Foreign Policy

How the Netanyahus Clarify the World

“Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation,” wrote the French philologist Ernest Renan in 1882. One would have thought history is about remembering, but it’s thanks to Renan and his disciple Benedict Anderson that nations are today widely understood to be “imagined” into being. And as every novelist knows, fiction is an art of selection—the legerdemain of leaving things out.

None of this is news to Ruben Blum, the unassuming professor and bumbling father at the center of Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus. Chatty, Jewish, and “an historian” (though not “an historian of the Jews”), he considers himself to be above the fictionalization in which both nationalists and novelists indulge. “I’d like to think my profession has made me more attuned than most,” he assures the reader, “to the selective use of facts and the way that each age and ideological movement manages to cobble together its own tailormade chronicles.” The announcement arrives both as a Renanian echo and as an immediate cue for narrator unreliability: The shared origins of fiction and history, and the dangers therein, are in large part what this very funny, very serious novel—based on true events—is about.

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, Joshua Cohen, New York Review Books, 248 pp., $16.95, June 2021

American literary fiction of the past five years could be divided, broadly speaking, into two main categories: realist, seemingly autobiographical fiction set in the present day (novels by Ben Lerner and Jenny Offill; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You; Brandon Taylor’s Real Life) and prizewinning historical fiction (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, 2017, and 2020, respectively). A smaller category of acclaimed novels is set in a dystopic near-future (Ling Ma’s Severance; Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible). The logic of Donald Trump’s presidency suffused many of these books, lending an atmosphere of crisis.

Published five months after Trump’s ousting, The Netanyahus, set in the 1950s, marks a turn by another prominent American writer toward historical fiction with contemporary resonance, shoehorning the major issues of the Trump years—nativism, nationalism, and national borders—into the framework of a hilarious suburban family drama. By historicizing the rise of Israel’s own right-wing politics, the novel also bypasses the intranational navel-gazing that consumed U.S. political discourse following the 2016 presidential election.

Israelis and Palestinians have just reached a cease-fire following the outbreak of war in May; Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is widely regarded to have been the aggressor. The 11-day conflict was only the most recent iteration of perpetual strife in the Palestinian territories that supranational organizations like the United Nations have been unable to resolve, as well as a display of the kind of emboldened “forgetting” in which all nations, per Renan, engage. Critics of Israel increasingly point to how selective versions of the recent past are leveraged to justify the country’s present-day hegemonies and cultural paradigms.

Are all nations really doomed to such manipulations of history, as Renan suggests? Blum reminds us that America is supposed to be the “most exceptional exception,” a state built on civic pluralism rather than on the ethnocultural narratives of the European nation-state to which Renan originally referred. It was Trump’s open attack on these civic values—and, therefore, on the viability of America’s national story as an exception—that made his promise to “make America great again” so offensive to so many. This domestic program, a coded allusion to a whiter, less socially progressive era, went hand in hand with his belligerent America First policy abroad. But it wasn’t until a few years into his tenure that the American left began to wonder whether Trump, however disastrous to social progress at home, wasn’t in the end an upgrade for the international scene when compared with a hawkish interventionist like George W. Bush.

The problem of nationalism in today’s world, The Netanyahus suggests, may not be so much that history is forgotten or manipulated but that it leaves history behind all together, taking on the hubris of a religion. The major tenet of America’s own civic evangelism, as Blum suggests, has been that the world “would continue to improve illimitably, so long as every country kept try­ing to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself.” It is this same America that invaded Iraq back in 2003.

As a narrator, Blum has many charms, chief among them the history-making knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The novel begins when a certain Benzion Netanyahu is invited to interview for a joint appointment in the History Department and Seminary (a dangerous combination) at Corbin College, a rural campus just outside New York City. (It does not qualify as “upstate.”) As the only Jewish professor on campus—as patriarch of the only Jewish family in all of Corbindale—Blum is pigeonholed into hosting the Israeli candidate and his family. The contrast between the two becomes the novel’s primary source of conflict and comedy. The year is 1959, and the recent founding of a nascent Jewish state casts a long shadow from offstage.

Blum specializes in tongue-in-cheek Taxation Studies. But with teaching awards to his name spanning the years 1968-2001 (it’s suggested that he’s writing to us from the present day, following this accoladed career), he is also an unofficial historian of the short century of U.S. domestic identity politics. Those politics are today the bane of pro-Trump American conservatives who argue that the battle for the nation’s soul is currently being played out on college campuses. The novel—especially the sections detailing Netanyahu’s critique of Blum’s assimilationist America—can be read as an exposé of the logic of those in the business of nativist or civic nation-building, and of the real and perceived costs of cultural pluralism to these projects.

Part of the game of The Netanyahus is guessing which parts are true: The actual Benzion Netanyahu was himself a zealous scholar emeritus of the Spanish Inquisition at Cornell University. His long-winded magnum opus, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, argued fallaciously (or, at the very least, uniquely) that the Inquisition’s persecution of converted Jews marked the birth of modern racism.

For all intents and purposes, Cohen’s novelized counterpart seems one of the least fictional parts of the book. Like the real Netanyahu, he’s unable to land an academic job in Israel; he has spent some time at a small theological seminary in Pennsylvania; and at Corbin (read: Cornell), his on-campus lectures espouse exceptionalist views of Jewish history that a bit of Googling can neither confirm nor deny as the kind of thing the actual Netanyahu would have extemporized. That said, it’s no secret that Netanyahu was sympathetic to revisionist Zionism, which married the religious ideal of a Jewish homeland to a concrete political program. It is a view that Benzion’s son Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu also shares, along with its attendant territorial expansionism. Now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, in the novel an adolescent Bibi is depicted with equally gleeful irreverence; last we see him, he’s a lecherous pest, sprinting stark-naked through the snow. In other words, one wouldn’t be surprised if Cohen’s publisher’s legal department has prepared itself for complaints. But the lawyer’s headache is the reader’s delight.

In his previous book Moving Kings (2017), Cohen analogized race relations in the United States and the Israeli military-industrial complex: Two Israeli ex-soldiers come to New York to work as movers, where they’re charged with evicting mostly Black residents from their homes. Like many novels published under Trump, it is not the author’s most uproarious. The book was also received as controversial for the comparisons it drew between evictions in Brooklyn and evictions in the Palestinian territories. (The May escalation was instigated, in part, by Israeli evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.) Cohen’s earlier, bestselling Book of Numbers (2015) was met with greater acclaim; here, Cohen took on the rise of the internet and the decline of literature through wordplay, structural puns, and metafictional pyrotechnics.

It seems safe to say that The Netanyahus finds a balance between these two precedents, taming the polemics of the first and the abrasive style of the latter. As a result, it likely leaves Cohen poised to win over a broader audience. Named one of the best young American novelists by Granta in 2017 and garnering the admiration of critics like James Wood and Harold Bloom, Cohen has also earned a reputation for esoteric maximalism and provocation that has narrowed his readership in the United States.

Embracing a narrator capable of self-deprecation seems crucial to this shift toward accessibility: Gone is the twitchy swagger of the multiple Joshua Cohens who populated Book of Numbers, replaced here with the bourgeois aw-shucks of a middle-aged dad who struggles to light a fire, forever forgetting to open the flue.

It would be hard to overstate the comedy this recalibration of Cohen’s skills achieves. The first hundred pages of campus parody and in-law feuding serve as buildup for Benzion Netanyahu’s arrival. When he finally does appear, in a borrowed car he has already managed to crash and with unruly family in tow, it’s with the satisfaction of a punchline; the key to situational comedy is in the timing. At the level of the sentence, Cohen’s puns include characteristic winks to the digital age. Blum is in the habit, for example, of checking his faculty “mailbox” with the frequency of a Gmail addict. Soon enough, that mailbox begins to fill with increasingly absurd, polarized letters of recommendation (spam mail?) for the candidate of the hour, carving out an efficient mechanism for dispatching backstory: Even in the novel, Netanyahu’s reputation precedes him.

It’s here that the reader begins to flag certain irregularities in Netanyahu’s views and scholarship. As one overweening recommender explains of the “gaps” in Netanyahu’s résumé, “I might cite, in this regard, such luminaries and American patriots as Dr. Albert Einstein and Dr. Hannah Arendt. Do we hold against these folks a ‘gap’ in their CVs between 1933 and 1945? … Of course not! That would be lunacy!”

A young Benjamin Netanyahu is among the children at a scouts event in Jerusalem in 1957.Israeli Government Press Office/getty images

The false comparisons inscribed in this statement include the fact that Netanyahu was not himself a refugee of the Holocaust. Born in Poland in 1910, he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine 10 years later. Nor did Netanyahu ever clinch the academic laurels or cultural eminence of Jewish émigrés like Einstein and Arendt. Though The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain received modest praise for its novelty, the work was ultimately sidelined for pooh-poohing traditional academic standards for citation and cross-referencing. Reading between the lines of these criticisms, one wonders if the actual Netanyahu, like Cohen’s fictionalized version, even engaged in a bit of historical cherry-picking. This is where the novel takes a more serious turn. That Netanyahu’s résumé and scholarship might seem “unorthodox” by American standards, as the above recommender admits, is rather the point. (And is such go-it-alone cherry-picking indeed all that unorthodox by American standards? Bush’s mythical weapons of mass destruction come to mind.)

Following the candidate’s memorable arrival, the Netanyahu-Blum foil begins to contrast the two historians’ respective conceptions of national and group identity. While Netanyahu’s lectures suggest that “different peoples have such different relationships to history as to constitute entirely separate histories instead of some unified common history that can be agreed upon through facts,” Blum is trying his darndest to blend in to the “common” American story.

Born in the Bronx in the 1922, Blum is bent on keeping his job, keeping his head down, and keeping up with the gentile Joneses. Modest achievements accrue on his “ever-expanding accomplishment-belt.” He pegs the discrimination he has experienced to the extremes he evaded—the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan—against which the antisemitic slights he regularly endured as a younger man (“When’s the last time you got your horns checked”? a car mechanic asked while petting his head) are deemed not so bad. He presents himself as a walking, talking counterexample to Netanyahu’s view of Jewish history as an eternal return of pogroms—“no one was going to murder me in this country”—and observes with mild bafflement the proliferation of an increasingly granular identity politics among his students. Excusing himself from today’s debates over gender and race with the qualified hand-waving of older generations, Blum explains that, while he was growing up, “the most reliable protection was to assimilate, not to differentiate.” He espouses pluralism by striving to meld, as inoffensively as possible, with the (white) American majority—a kind of respectability politics. While Blum was fulfilling his patriotic duty as an accountant in the U.S. Army during World War II, Netanyahu, meanwhile, was in Washington, D.C., lobbying the U.S. Congress to support the foundation of a Jewish state whose borders encompassed the entirety of Palestine.

In this way, both men are at once haunted by the past and committed to a kind of “common history” that will carry them into the future. They differ starkly, however, in their conceptions of the identitarian boundaries within which that common history applies—and among whom that history is shared. Blum, a professor of U.S. history, is in the contentious business of formalizing a shared national narrative that at the same time accommodates his students’ right to differentiate and revise. Netanyahu’s national history flirts with preordination and destiny in which not all Israelis—in particular, non-Jewish Israelis—may partake. The difference here is that between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen.” Either approach, taken to an extreme, leads to a national-democratic paradox.

This “gap” in expectations for their respective nations (and in the résumés of their own personal histories, Cohen suggests throughout, as neither professor directly experienced Nazism or the Holocaust) is best captured in a charged scene late in the novel. As the two men trudge through the snow to yet another of Netanyahu’s provocative, unorthodox campus lectures, Benzion says to Blum: “[I]f 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.”

This statement—“I’d die for you”—delivered offhand and couched in yet another joke (Netanyahu is literally wearing a pair of Blum’s shoes at the time), lingers long after the book’s close. It is, in a way, the disquieting, animating principle of every nation: Who would you die for if not your compatriots? And as long as the nation remains the basic unit of geopolitics, what does it mean to live in America, where the answer to that question may very well be no one?

No one, Netanyahu argues, is the answer supplied by a country that has taken its position of power and safety for granted. As Blum paraphrases Netanyahu’s views in his subsequent talk: “This is what I think of America—nothing. This is what I think of American Jews—nothing. Your democracy, your inclusivity, your exceptionalism—nothing. Your chances for survival—none at all.” This is the mindset of a man prepared for permanent war, indeed for “permanent conflict,” the term currently used to describe Bibi’s reigning attitude toward the Palestinians.

The true trick of The Netanyahus is that it can be read on two levels, romp or polemic, and not at once—it’s a bit of a duck-rabbit, in the end, flipping between the binary of the story of the founding of a nation and the story of the founding of a family. (Although, in Renan’s or Anderson’s terms, these are perhaps not such different projects after all.) Taken as a “minor and ultimately even negligible episode” from the archives of a “very famous family,” the novel is a lark; taken as a metafictional study of national identity and hegemony, it does most of what Cohen has always done well—wordplay, polemics, puns, the politics of assimilation, Jewishness, innovation in the novel as form—to harrowing effect.

Either way, The Netanyahus breaks from Cohen’s previous work in offering an escape hatch whenever things get too uncomfortable, too dark, and in giving women the final word. Shortly after Netanyahu’s lecture, Blum’s wife, Edith, cries good riddance. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about Jews,” she says. “I’m talking about the two of us.”

As a scholar, Renan, today best known for his foundational essay “What Is a Nation?” can only be described, like Benzion Netanyahu, as problematic. The label applies both in the sense that his writings run contrary to today’s progressive social values and in the sense that his legacy is a problem—a puzzle—for scholars. An Orientalist philologist, Renan’s early studies of the so-called Semitic race advanced racially essentialist claims rooted in the idea that language structures culture and thought; later, he rejected biological racism and ethnocultural nationalism in favor of the nation modeled as a “daily plebiscite,” remade each day by the continued, voluntary membership of its citizens. His writings now cut across both sides of the Dreyfus affair and Nazi Aryanism: Anti-Dreyfusards leveraged Renan’s early writings to antisemitic ends; in 1943, the American Jewish Committee in New York began reprinting his essays on a more cosmopolitan conception of citizenship as anti-Nazi propaganda.

The most dangerous ideas are those lies that hold a flint of truth, the most dangerous people, those who send these ideas out into the world not as arguments conceived but discovered—God-given, if you will. “God-given” is also the English translation of “Netanyahu,” the surname Benzion’s father adopted on arriving in Palestine in 1920. His son may have taken the namesake too much to heart. Netanyahu was not wrong in suggesting that Europe’s debates over citizenship, nationalism, and race have often centered on the question of Jewish rights—in Renan’s own racist framing, on whether European Jews were part of the “one race, the white race,” thus delineating the outer limits of the white supremacist imagination. We might say Netanyahu was wrong about everything else. In matters of statesmanship, egregiously so.

What’s the difference, in the end, between a novelist like Cohen and a historian like Netanyahu? Both take license with scholarship and dip into the same pool of human time. In a final twist, The Netanyahus addresses the overlap in these techniques head-on, breaking the fourth wall to announce that the story we’ve just read is based on true events. We learn that Blum is a tribute to the late literary critic Harold Bloom, the first Jewish professor ever to be awarded tenure by the Yale English Department and who was once likewise obliged to host Benzion Netanyahu for a campus visit. Before his death in 2019, Bloom praised Book of Numbers as one of the greatest American novels of recent years; in a conversation with Cohen published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, he described Cohen’s subsequent Moving Kings as a “rather hurtful book.” One imagines that Bloom would find The Netanyahus to be Cohen’s best novel yet, as well as his sneakiest, his subtlest, possibly even his most hurtful, depending on the perspective one brings to bear. Ideologues from across the political spectrum are invited to tease incompatible conclusions from the same set of evidence; it is a novel of discordant superlatives.

And is this all the novelist is, a disgraced historian? The answer, The Netanyahus suggests, lies in what you make of what you borrowed, in what ends you have in mind. Whether you acknowledge, plainly, that it was fiction after all.

But a reader could just as easily be forgiven for throwing up her arms, declaring herself sick of all these self-important men and their damnable history-making, along with the harm it tends to cause. “Are you even listening?” Edith says. “I want to go home.” The answer is as simple, historical, and impossible as that.

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