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How American Jews lost themselves The diaspora is more interested in Israel than its own experience

A Jewish protest in New York, 1933.

June 17, 2021   6 mins

I’m a lot like Joshua Cohen. I live in New York, I have a disappointing scraggly beard, I sometimes wear glasses and I can’t stop thinking about Jews. Every day I tell myself I should read about something else, that I should think about someone else, that reading obsessively about yourself like this is really intellectual masturbation — but there they are again, crowding in, taking me down some Wikipedia wormhole, demanding attention — and getting it.

Now the difference between us is, of course, that I work at a think tank mostly dealing with policy responses to offshore finance and he’s one of the most lauded young — I think he can still pull that one off, at 40 — Jewish writers in America. But that’s not what we are here to discuss. It’s his new book The Netanyahus: An Account Of A Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode In The History Of A Very Famous Family.

Upstate New York: there’s snow, an unreformed, old fashioned university and virtually no Jews and here Ruben Blum is making his unhappy way as a Jewish historian — but not, as Cohen keeps on pointing out, nod-nod, wink-wink, as a historian of the Jews. It’s the Sixties. The kind of golf club anti-Semitism that saw a “Jew Quota” put on Harvard is still widespread. Through a series of not particularly funny pastiches of David Lodge, Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful Pnin, poor old Rube swills around pathetically.

The drama kicks in when he’s informed “one of his own” — a Jewish historian and a historian of the Jews — is on his way from Israel for an interview. Would he take care of him? This is where the novel gets interesting. A letter — so well written I thought about it for days — arrives from a certain Dr Prof Peretz Levavi at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warning Blum that this man, Professor Ben-Zion Netanyahu, is a rancid, ideological, venomous ultranationalist. Reject him at all costs. And then crashing into his life come Mr and Mrs Netanyahu and their three sons — Yoni, Bibi, Iddo — for a train wreck interview that leaves Rube feeling like the smallest Jew in the world.

It won’t come as a great reveal to learn that something like this really happened. The Netanyahu, little Bibi, who went on to become Prime Minister, really had a father called Ben-Zion who was a brooding, intellectually menacing historian, obsessed with proving that the conversos — Jews who converted to Christianity in medieval Spain and were the victims of the Inquisition — were really sincere converts. And that by racialising them in order to persecute them — by his theory so as to weaken their patrons, the nobility, in the class politics of the day — the Spanish Crown created a world where you could never stop being Jewish. His whole work really a warning to the Diaspora there was no point even trying: you can become a Communist, you can become a Nazi, you can burn an Israeli flag in Time Square — the Inquisition will always come for you.

Ben-Zion’s theories have been called ideological projection. But his impact on the way the Jews would come to see the world was not academic. Small, malevolent, with strangely shaped ears; having felt his Right-wing politics pushed him into American exile when labour Zionists ran the show back in Israel; Ben-Zion really did loom over his son who has ruled Israel for a fifth of his existence, warning that — “Jewish history is the history of Holocausts.” And of course he really was handled by an American Jew, who happened to be Cohen’s friend Harold Bloom, the vaunted literary critic and self-vaunted defender of the Western Canon, when he came to Cornell for his interview.

These clashing ways of Jewishness meeting needed — no, required — a novel. But I feel very torn about the result. It manages to both be the Jewish American novel I’ve been waiting for and a huge disappointment. The most interesting and the most predictable piece of fiction I’ve picked up in a while. The book with the most mediocre windup and the most fantastic — really fantastic — ending I’ve read all year. The often annoying campus comedy is marbled with totally fascinating reflections on Jewish history that merited — I think I counted five — essays on their own. But Cohen the critic, the intellectual, is too distracted trying to be funny.

This is why I admire Joshua Cohen. It’s been obvious ever since David Remnick (what greater arbiter of bien pensant taste has there ever been than his New Yorker?) left dinner with Ben-Zion Netanyahu in the Old City in 1998 gasping about his outrageously reactionary table talk that there was a brilliant novel here in the encounter — the confrontation — between this avatar of Zionist Israel and one of the Upper West Side. But until Cohen, no American Jew, realised or dared. Instead, the Jewish novels of the last 20 years — think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated to Nicole Krauss’s Great House — has given us Holocaust pedagogy. Entertaining us, in the third generation, with the comforts of trauma and loss. It’s the opposite of challenging Jewish readers. In fact it’s more like a warm bath. But here’s the thing: I loved those novels as novels from page one. 

The Netanyahus, on the other hand, was one of those highly irritating novels: so interesting I couldn’t stop reading it, without ever being sure I was actually enjoying it. As a kosher smorgasbord of ideas it is wonderful: a car journey to the Catskills’ worth of fun arguments. As a piece of fiction — until the very last, brilliant chapter — it didn’t do it for me. The problem isn’t Ben-Zion: everything about him is fantastically conjured. The problem is Rube, his wife Edith and the whole family of caricatures set up in opposition. This makes the novel mostly a drag. You hardly care when the Netanyahus fuck up their life.

I think these thinly drawn characters — the unassuming, uninsightful Rube Blum, next to the incredible, unforgettable, Ben-Zion Netanyahu — takes us back to Cohen’s obsessions, and mine. We’re not really obsessed with Jews. We’re obsessed with dead Jews or we’re obsessed with Israelis. The way The Netanyahus seems to rush through its plot, ticking off what we are supposed to know about American Jews — father worked in the rag trade, tick, daughter wants a nose job, tick — to get to Ben-Zion reflects something much deeper. Wherever the energy is in American Jewish letters right now — from the anti-Zionist polemics in Jewish Currents to the anti-anti-Zionists polemics in Tablet — it is about Israel. Wherever the crazes are — Fauda, the secret missions of the IDF, Shtisel, the secret lives of ultra-orthodox Jerusalem — it is not about us as American, as Diaspora Jews, but them.

I sometimes marvel, on nights out in Brooklyn, that friends on the new Jewish Left know more about whatever crimes the Israeli army are committing at whatever checkpoints than my cousins who actually refused to serve in the IDF. I meet colleagues in DC who are more militant and seemingly intransigently up-to-date on the security situation in Gaza than my relatives who actually occupied it. It’s almost like we’ve lost interest in ourselves, out here, in America, as a culture. That the Big Jewish Novelists, who decorate Cohen’s endorsement page, have taken to writing about Israel reflects something bigger. That after the big joke in Curb Your Enthusiasm got old — that being Jewish in America after assimilation meant nothing but cringe — there was nothing left to say.

Roth. Malamud. Bellow. They were fascinated by Jews as Americans — it was a constant exploration for them — in a way that Rube feels like homework both for Cohen and for the reader, until we get to Ben-Zion and the good stuff. Maybe those novels of the immigrant experience can’t be written by people like us anymore. Perhaps they can only be written by Mexican-American or Asian-American writers and we should stop trying. We’re just too much a part of the furniture. The elite, the professions, feel if anything WASP-Jewish here in the North East, which is actually a pretty good description of most of our parents or our own relationships after this many generations in the New World. Our Rubes are lifeless. Fake.

We are bored of ourselves. Ben Gurion and Gold Meir. Ben-Zion and Bibi. These are some of the greatest characters in the Jewish story for centuries — if we want political drama like this we might have to go back to the Book of Judges. Israel is a country whose fate is still so precarious, its life so fantastical, or if you look at it from the other side, so cruel. And here we are, in America, in our Think Tanks, Mid Level Media Jobs or MFA-track writing careers: leading some of the most undramatic and tedious Jewish lives of all time. How could we ever write about something else?

Ben Judah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and the author of ‘This is London’.


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Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

Just read the essay on feminism and I see the same thing. The writer wants to be special, to be an expert on something. Why not Jewishness or Feminishness, or Blackishness, or Anti-Vaccineishness?

36 years ago, the Times journalist Bernard Levin invented a term, Single Issue Fanatic or SIF. SIFs were people who related everything in their lives to one thought or issue, to the exclusion of everything else. Where I live today, a group of 5 people wanted speed bumps on the main road. They screamed, got arrested by the police (and released, of course), lobbied the local council, stopped council meetings, wrote to newspapers, got onto local television, etc. In the end the council gave in just to shut them up. Today everyone is a SIF. This is great for them and tedious for everyone else.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

I have a disappointing scraggly beard, I sometimes wear glasses and I can’t stop thinking about Jews.

Are you sure you’re not Jeremy Corbyn?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

I would have found a way to introduce the HERO Netanyahu if I was writing any piece mentioning the family. Who of a certain age can forget Yoni Netanyahu who lead the elite commando unit that audaciously rescued almost all hostages at Entebbe Airport, Uganda in 1976. This operation was more audacious and successful than any movie script could conceive and had the world transfixed. He lost his life during the rescue at age 30.

2 years ago

Thanks for this fascinating review and the conclusions it draws. I read the book and was alternately amazed and irritated by it. Joshua Cohen is a writer of great brilliance. I am glad to have confirmed what I was pretty sure was the story’s factual basis. But were the Yahus (yahoos) really that socially horrible? Were the boys that feral? Uncomfortable reading in many places. But agree the letter from the Israeli historian was pure genius.