History Is a Story that Satisfies Power: A Conversation with Joshua Cohen

July 4, 2021   •   By Zachary Issenberg

THERE ARE FEW AUTHORS today who can claim as consistent and meteoric a rise as Joshua Cohen. From the release of his 824-page leviathan, Witz, in 2010 to his stint as the writing coach for whistleblower Edward Snowden, Cohen has achieved the sort of fame most writers can only dream of, and all before the age of 40. Fewer still can claim to have been canonized during their lifetime, with the late Harold Bloom calling Cohen’s 2015 novel, Book of Numbers, among “the four best books by Jewish writers in America.”

Much of Cohen’s success can be attributed to his apocalyptic view of the world, his fiction and essays offering a prophetic cry against our present end of days. That’s what makes Cohen’s latest book, a historical novel entitled The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, seem so out of place. Written during the COVID-19 lockdown, the novel follows an academic who meets the infamous Israeli family in Upstate New York, and proceeds to chronicle their checkered history.

After a decade spent on the bleeding edge, what made America’s wunderkind author begin the new decade with a look back? I met with Joshua Cohen in April to talk about his new book.


ZACHARY ISSENBERG: What was your process with this book? The book’s ending reveals that it began as a story told by …

JOSHUA COHEN: Let’s not give that away, please. I’ll just say that, to my mind, this is a book about the tensions between fathers and sons, stories and histories, influence and whatever the opposite is of influence — disfluence?

Let me phrase it another way: where did these ideas come from?

A feeling of valediction, a sense of saying goodbye to a certain generation or to a number of generations that memory collapses into a single generation. Call them “the old people” — Bellow, Roth, Bloom, all the old Jews — whose passing also represents the passing of a type of liberalism that isn’t in vogue anymore, or is maybe even demonized.

This book has a lot to do with Patriarchs and your relationship to the patriarchy — Jewish and otherwise.

Fathers have been on my mind.

As have education, taxation, and politics, apparently. Where in the process did you start connecting all these issues?

I feel like all of those disclosed themselves fairly early in the writing. I made my narrator a professor of taxation studies mostly for the metaphor — influence as a form of tax — and of course as a nod to Jewish history, the so-called tax-farming and money-managing roles of Jewish advisors to European royalty and nobility. Those roles were of profound interest to Benzion Netanyahu, the professor of Medieval history, polemicist, and patriarch at the heart of the book. I was fascinated by him — by this obscure scholarly father who’s remembered now, if he’s remembered at all, because of his sons, including Yonatan, Israel’s most famous martyr-hero (killed during the raid at Entebbe in 1976), and Benjamin, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister (at least he’s the prime minister now). When you ask about connections, this is what I think about: what connects fathers and sons, academia and politics, Israel and America …

I’d always known that the Netanyahus had spent time in the States, but I’d never asked why. And I’d never thought about how it felt — for the family to have spent the most important decades in modern Jewish history, when Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, when the state of Israel was being founded, stuck in New York and Philadelphia, spectating from the sidelines.

But there’s also a contemporary aspect to the book — it’s not just historical fiction.

I agree. And that came out of my reading of Benzion Netanyahu’s writings — his academic work, and his polemics too; his uncompromising brand of so-called Revisionist Zionism, which can be read (or at least I read it) as a harbinger of contemporary identity or campus politics. Both assert race or ethnicity as having an ideological component, both legitimize voluntary separatism in the hopes of creating “a safe-space” — in the case of Israel, “a safe-space” with a nuclear program. It’s all there in Benzion’s lecture toward the end of the book: once a country can’t make you feel connected to something larger than your birth-identity, your affinities falter and your allegiances shift. This is what happened with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose citizens found greater self-regard as Serbs, Croats, Poles, Zionist Jews. Netanyahu — I should say, the book’s Netanyahu — prophesies the same fate for the American empire: unless Americans can find meaning and pride in their Americanness, they will revert to defining themselves primarily as oppositional/Other: Black, Latin, gay, lesbian, etc.

Sounds distrustful.

Benzion Netanyahu was distrustful, particularly of empires — the British, obviously, which occupied Palestine, the Ottomans before the British, and the Soviets too, not to mention the Medieval Iberian kingdoms that were his research specialty. I should say that his research was always justificatory — meaning that he wrote history as political polemic.

This sounds a lot like the present. Given how contemporary all your novels are, why write the political present into the past?

Because it’s the only way to circumvent bad faith. Or it’s the only way I found to get beyond readerly defenses.

If I wanted to be politically obvious, I would be politically obvious. I know how to do that. I have a foot, I have a mouth, I can stick one in the other. But I made a choice — in fact, I made Benzion’s choice, of pretending to write about what came before me, in order to circumvent bad faith and readerly defenses. If I came straight out and wrote about identity politics not in the ’50s or ’60s but now, all I’d get — all I’d deserve — would be head-slap emojis.

Did you ever think about writing this not as a novel, but as nonfiction?

No, never. Because ideas exist only in character, as character — at least that’s how they exist for me. And fiction, because it’s concerned with character, admits so much more … I think the word’s “dubiety.” That’s the other thing: vocabulary. Words are more alive in novels: “politics” in a novel isn’t as dead on the page as it is in a history book or in The New York Times or The New Yorker. In a novel, “politics” is a word used by a person, a word that comes out of a person’s mouth, and that person has a family, maybe a husband or wife and children, and a specific history of defeats, disappointments, failures, glories, gods.

Then let’s talk about the characters.

Blum, my narrator, is happy to be American, he’s safe and secure, he’s comfortable being out of history; whereas Benzion feels left out of history, and he resents that feeling, so he raises his children to do what he couldn’t, to achieve all that had been denied him, and to serve as his revenge against the Israeli establishment he blames for his exile. In a way, his children represent a Freudian return of the repressed — Bibi especially is his father’s vengeance. It’s like a fable: the left-wing rejects the right-wing, whose spawn returns and becomes the king. If there’s a moral, it’s beware of your enemies, but above all beware of your enemies’ sons, for they will one day rule you.

How do you write your characters?

As if history is running through them, and sometimes they sense it, but mostly they don’t. If history doesn’t energize them, at least it energizes me — it enables me to write them, people inflamed by a personal sense of the past.

This blurring of fiction, moral fable, and history reminds me of your interest in the historian Yerushalmi. What does his work mean to you?

The tensions between history and story — that was Yerushalmi’s subject, especially in his masterpiece, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982). He’s one of my favorite small-r revisionists, and I’m especially drawn to his notion that the Jewish mistrust of the historical record was counterintuitively memorious and preserving. It was story that preserved tradition, not history, not fact. It was fiction elevated to myth, but to monotheistic myth, which turned the past proleptic, prophetic — a process of eternal revelation without salvation. History is just story that satisfies power — that’s something I think about a lot. And I try in my own work to make the opposite true: I want my stories to be histories that dissatisfy power — that provoke and prick and goad it.

When William Gass used to talk about his 1995 novel The Tunnel, he referred to the academic portion as “the Modernist thing you do to weed people out,” but the campus and academic bickering in The Netanyahus feels kinetic, engaging, and funny.

Thank you. All I can say is, I did the dumbest things I could think of — I wrote a historical novel, I wrote a campus novel, I tried to be funny about Israel/Palestine — and apparently, it brought you pleasure. There’s a lesson there, certainly.

And a challenge, too?



Zachary Issenberg earned his MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. His writing can be found in The Shoutflower, The Millions, WordsWithoutBorders, and Tablet. He currently lives and teaches in New York, while writing a novel titled Miami!