutor. But it is also worth dwelling on how Yerushalmi’s understanding of Jewish history differed from Netanyahu’s reductive Judeopessimism. In a 2005 lecture, Yerushalmi, who was a Zionist of a more liberal stripe, recalled encountering the Western Wall and East Jerusalem’s Holy sites for the first time in 1967; the most significant impression it left on him was that of history’s immeasurable contingency. “History is always open,” Yerushalmi stressed in what became the lecture’s refrain. It is a stark contrast with Netanyahu’s view of the eternally darkened skies. Yerushalmi was also far more circumspect than Netanyahu about how history ought to bear on the contemporary, wary of how post-emancipation, modern Jewish ideologies had come to “feel a need to appeal to history for validation,” and thus demand too much from it. “History,” Yerushalmi wrote in perhaps his most famous turn of phrase, had become “the faith of fallen Jews.”

Of the surviving Jewish ideologies, Zionism exemplifies this maxim more than any other. The opening paragraph of the Israeli Declaration of Independence seizes on the Biblical narrative not as a text for religious worship but as a land deed. Today, the staunchest Israel advocates, including some of those who still practice strict Orthodox Judaism, have embarked on a grand project to revise 2,000 years of Jewish tradition, contorting it to enshrine a Westphalian nation-state as its pre-ordained telos. Throughout The Netanyahus, Cohen is sensitive to how the instrumentalization of history can impoverish our understanding of the past. In the book’s first pages, Blum states, “I’d like to think that my profession has made me more attuned than most to the selective use of facts and the way that each age and ideological movement manages to cobble together its own tailor-made chronicles to suit its aims and flatter its conceptions.” This is no less true of Zionism than it is of the Romantic conservativism of whitewashed American history—or even the racial essentialist counternarrative that has emerged in partial reaction to it. Perhaps, then, Cohen’s novel suggests, history is not only the faith of fallen Jews but of all of us. What is Zionism, after all, if not an identity politics?

In a 2010 interview with the critic Christian Lorentzen in the New York Observer, Cohen threw a barb at the crop of well-known American writers mining Jewish historical trauma for their novels: “The problem is Jewish-American fiction that always ends with assimilation back into the community,” he explained. “They do what they do very well, but it’s only one thing. Kitsch needs to have its own built-in critique. Anything that’s nostalgic ought to also be tragic and disquieting at the same time.” In The Netanyahus, Cohen offers plenty of kitsch, as well as nostalgia for a time when Jewish art and fiction transmuted the anxieties of assimilation into a creative energy that is no longer replicable. So where’s the tragedy and the disquiet?

The answer lies not only in Cohen’s depiction of American and Israeli Jews heading fast in opposite directions, but also in the hints about what those directions mean for Jewish culture. With non-Orthodox American Jews having largely already slipped into what sociologist Richard Alba called the “twilight of ethnicity,” there is little doubt that American Jewish life, and therefore American Jewish art, has lost both its bite and its distinctiveness. Most American Jews are no longer acquainted enough with the tradition to rebel against it and too comfortable in the United States to identify truly with those still excluded from its bounty. Today’s best-known American Jewish novelists—Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, even Cohen himself—have all recognized this in their own ways, turning to Israeli characters or encounters with Israel in their fiction, as if the material of American Jewish life had exhausted itself. Israel, meanwhile, manages to produce challenging and even dissident art, but a national culture in thrall to machtpolitik, an increasingly religious society, and state-backed repression of leftists and Palestinians have made it a difficult place for the independent-minded, many of whom have decamped to Berlin. In The Netanyahus, set in the winter of 1960, the moments of cross-Jewish solidarity between Blum and Netanyahu take place in Yiddish—a language neither of their children will speak or understand. The tragedy, then, is that Jewish culture survived the Holocaust only to be torn asunder: in the United States, embraced into disintegration; in Israel, disfigured, almost unrecognizably, into a weapon.

Joshua Leifer is a contributing editor at Jewish Currents and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. He is currently working on a book about the past, present, and future of American Jewish identity.

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