2021 Annual Assessment

Another Jewish creative work that deals with Israel-US Jewry relations is the novel The Netanyahus: an Account of a Minor and Ultimately even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. This novel, by the young author Joshua Cohen, has aroused great curiosity and become a much-discussed item on the American cultural scene (it has yet to be published in Hebrew).6 The book addresses a variety of issues, but our discussion here will focus on its Jewish aspects. Two main figures are at the center of the novel: Professor Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian modeled on the renowned scholar Harold Bloom, who died in 2019 and who, ironically, himself wrote about literary intertextuality. The other protagonist is Professor Benzion Netanyahu, the famed historian and father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Harold Bloom is the major identifiable inspiration for the Ruben Blum character, the Netanyahu character is a challenging blend of fiction and reality. Harold Bloom and Benzion Netanyahu met in real life; Cohen was inspired to turn that (negligible) encounter into a novel.

In Cohen’s narrative, Netanyahu arrives at the (fictitious) Corbin College in 1960 as a candidate for a professorial post in the New York-based institution’s history department. Professor Blum, the department’s sole Jewish faculty member, is asked to host Netanyahu and to decide whether he should be given the position. Blum fears that, should he recommend hiring Netanyahu, he will be accused of giving preference to a Jew; on the other hand, should he nix the appointment, he might be accused of fearing the accusation of a pro-Jewish bias. This Catch-22 situation has been familiar and common to Jews throughout history when faced with crucial decisions. Overall, the Blum character (who bears the same name as the fictional Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses), represents the American Jewish journey from a community of Eastern European immigrants to the US cultural mainstream – with attention to the price paid by individual Jews for this personal-collective act of conquest.

The novel discusses Netanyahu’s scholarship, with an emphasis on his historical approach and, hence, his political views with regard to Israel, antisemitism, and Jewish history (Netanyahu was known, among other things, as a scholar of the Spanish Inquisition). In an interview, Cohen explains that Israeli statehood was perceived by Benzion Netanyahu, as well as by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and other Revisionists, as a substitute for the Jewish religion. Religious ritual served to ensure Jewish survival during the exilic period, but the Jewish people’s true destiny is the establishment of a Jewish state.7

The novel offers a kind of parodic dialogue between Netanyahu, who sees history as a political instrument, and the American Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi.8 Yerushalmi explored the challenge faced by the Jewish historian in modern times, namely the need to forgo myth and embrace fact.9 By contrast, Netanyahu (per Cohen’s depiction) continued to live the myth and give new life to it. In a 1998 interview, Netanyahu noted that Jewish history is a history of holocausts, of destruction, and of the annihilation of Jewish communities in contexts of antisemitism. Notwithstanding its critical perspective and satirical tone, the novel invites the reader to identify with Netanyahu and with the Zionist dream, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner notes in her review of the book for The New York Times.10 While she was reading the novel, Israel was engaged in a round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, and the Jewish reviewer herself felt that identification in the midst of a sense of siege and an antisemitic/anti-Israel cultural climate.

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