The Good, The Ben, and the Ugly

On Joshua Cohen's Novel "The Netanyahus"

Netanyahu is history to begin with. The consignment of the ninth prime minister of Israel to the history books was ultimately engineered by the most unlikely coalition in the Knesset. The alliance’s chief purpose, it seems, was to sweep corruption-prone Bibi under the proverbial rug—maybe the rug of history.

Great men tend to become history, and alas, so do the fools. Though the latter are much better suited to becoming literary characters. During the great transformation from fact to fiction, some become belated heroes, while others are revealed as the children they never outgrew, leading states and their people into temptation and tragedy as though they were watching a Western on television.

Even before Netanyahu was ousted politically, one man set out to give Benjamin and his very famous family a place, perhaps a resting place, in literature. While the political cauldron was still churning out headline fodder of scandal upon scandal concerning the Israeli prime minister, one man took it upon himself to stir the soup of history and serve a hearty bowl of literature. One man mixed memory and desire, mingled historical sources with imaginative fancy. It fell upon this man to blend the historical, the poetical, and the theological in a way that would make that other Benjamin—Walter Benjamin—bow with admiration. That man’s name is Joshua Cohen—New Jersey native, New York City resident, author of six novels and a salmagundi of stories and essays and literary reviews.

His book is The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. It’s the first and the best of its kind. It’s the most perfectly realized of his novels, it’s the most heartfelt one, the most cleverly constructed. It’s also a sardonic comedy—laughter in the dark.

The book’s setting is Corbindale, a sleepy college town “in the occasionally rural, occasionally wild heart of Chautauqua County, just inland from Lake Erie among the apple orchards and apiaries—or, as dismissive, geographically-illiterate New York City-folk insist on calling it, ‘Upstate.’” Imagine Corbindale’s front lawns bedewed when spring is airborne, and picture a vespertine smoke snake, slinking heavenward from the chimneys when the year is giving up its ghost. At first glance, more Norman Rockwell than Grant Wood. But all facades are deceiving, not just in America.

At the center of Cohen’s novel, the small Blum family, nuclear in kind, Christian in scope. The Blum family is alone among the Christians, “the only Jewish family residing in our minor hamlet on the wrong side of the Catskills in the postwar milieu.” The book’s narrator and protagonist is “the Andrew William Mellon Memorial Professor of American Economic History at Corbin University in Corbindale, New York.” The Blums are leading an equable life in Corbindale.

Despite Ruben’s Jewish interests lying chiefly in the secular realm and Blum’s professional interests lying in Taxation Studies—“I am a Jewish historian, but I am not an historian of the Jews”—Blum is nevertheless summoned to his department chair’s office “toward the start of the winter term 1959.” His boss has a very special task for him. Consider that the late 1950s were a time when a tenured professor was paid to research and teach, not churn out grant applications in an effort to restructure institutions of higher learning. Hence, a summons to a superior can only spell bad news. It turns out that it does. Because there’s talk of a bandit on the loose, and he’s making his way to town. Cohen structures his swiftly-paced sixth novel like a 1950s television serial.

Cohen has always been lauded for his linguistic prowess, but it’s customarily skipped over what a great dramaturg he is—and how his deployment of words as much as his avoidance of them creates a suspenseful tug in the narrative. His white whale of a novel, the wrist-straining 800-page Witz, tells the tale of how the last Jew on earth, Benjamin Israelien, is turned into a carnival oddity who travels the world to hip up recently scarce Judaism. As if Cohen had set himself an oulipo limitation in the vein of Georges Perec’s La Disparation, Witz never once uses the words “Judaism” or “Jew.” The absent letter E in Perec’s (or Prc’s) novel points to the violent elisions of history wrought during the Shoah, and in Witz, Cohen plays with a similar aesthetics of elision to achieve a tense effect of knowing exactly what is absent because it is absent. 

Similarly conspicuous absences animate The Netanyahus. In the scene between Blum and Morse, Cohen doesn’t mention the titular man’s name for eleven pages after “the real dialogue” between the two men has begun. And like a comedic demiurge, Cohen first has Morse attempt to pronounce it a few times: “I was getting Bento Nehru, Benzedrine Nakamoto, Benzene Natty Yahoo.” When Morse finally shows him the typed name on carbon copies, the cover pages are “curling like scrolls around the name: Ben-Zion Netanyahu.”

But it isn’t Blum’s expertise as an historian that the booze-swilling Morse cherishes; it’s simply Blum’s being a Jew. Who cares if he’s an observant Jew or not? He’s a Jew, he must be semitically equipped to evaluate another one of them, right? Alas, Blum is all too used to implicit or explicit instances of antisemitism. Come the yule tidings, he has, after all, dressed up as Santa Claus for the faculty Christmas party, because “it’ll free up the people who actually celebrate the holiday to enjoy themselves.” And he notes that his wife Edith and he “were talked-down-to, deigned-to, patronized, studied.” Their “presence was a nuisance to some and a curiosity to all.”

So, Blum isn’t surprised that he is to be a member of the hiring committee solely for his being Jewish, and like the solid worker and good academic he is, Blum goes about researching his potential future colleague before the candidate comes on the scene. With Blum’s habitual nonchalance and good humor, he reflects on the prospect of meeting Netanyahu: “At my bris, I was called Ruvn ben Alter—Ruvn the son of Alter. If I’d had a son, he would’ve been Ben Ruvn—the son of Ruvn. Ben-Zion was the son of Zion—bar-mitzvah Hebrew was adequate to that, and that was the extent of it. I was going to meet the son of Zion.”

Until he does meet him, until Netanyahu arrives with his family, Cohen progresses by peppering his narrative with different discourses, two letters addressed to Blum. The first is a letter of recommendation, containing the sung praises by Rabbi Dr. Chaim “Hank” Edelman, President of Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia where Netanyahu was working during the time. The other letter is a letter of warning by Dr. Prof. Peretz Levavi (Peter Lügner) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who alerts Blum to the staunch fanaticism of “Netanyahu, the zealot” and wonders how “an Israeli-educated malcontent with no PhD and no book and a history of inciting terrorist violence” could find a position at any university.

One has to be an astute reader to spot Cohen’s subtle instances of unreliability in each of the letters: One by a Rabbi whose interests in securing a job for his friend “Ben,” as he calls him, may not be entirely rooted in academic excellence, but instead in religious and ideological reasons; he even invokes the Holocaust to justify “gaps” in Netanyahu’s resumé. The other letter written by a left-winger who might hate Netanyahu on principle; a man named Lügner, German for liar.

As Blum reads through these letters and Netanyahu’s writings, especially his study—The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, a Spanish translation of which Bibi gifted the current Pope in 2013—Blum finds that Netanyahu’s historical revisionism teeters close to historical nihilism, a profoundly pessimistic undercurrent coursing through his work and worldview. 

Through all of this, Cohen builds up Ben-Zion Netanyahu to much greater proportions; he becomes ideology incarnate. Given the ideological baggage that the son of Zion—both Ben-Zion Netanyahu and his real-life son—have in the world of the reader, Cohen employs the clever dramatic trick of spending more than half of the novel with people endlessly talking Netanyahu up and down before he and his famous family arrive. 

Then, however, Cohen pulls another dramatic trick and raises the stakes, by having the family arrive not like the King and Queen of Siam, not with fanfare, not with a bang, but rather like the Beverly Hillbillies—they appear with a whimper, more in the way that Kurtz appears in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Early in 1960, when the streets are still sugarcoated with snow, the Netanyahus finally roll in. Blum observes that the car’s grille had a “bullet-nose” that reminds him of a human face. “It came at you with this sweet stupid human look. This pitiable dependent look that almost made you forget that its maker was a Nazi.” As the famous Netanyahu family arrives in their “clown-car,” Blum—and with him the reader—recognizes that their appearance is a bit ridiculous and a bit worthy of sympathy.

THE BELIEVER: When readers talk about the politics of The Netanyahus, what do they ask you? Do they want to know the message of the novel?

JOSHUA COHEN: There is some kind of martial arts involved with this book. People emerging from it actually have some sympathetic feelings for the Netanyahus. That’s very complicated for people. Especially because of the way they enter the book. And people are not sure whether what they laughed at is actually funny, or whether they should laugh at that. They’re so uncomfortable with it that they’re asking me, “should we laugh at this? Is this the correct response?” And you want to bless them and you want to say: “Yes, laugh! But tomorrow we die.”

BLVR: That really speaks to the dire state of reading in our time. Because what you’re describing is just a very general—very healthy—affective response to literature.

JC: I think so. I think it also speaks a lot about the incursions that non-fiction has made on fiction. And I want to say, “it’s my fault.” But let’s be honest, what isn’t my fault? Everything is my fault. It’s my fault that I’ve used the name Netanyahus instead of giving them another name. But obviously it was a choice to call them what they’re called. I think part of that choice is disconcerting. Even more disconcerting than an autofiction approach might be, where people understand the tradition more. But people want to “get” the system that you’re using, they’ll say: “So, you’re fictionalizing this, but you’re not fictionalizing that—why?” That’s been a lot of the response to the book so far. And the other response is really the true tribalist response, which is every bit as fascistic as a Netanyahu response: “What are your politics? We want to know where to categorize you.” And that’s been the most difficult one. The idea that I’m somehow answerable not only to the political but that I have to be answerable to the political as reduced to some very base categories. “Are you one of us? You look like one of us, kind of, but then you didn’t shave.”

BLVR: You must have encountered similar responses to your previous novel Moving Kings about two young Israelis coming to the US to spend time with their Republican uncle in New Jersey.

JC: Sure. I also think that a lot of people missed that I’m reusing some of the shape of Moving Kings for The Netanyahus to draw some similarities. I think with Moving Kings people were asking: “Why am I sympathetic to this Republican? Why do I have sympathy for everyone in this book, why don’t I just have sympathy with this one character who is factually, politically, and officially worthy of my sympathy?”

BLVR: I loved that about Moving Kings, because a very basic quality of literature is to make me uncomfortable in my sympathies and the way in which literature permits me to question my more automatic or habitual sympathies. In The Netanyahus this is even stronger for me. There is a scene where Blum slips in the snow and almost falls, and Ben-Zion Netanyahu steadies him. And there’s this almost tender moment of how Ben-Zion holds Ruben. To me that is a very moving scene, even if Netanyahu takes on a slightly devilish shade with what he says next: “And if the situation were reversed and your feet 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.” 

JC: The note that I want to sound with that line is the idea of how easily he wants to volunteer his life. He’s a man looking for someone to die for.

BLVR: There is that strange eschatological or nihilistic streak about him, not only about his worldview but also about his own person. In some sense, he would matter more historically if he died the way that his son Yonathan will ultimately die during the Operation Entebbe in Uganda in 1976.

JC: This is a big problem with a lot of the way in which people read fiction today, or take in any character in fiction, not just in a book. There’s this presumption that everyone’s stakes among the reading community—meaning the people who read and the characters being read about—that they share the same ultimate desires: they just want a decent readerly life. As opposed to the idea that there are characters for whom certain extremities of belief and feeling are actually their signs of a fully lived life. We typically find these characters as villains who are the manifestations of pure evil. Characters in Cormac McCarthy or Norman Mailer—American literature of the 20th century is filled with characters who are evil incarnate, or the idea of someone who lives outside of all normative social bounds. But the idea of someone who’s not actually evil incarnate, but who’s actually ideology incarnate is, I think, a little bit more difficult to take. I find myself in a world full of the ideologically incarnate and I haven’t yet met a manifestation of pure evil. But maybe if I had I wouldn’t be alive now to tell the tale.

Ruben Blum is one of Cohen’s  best characters. He’s older than most of the others, with the exception of the great Laster, the aging musician in Cadenza for the Schneiderman Violin Concerto (2007). 

Laster is a kind of Folly, a masking first-person voice that allows his author to indulge in a bit of madness, making outrageous or false statements without being held accountable for them.

With The Netanyahus, Cohen builds on this tactic by giving us Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an obvious madman who may or may not be wearing a mask of his own. Yet, Cohen continually affords us moments where the mask is slipping and you wonder whether fanaticism is also just a performance and a shield that may have been necessary to arm against a sea of troubles in a world of chaos, in a history of catastrophes.

Wisely, Cohen doesn’t do so by making excuses for Netanyahu’s dogmatism, but simply by tapping into the reservoir which I regard as the richest pool of his work: family. It’s the topic that is strung most delicately through all of his novels, from A Heaven of Others in which a young Israeli boy is killed and mistakenly ends up in a Palestinian heaven—to Book of Numbers about a failed novelist named Joshua Cohen who ghostwrites a memoir for a tech-billionairenamed Joshua Cohen, and in the course narrates his own melancholy past. By showing us not only Ben-Zion Netanyahu, but also his family—his son who would become much more famous than him—Netanyahu becomes a bit pitiable, a bit foolish, a bit more down to earth than merely an historical person. It turns out that it’s literature which supplies a man with his past. 

A person’s character is revealed when they’re with their family. It’s there that you see their history. In The Netanyahus you also see their future. When the Netanyahus are in the orbit of Corbin, there is—even though Christmas is over—no room at the local inn and it’s on Blum to put them up, “the whole family: die ganze mishpocha.

Ben-Zion’s wife Tzila reviles her husband and belittles him, bickering with him in public almost as much as Frieda did with D.H. Lawrence. Tzila tells the Blums: “What we all wanted was a vacation in New England and it was only after we left and were on the road that we discovered from the map that the great genius of our family was wrong and Upstate New York is not New England.” And then there are the children. Yonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo—or as Tzila calls them, “Yoni, Bibi, and Iddy.” It must have been tempting to nickname the last one “idiot,” even for a mother, for he is all of seven and still wears diapers. 

The Netanyahus is akin to a TV show, and the characters, like all literary characters, always have to perform in front of a live audience—the reader, you. The letters of recommendation and condemnation, and Netanyahu’s trial lecture on Zionism for the hiring committee and faculty are the commercial breaks. What the sponsoring corporations were to the stories on TV in the ‘60s, ideology is to Netanyahu’s life, his own history. 

It’s essential that the second-born, Bibi, is so rapt, so fascinated with television. If it weren’t for television, he would never have become the political authority he was. It was, after all, his self-styled American persona “Ben Nitay”—Bibi even applied to have his name officially Americanized in the 1970s—under which he appeared on American TV as an economic consultant and expert on terrorism, before building his street cred and returning to Israel. The Netanyahus suggests that it wasn’t just Bibi’s appearances on TV that were formative, but that it was the constant exposure to American westerns which contributed to Ben-Zion’s pessimistic outlook and to his second son’s outlaw-mentality. Bibi’s father is the bandit, the outlaw who does possess a certain dignity, but who paradoxically has to remain firmly within the persona of the outlaw, or be outcast. 

It’s a cliché that every politician wears many masks. But it is one of the reasons why politicians are fascinating characters in literature and why so much of literature is called political, even when it doesn’t concern politics in the Greek sense of the term. Literature is the realm of performance, deception, double-talk, innuendo, secrets revealed and concealed. And it can peer behind the mask, it can tease out those private moments where a character is formed in their past, and it can patiently wait for those moments when the character’s history shines through, like a bright light through a mask.

BLVR: Part of my fascination with The Netanyahus is that it’s a campus novel, but it’s your very particular take on a campus novel. I was thinking of Nabokov’s Pnin, of course, not least because in Nabokov’s book there’s also the somewhat ominous prospect of an academic coming to work at the university toward the end of the novel—which may or may not be a fictional Nabokov. When reading The Netanyahus I was asking myself why I like Nabokov’s academic émigrés like Timofey Pnin more than characters in other campus novels, and I think it’s because there’s a trauma in these characters. Of course, it has to do with Nabokov’s style and intelligence, which I find very appealing, but there’s something about Pnin that is imbued with pain, as when he has these sublime hallucinations where his past trauma, of the Russian Revolution and the Shoah, come shimmering through.

JC: Yeah, there’s an element to the academic who’s a refugee, or even an exile, even a self-exiled academic, where their real subject is themselves and what they’re teaching is who they are. A lot of the time, what they teach are the languages that they spoke as children; they teach their native language, or they teach their native literature, or they teach their native history. Which is not always something they were experts in back home. For me it’s this idea of teaching who you are that’s always very strange. I met a man once who was originally from Iran, but who was living in Vegas. He came here as a refugee through an organization for writers and journalists who are from elsewhere in the world and who are persecuted. And so what we do as a benevolent country, we bring them to a place like Vegas and give them a house near a gas station and a car that they don’t know how to drive. Or we say, walk two miles to the supermarket. And this man was teaching here, but not in the field he taught at home. What he was teaching was his language and literature, but in Iran, because he could not be a literature professor and a writer there, he had to have another job. He was an engineer, but in the US he wasn’t teaching engineering. That was something that I found in Pnin and that I wanted to bring to The Netanyahus and Ben-Zion Netanyahu—the idea that his position is: “If you’re hiring me, I’m teaching myself.”

I was also thinking a lot about the way in which history is narrativized now. And that’s really through the screen. Because this is historical fiction, the book is soaked with television from that period, with early television. I was asking myself, what is the sitcom version of this story? Because it’s really when you show the sitcom version of these historic figures—not just historical figures, but historic figures, important figures—it’s then that you humanize history but you also trivialize it, and in doing it you also trivialize your soul’s response to it. And so it’s this idea that our historical education comes really through the screen. We’ve learned to treat history rather cheaply.

BLVR: Yeah, we’ve learned to treat it cheaply, and we’ve also learned to treat it in a rushed way, and I don’t really think you can rush history.

JC: It’s all about the costumes now. My true requirement for historical fiction is that they use the appropriate cars.

BLVR: There is a passage spoken by Edith Blum at the end that’s the central epiphany in the novel for me, when she says: “What I’m trying to say, Ruben, is that meeting this horrible man and his horrible wife, it made me realize something. It made me realize I don’t believe in anything anymore and not just that, but I don’t care. I have no beliefs and I’m OK with it; I’m more than OK, I’m glad … I’m glad I’m getting older without convictions.” In that moment Edith Blum becomes the hero of the book to me. Because this is the disarming antidote to Netanyahu’s fanatic ideology. I think this is the central aspect of the book in our time—in this historical moment that we’re living in—because I feel that there has to be the possibility of an un-ideological space, or a moment, or even a phrase—such as Edith’s. It doesn’t all have to be exclusively about politics, about identity, about ideology. In the politicized climate that we’re living in, to have a character say that in a novel and to have her say it in a novel called The Netanyahus is very powerful.

JC: It was that phrase—“I don’t believe in anything anymore, but I don’t care”—that was the real declaration of setting up a certain line between a person’s life and how it’s judged. There’s the idea that everything is political, of course, and that even the claim of not being political is itself political. Whenever I encounter that idea that everything is political, I think of my mother. Not just how my mother would react to it by saying, “I don’t believe that.” Because, of course, the person would come back and say, “your disbelief of that is deeply political.” It’s that my mother would say: “It’s not political, because I’m happier that it’s not.” And actually asserting that happiness or contentment as a criterion that is paramount to justice is a very interesting and not easily dismissible principle. And I say that as someone who has failed at understanding what justice could be and as someone who certainly has failed at being happy.

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