An America in Doubt: About Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus

The impromptu arrival of the Netanyahu family one day in the winter of 1959 under the roof of Ruben Blum’s family causes the life of the young history professor at a provincial university in New York State to falter. But how can we understand this explosive event that American novelist Joshua Cohen stages without giving us the key?

 

Announcement of Benzion Netanyahu’s death in the New York Times on April 30, 2012.

 

“My name is Ruben Blum and I am an, yes, an historian” – this is the opening line of Joshua Cohen’s novel The Netanyahus. Recalling his student days in the immediate post-war period when a malicious teacher said to him “Ah, Blum, did you say? A Jewish historian?”, the narrator of the story, a retired professor, confides that “I’m an American historian—or I was“. Why does he say it in the past tense ? We will never know. Yet this is exactly the enigma of Cohen’s novel, if one is willing to read it politically. Fortunately, in this prologue, the narrator himself provides us with a clue that we must follow, even when it gets stuck in the course of the story. This trail opens up immediately, as the disillusioned historian ponders his own disarray: « The same process holds true for us historians—in my experience, we’re the only ones in the humanities for whom this holds true—the only ones who become what we study; we age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time. Or maybe that’s just the Jew in me talking… ». So here is the question for Joshua Cohen’s reader: what has come to grip Ruben Blum to dissolve his life as a historian, to empty it of its substance, to project him onto a plane where historical time seems abolished?

“The Netanyahus” is both the title of Joshua Cohen’s novel and of the event that cracked Ruben Blum’s biography. And one can imagine the disappointment of those who anticipated that the novelist would settle accounts with the reprobate, often hated, Benjamin Netanyahu. For the former prime minister appears in the story as one of the three offspring of Benzion Netanyahu, a historian born in Warsaw in 1910 under the name of Mileikowsky, a Zionist activist in the mould of Jabotinsky, raised in Mandatory Palestine, a doctor of history from an American university, ostracized by the Israeli academy, seeking a professorship when he is already a middle-aged father. The story can be condensed into a few lines. The announcement of the arrival, at the end of December 1959, of Dr. Benzion Netanyahu, a specialist in the Jews of the medieval Iberian Peninsula and candidate for a chair in history at a small provincial university in the State of New York, disturbs Ruben Blum, a young professor of American economic history, who teaches there and aspires, dispassionately but with anxious professionalism, to integrate himself into a narrow and boring academic world, erasing as much as possible the fact that he is Jewish. Charged by the faculty – because he is a historian and a Jew to boot – to welcome the candidate Netanyahu, with whom he has no affinity a priori, Blum performs this task with reluctance. But the polite welcome turns into a burlesque disaster, as it turns out that Benzion Netanyahu, full of himself, shameless, contemptuous and authoritarian, is accompanied by a furious wife and three ill-bred children. The town hotel being full, the invading Netanyahu family imposes itself under the Blum’s roof. The Blum and Netanyahu couples return late from the cocktail party at the end of the candidate’s two probationary lessons to find the household, carefully maintained by the Blum wife, ravaged by the wild triplet, while the eldest of the Netanyahu siblings and the Blums’ daughter (a teenager, responsible for watching them, whose only ambition in life is to have her nose done) are caught naked in bed.

Behind the situational comedy, which sometimes reminds us of the Marx Brothers, Joshua Cohen unfolds a fresco of post-war American Judaism, composed of emigrant Jews still wedded to the Jewish way of life in Eastern Europe (Ruben Blum’s parents) and those, already perfectly integrated, who are part of this Judeo-American symbiosis in the making (his wife Edith’s German-born parents). Ruben’s father views the country in which he has failed with suspicion because experience has taught him that defiance is a guarantee of realism. Scowling, equally ill-tempered, restless, he is impervious to the promises of America, while Ruben’s enthusiastic father-in-law, proud of his success, gives him DIY advice as if this activity were the key, within reach, to the American dream. Ruben Blum, tormented, moves awkwardly through his upwardly mobile dynamic: the dean of his faculty makes him feel like an intruder; his mother-in-law, a snobbish bourgeois woman, despises him for moving his family to a backwater hick town for a pittance; and his own parents, who live modestly and frequent the shul of their New York neighbourhood, don’t understand his career. Professor Blum’s accidental and coercive dive into Benzion Netanyahu’s application file, which is poorly published but full of insights, sets in motion a process whose logic the reader tries to grasp.

It is here that this Jewish-American novel, so familiar to us at first, becomes unheimlich, strange. For the hurricane that blows through the peaceful Blum house, unleashed by the horde of rogue Israelis who ravage its inner layout, is only the visible outer face of the tornado that blows through Professor Blum’s head. Uncomfortable in his professional and family life, worried by nature, Ruben Blum painfully navigates between the hypocritically benevolent, artificially friendly but manipulative and naturally alcoholic dean of the faculty, a dissatisfied, sulky wife who refuses to show him any sign of affection, an accusing mother-in-law, dedicated to the accumulation of material and cultural goods, his own father, rough and sceptical, his head still immersed in the dangerous world of the Eastern ghetto, and a narcissistic and delusional daughter who is having a hard time coping with her enforced move to a countryside populated by mine workers and farmers. So let’s repeat the question: what is the nature of this inner turmoil, in the household and in Blum’s head, triggered by Netanyahu’s lightning landing? Annoyed at having to examine a file because he knows he is incompetent in medieval history, because he has to play the token Jew, Ruben Blum is fascinated by the character as soon as he immerses himself in the file, to the point of sleepless nights. The cautious and methodical historian receives Netanyahu’s peremptory assertions like so many arrows shot in his direction, without him, or the reader for that matter, managing to identify precisely what is being hit.

Benzion Netanyahu insinuates himself as an external reference point, alien to the mental map that marks out Blum’s trajectory. Joshua Cohen suggests that Netanyahu’s unexpected crossing into the Blum world has, like a meteorite, struck and diverted the well-planned itinerary of this history professor who has found a comfortable niche in the fallow field of American fiscal history. But what precisely does Netanyahu distill in his writings, what does he instill during his short one-on-one visit to his host, or on the occasion of the two lessons in front of his colleagues, those of the faculty of history and those of the faculty of (Protestant) theology, to make Blum falter? To the theology professors who thought that a Jew could do double duty by also teaching biblical criticism – the naivety and pragmatism of a Christian America that knows nothing of the Jews, and which has put them down as biblical authenticity – Netanyahu explained forcefully that there was no such thing as Jewish theology, that God was only a character in a national epic. And in front of the audience of historians his tone is theological, at the very least destined, and contemptuous of the historical discipline: the Jews have nothing to do with Christian history except that they are immersed in it in spite of themselves; history as it is practised is a pure product of Christianity so that the adventure of the Jews should be told differently. The Jewish narrative is cyclical, Netanyahu insists. Even when the Jews integrate into the surrounding society, they end up being out of sync with it, often by force, and then find their own singular, unchanging path, that of a people over whom the course of time has no control. The expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, then the persecution of the conversos, are proof of this, he asserts, while the Shoah is only a particularly virulent replica and therefore a final condensation of the same endless mechanism. Benzion Netanyahu, who was Jabotinsky’s secretary in the United States in the 1930s and whose mission as a Zionist-revisionist activist in post-war America he took over, concludes: In the face of the danger that is brewing, the Jews must leave Europe, build a nation in Palestine in haste, now, imposing themselves by force if necessary, and now that a Jewish state exists, they must work to consolidate it, even if it means militarising it, in order to face up to the hostility. Above all, the Jews must carry out an internal revolution, that the people must imperatively return to the starting point of its collective adventure, by territorialising itself in the cradle which saw its birth, by assembling and establishing itself, in order to definitively close the catastrophic cycle of exile. This is the only grandiose, or at least realistic, objective that deserves all sacrifices.

Left: Joshua Cohen / Right: cover of The Netanyahus

Ruben Blum listens, in silence. He hates this propagandist who only approaches historical material for political purposes, and yet he is magnetized by the audacity, the hutzpa, of Netanyahu who, without any complex, looks down on his audience of Christian historians or theologians, which for the candidate amounts to the same thing, and doesn’t care about the impression he makes on the jury that will nevertheless decide his fate. Hadn’t Ruben Blum been alerted by a long message from an Israeli colleague saying that he hoped that the dangerous Netanyahu would find a job anywhere, as long as it was not in Israel, because the man is, in short, reminiscent of the gifted but deviant and uncontrollable Jew, the kind of character that the traditional community of yesteryear subsidised with no other aim than to neutralise him? And indeed, Netanyahu is uncontrollable, he launches himself, without notes, at the public, like a Tsahal tank. The historian, if this profession has any meaning when it comes to the Jews, is nothing more than a seismograph that records the tremors until the final conflagration. For past and present blend and overlap, one illuminating the other in a game of cross-reference that cancels out historical time and finally clears a space for imminent political action, Netanyahu says to an apathetic, affable or indifferent audience, absorbed in the petty business of the university.

But Blum takes it in his stride. Benzion’s plea undermines his morale. The blast of the epistemological bomb simultaneously sweeps away the assurance of the professional historian and his common vision, which is not very political, that of a flat, horizontal world, where the Jews dissolve into the American epic, which has only nihilism as its horizon, leaving Ruben Blum with only his dreary private life as consolation. Netanyahu’s audacity then brings Blum back to his condition of a historian without stature, or rather to the smallness of the historian’s profession when he is not politically motivated. And Benzion Netanyahu, entirely unencumbered by any strategy of integration, sends Blum back to his anxious caution, his conformism, his need to please the goyim, his submission to the dean who tells him to play Father Christmas in the name of the university’s tradition. When Blum, stunned by the candidate’s public lesson, by its scope that only he can grasp, and by his nerve, confirms to him on the way back that his recruitment is less than assured, Netanyahu nonchalantly worries about his remuneration for the lesson he deigned to give, before calling Ruben Blum a court Jew, a stooge of power, who will one day be swept away by the wind of history. The meteorite Netanyahu, an unlikely combination of pathetic Jewish beggar and exalted Zionist, as haughty, infectious and sometimes ridiculous as he may be, leaves Blum alone with his wife’s depression and his daughter’s foolishness. He feels the emptiness of his existence.

With the destruction of the Blum’s cozy house, especially the first television set they proudly acquired, it is certainly the American dream that Joshua Cohen attacks in his novel, but it is above all the Jewish-American ideal that cracks as the story progresses. Joshua Cohen seems to want to tell us, without pathos, in a comic mode, through the fortuitous and explosive confrontation of the two families, that the Jewish-American symbiosis, like those of the past, Jewish-German or Jewish-French, will inexorably disintegrate. Whereas Philip Roth was the novelist of the Jews so comfortably coiled up in this new Promised Land – Roth for whom the dystopian temptation of The Plot Against America took the form of reassurance – Joshua Cohen delivers here perhaps the first novel of Jewish-American doubt. One assumes that in the current situation, which divides the country between a reactionary society for which Trump is the megaphone and a progressive camp submerged by the excesses incubated in a University in perdition, two opposing worlds that saturate a space that has become unwelcoming to Jews, Joshua Cohen hesitates. He informs us, at the end of the novel, that Ruben Blum is a double of Harald Bloom, the eminent literary critic, his friend who confided in him shortly before his death the anecdote here recounted, although the portrait of Blum owes nothing to Bloom, while the Netanyahu are really the Netanyahu, Benzion is really, without any gap, the one who obtained a chair at Cornell University, author of a remarkable monograph on Don Isaac Abravanel from his history thesis, and of a monumental study on the origin of the Inquisition in Spain. And he is the father of three sons, two of whom will contribute to the epic of the State of Israel, Benjamin as prime minister of extraordinary longevity, his elder brother Jonathan, head of the Tsahal commando who fell as a hero during the Entebbe operation. But Blum’s daughter, Cohen points out, the one who was caught in bed with the daring Jonathan, is by no means Harald Bloom’s daughter, she is a young girl from the Bronx welcomed into his home at the time. So Cohen’s novel takes on the look of a hybrid action-comedy, mixing animation or CGI and live action. The novel is covered with a technicolour patina, even though it is really about America today. The writer captures the turmoil that is creeping into the Jewish-American alliance in real life. The most real are undoubtedly the Netanyahu, those we know, those we must hate, while the American family is synthetic, we recognize in it the content of Jewish experiences, and as such, it comes alive to plunge us into a dilemma that Joshua Cohen has the elegance to raise in a burlesque way, without showing us any way out.

Perhaps it is then through Blum’s fake daughter that Cohen’s dilemma takes an acute turn, sinking into a crisis with no way out. The Blum girl’s nose, waiting to be rectified, is finally reshaped following a comical accident in which her impatient paternal grandfather accidentally breaks it by forcing open the door of the entrenched teenager’s room, making the operation not cosmetic, deferred as an ideal attainable for a fee, but medical, urgent. The integration of the Jews into their environment is painful and paradoxical. For if Ruben Blum is destabilized by Benzion Netanyahu, it is because Joshua Cohen has deeply meditated on the vision of the one we like to approach as a rustic propagandist of revisionist Zionism. In the post-Shoah era, Benzion Netanyahu’s supposedly delusional rhetoric takes on a hyper-realistic, not surreal, quality. At least, Joshua Cohen makes palpable the irresistible impact of that Zionism that is driven by experienced danger, that elemental Zionism that post-Shoah Jews, even in the United States, have, consciously or not, metabolized and that imperceptibly colours their existence, however happy it may seem. Here, Cohen’s European reader witnesses the staggering spectacle of an American Jewish world in doubt, as if the experience of European precariousness has now reached America – a concern that Daniel Mendelsohn recently confessed to K.

When Joshua Cohen takes over at the end of the novel under the title Credits & Bonuses, this time to inquire who the Blums’ fictional teenage daughter really is, sending her manuscript to him for advice, Judy belches out, like the oracle of a post-political world, that Jews are now on the wrong side of history, that as the planet burns, “none of this Jewish crap” still matters, that there is only one “human people” left and that “the non-binary dyke that she is” will come “to dance naked” on the grave of literature, of which Cohen’s story – his “book” she writes in quotes – is an outdated avatar. So the reader, like Ruben Blum, also finds himself alone, caught between two flashes of light, the mystical one of Benzion Netanyahu who wants to snatch the Jews from their programmed loss in order to redeem them, and the no less mystical one of Judy who dissolves the Jews into a humanity that now knows itself only in the modality of a multitude of sexed bodies. And we can now understand why the historian – Ruben Blum, who is now a historian in the past tense, and we ourselves, who still live in a historical world on borrowed time – disaffected, disconnected from a time that is neither scanned nor vectorized, finds no destination. Faced with the alternative that Joshua Cohen releases at the end of the novel, we are nothing more than his disoriented audience.


Danny Trom

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

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