“Slaughter is the destiny of the Jews”, is one of the lessons learned in the Jewish school by the main character in his book Joshua Cohen “The Netanyahus,” which is published tomorrow by Gutenberg and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year. Issues such as victimization and the sense of constant persecution on the one hand and the need for integration despite universal anti-Semitism on the other run through the book, a cross between campus novel and scathing satire. The plot is based on a true incident, the meeting of the literary critic Harold Bloom with the father of the current Prime Minister of Israel, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a revisionist Zionist, a failed politician in Israel and a professor of History at the American Cornell University specializing in the medieval history of Spain .
The meeting was recounted by Bloom himself shortly before his death to the American author, who then studied the Netanyahu family thoroughly: “Ben-Zion Netanyahu is a tragic figure,” Cohen tells K. “He has cultivated a sense of superiority. But they deny him the opportunity to participate in the building of his nation. Thus he burns with ambition and rage at the same time. And that makes him an interesting hero. His mistakes are easy to forgive because he is a man without power. His ideology, his prejudices can potentially become extremely toxic when adopted by someone in political power. But he’s just a no-nonsense university student living in the middle of nowhere that no one cares about. He writes about the 15th century and that gave me the opportunity to use him as a central character to raise some important issues.”
The theory developed by the father of the current prime minister Israel is that the Maranos, the Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity to escape the Inquisition, did so in order to integrate socially. Nevertheless, they continued to be persecuted in the 15th century due to generalized racism rather than purely religious reasons, since the Spanish monarchy began to describe Jews not religiously, but racially, based on the principle of “purity of blood”. The criticism leveled at him is that he described the history of the Jews as a history of consecutive holocausts, through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust. So it was Benjamin Netanyahu the agency for the implementation of paternal views and aspirations? “We are all products of our parents. However, some rebel, shaping their personality in contrast to that of their parents and others in their image and likeness, continuing or expanding their personality. And Benjamin Netanyahu definitely falls into this category.”
Cohen does not believe the Israeli prime minister will resign after his administration’s failure to anticipate and thwart the October 7 attacks by Hamas. “No. There is a big difference between dismissal and resignation. There is certainly the possibility of a motion of censure. I’m not sure how much energy he’ll have for another showdown though. It is very dangerous when two things happen at the same time: when a country is fighting for its right to exist and at the same time is called upon to affirm its fundamental principle as a safe haven for Jews. And this becomes exponentially more dangerous when the leader of that country needs a victory to survive politically and restore his reputation. It then treats war not as a means of guaranteeing the security of citizens or as a vehicle for a new security regime, but as a tool to undo its mistakes of the past two decades.
Thus he ends up being unable to judge what is good for the country and what is good for himself. He has trouble making that distinction. That is precisely why a resignation on his part would be tantamount to suicide. He has become so identified with the country that the moment he retires from office it will be as if he is retiring from life. It is up to the people around him to find the courage to remove him from the limelight. There is a messianic complex, of the savior, which he inherited from his father. Ben-Zion was describing the historical conditions, not wanting to save anyone. It took the narcissism of the middle son to believe that he himself could solve the problem his father diagnosed.”
“Ben-Zion Netanyahu is a tragic figure. He has cultivated a sense of superiority. But they deny him the opportunity to participate in the building of his nation.”
The timing of the Greek translation is sensitive, and many of Netanyahu’s father’s conclusions, treated ironically by the author, sound quite legitimate in light of the recent attacks by Hamas: the fear of encirclement and constant persecution, the obsession with security and taking refuge in co-religionists. What is his comment?
“The doomsayers are always right. If you choose as a mission to see the worst, the world is not going to deny you. I share the position of historian Salo Baron, who rejects the tearful approach to Jewish history. It is simplistic to take this view in times like today. After all, it is a view that was developed before the creation of the state of Israel, long before the Zionist movement. There are many historians who have this view of history, and I put some of their views in the book as father Netanyahu’s words. It is, however, a medieval view, derived from a pre-Enlightenment idea that wants history to be cyclical and repetitive and gives no chance to the progressive development of history. In contrast, the progressive approach wants each generation to atone for the sins of its parents and for the world to be a self-improving mechanism. This sense was completely foreign to the medieval worldview and especially as far as the Jews were concerned. One of the basic conflicts in Jewish historiography is whether we believe in this cyclical, repetitive history that treats us entirely as victims, or whether we believe in the possibility of a liberation and atonement. The State of Israel was in some ways that step of enlightenment, within which we were supposed to no longer be trapped in this repetitive historical cycle. And yet, it ultimately stuck us in the lowest level of medieval hell in 70 years. These are the conflicting views of history that coexist.”
Why did he choose Netanyahu’s eldest son as a charmer in his book and not the current prime minister? “But Yoni is the hot son, the eldest! Bibi is the small, chubby one. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice or just a matter of age. My book already has enough problems, I don’t need to add the challenge of making love to… a ten-year-old boy,” she laughs.
Can one laugh at the Jews in times like these? “It shouldn’t be a problem to joke about anything, anytime. It is the cornerstone of the liberal spirit. If one cuts off access to this starting point, then one begins to limp.” I give him examples of “cancellation” of those who criticize or do not deal with the Israeli people and the Jews with due sensitivity. “I don’t see the ‘cancellation’ as a ‘cancellation’ but as a marketing campaign of a book e.g. which is “financed” by the outraged crowd. Because when cultural products are “cancelled”, they actually attract more attention (and therefore ensure free exposure). I think it’s ridiculous to talk about these phenomena, not because I don’t think they’re important. But they can’t compare to the horror of someone walking into a victim’s home, shooting them in the head, disemboweling them and strewing their guts on the floor, beheading them with a shovel, as we’ve seen in some of the recent videos. Compared to terrorism, “cancellation” is merely a sign of a healthy, thriving democracy. In countries where this healthy democracy does not work, we do not learn “cancellation”. People one day disappear. Whenever I hear that someone has been “cancelled” I’m sure they’re not in some secret prison somewhere. On the contrary, in regimes in which there is no scope for confrontation, we are not informed of someone’s “cancellation”.
What is special about the Jewish family, which he describes in his work as a room lacking oxygen? This suffocating atmosphere “comes from a deep social taboo against divorce. In a culture where divorce is such a disgrace, marriages – which shouldn’t be – are maintained. And that’s how interesting families are made,” says Cohen when I point out that in many places the book reminds him of an (old) Woody Allen movie. The book was rejected by more than twenty publishing houses and when it was finally published it won the Pulitzer Prize. What does this publishing adventure teach us? That “nothing makes sense. In my personal cosmology there are two gods that rule the universe: chaos and stupidity. Well, if one does not serve the god of chaos, one serves the god of stupidity. So what I’ve learned is to be kind to these two deities.”
With something from Roth
In the winter of 1959, Corbin University, a fictional equivalent of Cornell University in upstate New York, becomes the setting for “Recording a Small and Ultimately Unimportant Episode in the History of a Well-Known Family,” as the book’s subtitle goes. The Netanyahus” in English. Reuben Blum, “a Jewish historian but not of Jewish history,” as the play clarifies, is selected to serve on the hiring committee of his exiled Israeli colleague Ben-Zion Netanyahu. He appears for the interview accompanied by his family, his three sons, Yoni, Bibi and Ido, and his wife Jila. Bloom is reluctantly forced to host the dysfunctional family in his home, giving the author the opportunity to narrate this hilarious coexistence of two incompatible worlds. Critics have compared Cohen’s work to that of Philip Roth, an assessment agreed upon by Harold Bloom himself, who ranked his book The King’s Metaphors next to Sabbath Theater (LARB, August 2018).