It’s the tail-end of the 1950s, and Dr. Ruben Blum, professor of taxation history at Corbin College in upstate New York, has been tasked with co-vetting a potential new hire for the dubious reason that both are the only Jews within miles. And yet, what might have been a quiet story of mid-century racial microaggression swells into an outlandish clash between ideological foils, because the potential new hire is Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—here envisioned as a humourless fanatic sourly and prophetically projecting the excoriated dignity of a man whose spurned ideas will eventually flourish.
This encounter between Netanyahu and Blum is a fictionalised rendering of eminent literary critic Harold Bloom’s own account of once hosting the Netanyahus at Cornell University, although in Joshua Cohen’s remarkable rendering, the anecdote is also an opportunity—prototypically explored in Cohen’s 2017 novel Moving Kings—to juxtapose Israeli hermeticism against its dumbfounded American counterpart. This results in disaster for the characters, and unease for the reader.
The Netanyahus, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, takes its time but doesn’t waste it en route to the eponyms’s fateful arrival: Blum, alongside wife Edith and daughter Judith, has only recently left NYC behind, and with it the ‘under-counting, over-charging sins of the unregenerate butcher, baker and grocer, the tenacious charity-collection of the rabbis, the full weight of the … Jewish past.’ Theirs is a story of intentional assimilation into the American melting pot, complicated by certain indignities recognisable to anyone occupying the role of minority (from handymen’s cracks about horns and money; to non-consensual Santa roleplay at the department Christmas party, leaving the habitual Santa free to mingle with those who also celebrate; to a Waspy boss who refers to our protagonist repeatedly by the telling diminutive ‘Rube’); Blum is nevertheless willing to dismiss these slights as ‘uniquely soft and ineffective weapons in the annals of anti-Semitism—so much so that to regard them as harmful felt impertinent, disrespectful of the ancestors’.
This context, plus the rumble of domestic dissatisfaction from a wife and daughter significantly less satisfied with their lot in life, sees the Blums through two separate though eventful visits by two separate sets of grandparents: the path toward assimilation is paved with interfaith sectarianism and one unnervingly triumphant act of violence. This disintegration of the Blum family behind closed doors, seeded with ominous and beautifully paced portents of the oncoming Netanyahu anima, rounds out the first part of a novel that more or less unfolds across three acts. This is a surprise in itself, considering that Cohen is anything but a conventional writer: prior to Moving Kings, he spent a week speed-writing a novel online amid real-time feedback from voyeuristic trolls watching via webcam; prior to that, he wrote a 1,000+ page opus in which a Brooklyn-based writer named Joshua Cohen is contracted to pen the autobiography of a tech billionaire also named Joshua Cohen, whose speech patterns—as the real Joshua Cohen clarified in an interview with Vice—were modelled ‘in tribute to the Chandah·s´a¯stra, the ancient Sanskrit book of prosody that’s the earliest known form of binary notation’. I could go on, but one requires only a few moments in the Cohenverse to grasp that here is perhaps the only person in the world with the discipline, intelligence, and voracity to render even the most exacting of inner critics speechless. The structure of The Netanyahus is either unified by an organising principle too recondite for my apprehension, or—and it’s possible I’m being influenced by the matching Fitzcarraldo covers of this book and its immediate predecessor—perhaps the toned-down structure complements a new direction, the direction of a Jewish answer to Henry James’s transatlantic dichotomies.
Certainly, the similarities between Moving Kings and The Netanyahus are notable: both include a Jewish patriarch balls-deep in the lubricious American Dream; both feature dissident daughters; in both, lives are imploded by the arrival of Israeli dependants. In Moving Kings, the dependants are two recently discharged IDF soldiers isolated by what they’ve done (there is incommunicable trauma in their minds; there is opprobrium from would-be peers); they cannot belong because they’re stained by war and can only make war, a realisation which ultimately becomes war between them. It is a narrative composed of sublimely realised though awkwardly stitched-together character studies; The Netanyahus by contrast is concise and self-aware in its grappling of whose story this is. The eponymous dependents are Benzion and Tzila, plus their three children, Yonathan, Benjamin and Iddo, careening into Corbindale in a busted car amid a schlocky blast of bickering: a manifest threat to the assimilation project that cannot be deescalated because it is wilful.
Just how wilful becomes clear over the course of a campus visit that lasts less than a day and ends in fiasco. First and foremost, The Netanyahus is a comic novel, and I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasise how funny it is. It made me laugh out loud, and a woman who saw me reading it in public stopped to chat about how hilarious she’d found it. One can read and enjoy The Netanyahus for the jokes alone. However, for a book set primarily in the fifties, what it reflects is the present-day American malaise. There is special meaning in Netanyahu as Trumpian analogue: an outsider interrupting ‘liberal pieties’, as Cohen explained in an interview with the Haaretz Weekly podcast. (‘I couldn’t write about Trump,’ he added. ‘It was too stupid.’)
If not the stupidity, then definitely Trump’s shameless crassness, his close-knit, obnoxious family and his flexible regard for facticity are replicated in the visit of the ‘Yahus’—as the Blums term them. It is for this (American, American-watching, or simply left-leaning) reader that Netanyahu informs a smattering of nonplussed Corbin divinity students that Jews were the first to recognise ‘the impossibility of a truth shared by all people’. That is, for millennia, Jewish history was a long, repetitive list of pogroms—why bother about the facts when you have such little power to alter them? Framed a different way, it is as the conventional dictum has it: history is written by the victors. Seeing Red, the college’s hiring committee grills Netanyahu on his politics, though it is his flexible perspective on history that will, in the coming decades, shape the institutions this committee are attempting to protect—not incidentally is Corbin Theological Seminary eventually renamed the ‘Hussein-Gupta School of Divinity and Comparative Religion’. In his contempt for the American endeavour to stuff the gaping hole of a national psyche hungry for meaning with the salvo of consumerism, Netanyahu performs one of his more subversive, and unexpected, functions in the novel: that of truth-telling madman, an iconic role in the history of literature. This, at least, is what Ruben Blum nightmarishly intuits at Netanyahu’s final, chthonic lecture:
If the American empire couldn’t persuade allegiance to democracy over origin, it would fail. … Once it’s revealed that the country contains nothing to assimilate to—no core, no connate heart—not just the Jews, but for everyone. […] In only a generation or two the memory of who your people were will be dead, and America won’t give your unrecognisable descendants anything real with which to replace the sense of peoplehood it took from them; the boredom of your wife—who’s tearing her program into little white paper pills she’d like to swallow like Percodan—isn’t merely boredom with you or her work or with the insufficiency of options for educated women in this country; it’s more like a sense of not having lived fully in a consequential time…
Reading this passage, I thought of the tiki-torch protesters of Charlottesville, Virginia—those formerly ethnic whites (the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs), now assimilated into a great white nothingness, belligerently pursuing an identity that might mean something to them. I thought of those American tourists who come to discover their Irish heritage via overpriced pints in Temple Bar and Viking Splash tours and dizzying drives along the Ring of Kerry; I thought too of McKamey Manor, in Tennessee, an extreme haunted house with a year-long waiting list of applicants who seek commodified torture—teeth pulled, crocodiles swum with, hallucinogenic substances injected—only there’s a safe word. Like all these people, Netanyahu is obsessed with an elaborate fiction, although his is about a place called Zion which became, in Israel, ‘a real country with a real army, real essential services, real treaties and real trade pacts…’ There is a password but not a safe word, and so long as you know it you can belong. To the Blums, Netanyahu seems to be saying, mockingly: I’m real and you can only dream of such realness. Realness is inextricable, it seems, from risk and death. At the Blum family home, the Netanyahu brood are watching cowboy sitcoms, but these boys will grow up to shoot real Indians. Deadpan, Netanyahu turns to Blum: ‘… if the situation were reversed and you were in my shoes and you came to Israel, I’m not positive I could get you a job, but I’d do absolutely everything to find you a good apartment, and in a war, I’d die for you.’
I’m American and I read this book as an American. But part of me also read it not as an Israeli, exactly, but as a lifelong observer of Israelis (my dad comes from a suburb outside Tel Aviv), for whom this novel feels like a timely whoopee cushion under the backside of the bit-playing middle son of Cohen’s novel, even as November marked his return to power on the shoulders of the far-right. In the fifties, Bibi’s father was an outcast, a radical adherent to a fringe brand of violent, fascistic, land-grabbing Zionism unpopular in Israel at the time—as the reader learns from a lengthy recommendation letter sent from a Hebrew University professor to Blum, very much not recommending a candidate ‘afflicted with the hubris of the wounded intelligentsia’, who writes articles that ‘might have been welcome in the Völkischer Beobachter or Der Angriff’. Bibi continues to play no small role in bringing this ideology into the mainstream, and that is the sober, unfunny insanity for play here.
If America is where you go to divest yourself of ethnic origin, then Israel, for Jews at least, is where you go to make the rules. Cohen doesn’t put this into words exactly: the novel draws more conclusions about America than it does about Israel. However, the extent to which Israel sees itself as a conceptual project, a point forever and multidimensionally being made (and a point requiring pushback, the hatred of others, to be made), is brilliantly evoked. Instead of an all-powerful God, Netanyahu believes in ‘all-powerful goys’ who’ve controlled Jewish destiny for millennia. Believing goys more powerful that God is emblematic of the crisis of faith occasioned in Judaism by the Holocaust—it’s hard to affirm you’re the chosen people after watching everyone from your village funnelled into an oven. Suddenly, the dream of Zion ceased to be a spiritual goal (arriving in tandem with the messiah) but a political one (guaranteeing at least one place on earth where Jews would be safe). The world is full of oppressed peoples: how many dwell in the compromised aftermath of having traded God for a country? The cynicism of this transaction has always seemed to me at the core of Israeli isolationism, poorly understood by the rest of the world, who rightly condemn Israeli oppression of Palestinians and Arab citizens, but wrongly assume motive analogous to the colonial Europeans. A line spoken by a survivor in Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary Shoah has stayed with me: ‘If you licked my heart, it would poison you.’ In the Netanyahus’ Israel, human rights are but a deluded foible of the West’s: they will not ascribe because it proved empty sentiment, again and again, when the rights of Jews were stripped. I have never before read a book that so incisively captures the fanaticism inherent in this traumatised, poisoned-heart worldview.
I won’t spoil to whom the last word of the novel belongs—only that the spirit of the Yahus, transmuted into the American psyche and distorted across the decades as in a game of Telephone, lives on.