“The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”
New York Review Books
It appears, for now, to be over. Though the howling of a few MKs may have drowned out Naftali Bennett’s first speech as prime minister before the Knesset, the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu — Bibi, Melech Yisroel — has come to an end. No one ever spent as much time as the established Israeli state’s chief representative to the world as he did.
Though Netanyahu’s time as prime minister is finished (maybe), Bibism will outlast his term. His two-pronged approach to diplomacy, with its different tones and rhetorical touchstones for Israelis and Americans; his Manichean sense of absolute good and evil, whereby all enemies of the state are descendants of Amalek and all Jews fighting for Israel descendants of the Maccabees; his barely-concealed disdain for the Diaspora, and so on. Those qualities of Netanyahu’s are frequently reflected in the Israeli state’s attitude toward their American cousins, and aren’t going anywhere, any time soon.
How did the world’s most-famous Cheltenham High School graduate become this man? How did his attitudes regarding Zionism, the Galut and the world-historical role of the Jews come to be? For a man on a nickname basis with most of the word, this is a curiously infrequent topic of discussion.
Joshua Cohen’s new novel barely mentions the current standard-bearer of the Netanyahu surname. But it does try to answer the question of his creation, and ask a great many others about Jewish life in America and Israel.
“The Netanyahus” is mostly the story of a visit by Bibi’s real father, Benzion Netanyahu, to the fictional Corbin College in the winter of 1960. The novel is narrated by Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian who is “not an historian of the Jews,” the first distinction of many between Blum and Netanyahu, who is very much an historian of the Jews.
Perhaps it’d be useful to think of “The Netanyahus” as an American Jew’s extended investigation into the distinctions between Blums and Netanyahus. Blum, the lone Jewish faculty member among colleagues who cannot stop reminding him of this, is tasked with hosting the obscure Netanyahu for a weekend as the latter interviews for a job at Corbin.
Blum is of “Ukrainian/Russian” Jews, accommodating, meek and unable to stop apologizing; his wife, Edith, is of a haughty “Rhenish” Jewish clan, who are mortified that their daughter has been taken beyond the boundaries of Manhattan. Their daughter, Judy — Judele, to Blum’s parents — is a high-achieving child of an America that still believes in the possibility of meritocracy, who is also willing to go to terrifying lengths to fix her long, bony nose.
I read that broad portrait of easily identifiable Jewish “types” as Cohen’s acknowledgment of how seductive the Bibi view of the world can be. History and Jewishness both become simpler to think about when there is, a “fixed and enduring ‘Jew,’” one who is resistant and basically unchanged in function within the larger Christian world, rather than many Jews created by their particular circumstances. That’s Benzion’s intellectual project, to explain Jewish existence in this way, and that’s how Cohen is able to tell the story of Benjamin by telling the story of Benzion: the son carrying out the project of the father, and expanding it.
Over the course of the weekend of the Netanyahus incursion into the Blum home — let’s just be cheeky and call it their occupation — the clash between the two families is obviously more than a matter of manners, culture or economic status.
In reading Netanyahu’s ruminations on Jewish history, especially regarding the Inquisition, Blum comes to see that the future Netanyahu wants is as fixated on the elimination of Blum-ism as it is on the in-gathering of the world’s Jews.
Blum’s half-admitted fear, Netanyahu’s self-assured prediction and one of Cohen’s questions is about whether the world’s Blums will just do it to themselves.
Cohen is a writer of morally serious fiction. His work grapples with his own pieties and beliefs, and considers that they might be wrong. His language is more essayistic than it used to be; the Cohen of “A Heaven of Others” and “Witz” appears to be good and dead, replaced by the Cohen of “Moving Kings” and “Attention.” I miss that Cohen, but for a novel like this, it helps to just say what you mean.
Cohen recently gave an interview where he described his “deep and lasting enmity against Jews from Philadelphia” — spoken like a true New Jersey Jew, I might add. But at least for this Philadelphia Jew, the enmity is not reciprocated; I just don’t see another American Jewish novelist working at his level right now. PJC
Jesse Bernstein writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication.