When 41-year-old American novelist Joshua Cohen won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last week for his semi-roman à clef, The Netanyahus, the first question occurring to close observers of Israeli culture and politics wasn’t “Is it good for the Jews?” but “How bad is it for Bibi and the family brand?”
Now, having won fiction’s biggest trophy after reeling in the National Jewish Book Award earlier this year, Cohen, formerly regarded as an impressive “experimental” novelist prone to write about “problematic Jews” (his phrase), finds himself happily besieged by international interviewers. One onstage conversation, with Culture Editor Benny Ziffer of Haaretz, came last week during the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, where Cohen has been on a fellowship. We’re learning much from the flurry of interviews about his already highly contested creation.
The Netanyahus, waggishly subtitled An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, arrived in 2021 from New York Review Books (NYRB) after being turned down by 12 other publishers. “I don’t think many editors at publishing houses even got past the title,” Cohen told The Times of Israel. “As liberals, their visceral aversion to everything Netanyahu represents was enough to make them automatically reach for their rejection slips.”
It’s not the first time acquiring editors have missed the boat by failing to delve deeper. Its wit and other literary virtues aside, Cohen’s sixth novel drips condescension for the Netanyahu clan, and especially its patriarch Benzion, the late historian of medieval Spanish Jewry. In addition to being the father of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benzion spent a good deal of his 102 years (1910-2012) advocating the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and its militant opposition to all enemies of a Jewish state.
Reviewers and commentators last year immediately weighed in on the plot, which, unlike a pure roman à clef in which real events are overlaid with fictional names, mixes versions of the real-life Netanyahu family—Benzion, his wife, Tzila, and their three boys, Yonatan, Benjamin and Iddo—with disguised and invented characters. Some lauded it as brilliant comedy, while others attacked it as a politically motivated cheap shot that uses fiction’s license to heap scorn on the made-up foibles of a real public figure.
In a coda to the novel, Cohen writes that he developed the plot from an anecdote told to him multiple times by the distinguished literary scholar Harold Bloom. Bloom, as a young Cornell professor, once hosted Benzion Netanyahu and his family for a job talk. Bloom apparently found the family vulgar and unpleasant, though Cohen acknowledged to The Times of Israel that the anecdote’s “facts” shifted in Bloom’s various versions. Cohen took the thread and reimagined the whole visit.
His narrator, Ruben Blum—not much of a fig leaf—explains at the outset that he’s a retired historian of American taxation, long ensconced at a small liberal arts college named Corbin in Western New York State, and its first Jewish faculty member. He’s an assimilated, liberal, Bronx-born, largely secular sort, descended from Ukrainian Jews, married to the daughter of German Jews who condescend to him. In the novel, he’s looking back at that fateful time when his daughter Judith wanted a nose job, and his department chair, Dr. Morse, decided he was the obvious person to host Benzion.
It doesn’t take long for Cohen, who told Haaretz he “very much” identifies with Blum, to start ventriloquizing his view of the Netanyahus. When Blum first sees the surname of the man he’ll have to chaperone, he recalls, that name “was still a generation from its infamy.” Later, Blum, reflecting on Benzion, can “make out the wrath of the veteran propagandist, the touring public-relationist touting his own delusions as definitive.”
Once the Netanyahus arrive—Benzion brings along his uninvited wife and three sons—the plot veers toward cartoonish fun. Benzion turns out to be officious, annoying and vulgar. Tzila, “that mean foreign lady with an accent,” drinks too much. The three uncouth boys run wild in the house—Blum dubs them “the Yahus.”
One literary fistfight that broke out about The Netanyahus after its publication took place in the Jewish Review of Books. The magazine’s reviewer, Allan Arkush, excoriated Cohen for distorting Benzion’s views and hiding a biased, vicious portrait of the family behind fiction, saying the book presented “a capsule history of Zionism that is so blatant a distortion that I just gave up.”
In his reply, Cohen defended the protective covering of fiction while also doubling down on his view of Benzion as an unapologetic disciple of Jabotinsky. Elsewhere, some critics zinged and praised the novel in the same sentence: Taffy Brodesser-Akner in The New York Times called it “an infuriating, frustrating, pretentious piece of work—and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking.”
In an interview with the Associated Press after the Pulitzer, Cohen insisted that “I just hope it’s funny” and that the “book was really written as a comedy. To me, that is its politics.” But at the same time he acknowledges some serious, non-comedic intentions and reveals his Blum-like attitude toward Bibi.
Cohen says he saw the Netanyahus as a parallel to the Trump family, a “reality-show family,” with Benzion’s dominating effect on Bibi similar to Fred Trump’s destructive influence on Donald. “It’s in these father-son relationships that these authoritarians get made,” Cohen told the Associated Press. He makes no apologies for the novel’s drawing on Bloom’s insulting memories of the Netanyahus, saying “you surrender some of that privacy when you become prime minister, and certainly when you become the type of prime minister” Bibi became. For Cohen, Bibi’s “self-presentation,” like Trump’s, “is so manipulative.”
One problem with ridiculing the entire Netanyahu clan, of course, is that they offer more than one story. Bibi’s older brother, Yonatan, the sole Israeli to die in the Entebbe rescue, remains a paramount Israeli and Jewish hero across ideological lines. Cohen tells interviewers that he believes Yonatan, before he died, was shifting leftward.
Bibi, now on trial in Israel in three separate corruption cases that involve bribery, fraud and breach of trust, remains reviled by most Jews on the left, but supported as a tough defender of the state by many on the right. Benzion, less known to younger Jews, is dismissed by scholars on the left as a hard-line right-wing historian whose core belief—the endless hatred of Jews by others throughout history—fueled his middle son’s politics. But he is respected by right-wing scholars as someone who dared to tell the truth about antisemitism. Iddo, the youngest and least-known Netanyahu brother, has, in his career as a physician and playwright, managed to escape most of the intense attention devoted to the rest of his family.
To this critic—with many years of experience in and around liberal arts colleges— The Netanyahus wickedly and unerringly captures abundant nuances of academic life and politics. But in its accounts of Benzion’s scholarship, which includes The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain (1995) and The Marranos of Spain (1999, Third Edition), Cohen, while plainly a kind of self-taught master of much Jewish history, comes off more as a name-caller than a serious channeler of counter-evidence as he stacks the deck against Benzion. (Although all major Israeli publishers originally turned down a translation of The Netanyahus, probably fearing legal action, a small Israeli literary journal subsequently published one in Hebrew.)
“I still can’t believe it’s won the Pulitzer,” Cohen told The Times of Israel last week. “I mean, all these prizes are political and I can’t begin to imagine what political mechanisms went into the committee’s decision here.”
If that’s so, it’s a rare failure of imagination for the novelist whose inventive tale Witz (2010) introduced us to the last Jew on Earth, and whose Moving Kings (2017) came up with two former Israeli soldiers evicting Black families in the U.S.
The success of The Netanyahus isn’t that hard to figure out. It delivers dazzling if occasionally opaque style and the right politics. Surprise, surprise, Bibi Netanyahu, according to Cohen, has not reacted to the book, and Netanyahu’s spokesman recently declined comment. Asked by The Jerusalem Post whether he thought Netanyahu might get in touch during Cohen’s star turn in Israel, Cohen replied, “Why would he want to meet me?”
Carlin Romano is Moment’s critic-at-large.
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