Just when it seems that there is nothing more to say about the Netanyahu family, along comes The Netanyahus, a novel by Joshua Cohen, an American Jewish author with a strong connection to Israel, who speaks Hebrew and bemoans that other American Jews generally don’t. The novel has a tantalizing subtitle, “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” the episode in question taking place in 1959-60 at Corbin College in New York State, when Ruben Blum, an American historian, is tasked with hosting historian Benzion Netanyahu and his family when the latter is invited to the college for a job interview. Unsurprisingly, a balagan ensues.
Corbin College and Ruben Blum are fictional; the two are stand-ins for Cornell College and the literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom. We learn this in a “Credits & Extra Credits” section—essentially a postscript— at the end of the novel. “J.C.” tells us that, towards the end of his life, Bloom had told him about “the time he was asked to coordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Benzion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess.” Cohen explains: “Of all of Harold’s tales, this was the one that stuck with me the most, perhaps because it was one of the last he ever told me, and following his death in 2019, I wrote it down, and in the process found myself having to invent a number of details he’d left out, and, due to circumstances I’m about to explain, having to fictionalize a few others.”
I can’t remember ever reading anything quite like this at the end of what is clearly a work of fiction. It comes across as strangely apologetic, and one wonders why Cohen thought it necessary. Taken in isolation, though, this postscript is the most interesting part of what, despite its promise, is a deeply flawed novel. In contrast to its ending, at the start of the novel, Blum (nothing like Bloom, Cohen reminds us) declares that “unlike the religious who have the chutzpah to put words into the mouth of God…I’m only recalling events at which I was present, and the time elapsed between those events and the current moment has been considerably shorter than, say, the span between the Creation of the universe and the Exodus from Egypt, and shorter even than the span between the ministry of Christ and the composition of the canonical Gospels.” It’s important to keep this in mind, as throughout the book I kept asking myself: Were the Netanyahus really that bad? Did Bloom think they were?
Blum, our narrator, certainly does. Early in the novel, he takes pains to remind us that he is a “Jewish historian” but not “an historian of the Jews.” Even more, he’s “the first Jew in the whole entire school-faculty and, as far as I could tell, student-body included.” Despite having no expertise in medieval Jewry, Netanyahu’s area of specialism, Blum is coopted onto the hiring committee—largely because the applicant is considered “one of your own”—and is tasked with chaperoning him during his visit. The visitor’s name “meant nothing to me, or to anyone…not even the surname, which was still a generation from its infamy. At the time, and especially in America, it was unknown. Or beyond unknown: it was foreign, esoteric. An alien name, eons old but also from the future; a name equally from the Bible and the funny papers.”
Some background is necessary, and Cohen provides this in the form of two letters addressed to Corbin College. These missives are the most compelling sections of the novel. The first is a letter of recommendation from Rabbi Dr. Chaim “Hank” Edelman, the “President of Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning” (a real-life institution, based in Philadelphia), which describes “Ben” (this is still the father) as “a major statesman and political hero.” The second letter is from Peretz Levavi, lecturer in “Assyriology, Aryanology, and Indo-European Linguistics and Philology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.” Far more circumspect in tone than Edelman’s panegyrics, Levavi’s letter provides the Netanyahu family story. Rabbi Mileikowsky, a Zionist activist with the pen-name Netanyahu (literally “God has given,” Levavi notes), arrived in Palestine in 1920, but then was sent around the world to raise funds for Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement. Benzion, one of Milekowsky’s nine children, went to the Hebrew University, where he focused on the history of the Jews of Spain. Anguished by the perceived apathy of other scholars (“No matter their stated political orientation, however, their Zionism was basically literary, poetic,” Levavi’s letter states), Ben-Zion left the Hebrew University without finishing his PhD, and became Jabotinsky’s personal secretary. After Jabotinsky’s death, Netanyahu completed his PhD at the aforementioned Dropsie College before returning to Jerusalem. Finding himself still a marginalized figure, he was eventually forced to seek work in America.
It’s a promising start. But these letters aside, the Netanyahus don’t make an appearance for another 100 pages (this in a book less than 250 pages long). Instead, we are treated to sub-Rothian passages dealing with parental visits and the travails of the Blums’ daughter Judy (a stand-in for a female relative who once boarded with Harold Bloom and his family). Interspersed with these passages are Blum’s own investigations into Benzion’s scholarship: “In Dr. Netanyahu’s telling…The true purpose of these Inquisitions wasn’t doctrinal; they weren’t supposed to investigate heresies or convert the Jews or to ensure that the Jews who converted remained faithful Catholics—not at all. Instead, their true purpose—never publicly stated, but privately acknowledged—was to invalidate new conversions and turn as many new Christians back into Jews as possible.”
Blum is not convinced: “It bothered me. Because it wasn’t really an explanation. It was more like—I want to say a dogma…I can’t help but propose that Dr. Netanyahu’s reasoning was produced by some tainted strain from that unhappy family of defenses…Dr. Netanyahu preferred to attribute the power of change not to a deity acting in accordance with an inscrutable design but to the world’s vast stock of gentiles who acted out of hatred, constantly judging the Jews and oppressing them, and effecting change through their oppressions: converting them, unconverting them, massacring and expelling.” The everyday reader is unlikely to be well-versed in the historiography of the Spanish Inquisition; I for one would have liked to understand more about the veracity Blum’s judgement, especially since it leads the casual reader to dismiss Netanyahu’s scholarship out of hand.
Blum’s personal impressions of the Netanyahus are similarly scathing. Cohen has set them up as the cartoon villains that the American liberal reader would want and expect. Still, given that Cohen makes clear that he found himself “having to invent a number of details he’d [Bloom] left out,” I was constantly wondering what was made up and what was not, which really shouldn’t matter when reading a novel—but felt like it did, on account of the aforementioned postscript.
What about Jonathan, Benjamin, and Ido, the Netanyahu children—13, 10, and 7 at the time of this minor episode? In one of the most delightful scenes in the novel, following some bad behavior Benzion “palmed their skulls, one in each hand, and bonged them together so that, if the scene were any more animated, little dizzy cartoon birds would’ve flown around their head in haloes.” As with Benzion, Blum is clear about his feelings: “These Yahus, which was immediately how I began referring to them in my head; these uncouth and rowdy Yahus who’d charged into our home and snowed up our floors and were now upright against and wandering the den like they were casing it for a burglary.” They sow chaos wherever they go, culminating in a strange and sexually-charged finale featuring the young Judy. While I’m not sure that one can draw much insight into the life of Israel’s current prime minister from his childhood appearance in this novel, it is clear that—as much as Benzion is a significant figure in his own right—the novel would be of less interest without our knowledge of the Bibi that Benjamin was to become. That’s what makes the few passages that feature the Netanyahu children so intriguing, albeit without much by way of narrative significance.
Ultimately, The Netanyahus feels like a simplistic polemic targeting the rowdy, uncouth Netanyahus. The blurb declares that Benzion “lays waste to his [Blum’s] American complacencies,” but I don’t think Cohen is successful in this. After his interview with the Corbin committee members, Benzion confronts Blum about the reasons that he was placed in the latter’s charge. He needles Blum about when he will get his honorarium, before finally saying: “And if 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.” It’s a tantalizing observation because, perhaps, this is Revisionist Zionism at its core: absolute Jewish solidarity in all circumstances. It must have been so strange to someone like Blum. And in 2021, with the Netanyahu name so familiar, it must be even stranger to the contemporary Blums toward whom this book is so obviously targeted, when such notions get dismissed as racism. Without understanding the Netanyahu family history and the actual lived experience of so many Jews in the Gentile world—experiences which gave rise to Revisionist ideology, and indeed all other streams of Zionism—one cannot understand contemporary Israel. Cohen is undoubtedly a talented writer, and with this book had the opportunity to give metaphorical resonance to the encounter between the two major Jewish centers of our time. It’s a shame that it doesn’t quite come off.