I’d Be the Loser and Murdered: On Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus”

July 30, 2021   •   By David N. Myers

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family

Joshua Cohen

I.


THERE IS A traditional Jewish liturgical phrase that a father intones when a child ascends to the Torah for the first time: Baruch she-petarani mi-onsho shel zeh. “Blessed be God who has released me from the sin of this one (referring to the child).” The benediction constitutes a declaration that the child has reached the age of majority and is now responsible for their own deeds.


The first two words of the prayer have become commonplace in colloquial Hebrew, indicating relief at being shorn of an onerous burden. Recently I heard friends and colleagues invoke this phrase when Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was finally dislodged from his position as prime minister of Israel after 12 long years. They might well have invoked the latter half of the expression referring to “the sin of this one,” since Netanyahu’s reign was marked by a full-throttle assault on democratic principles, an entrenchment of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, regular vilification of political opponents and Israel’s Palestinian minority, and an air of invincibility bolstered by his supporters’ ubiquitous chant “Bibi, King of Israel.” And this list does not include the three criminal charges for bribery and fraud for which Netanyahu is currently standing trial.


One recalls frequent references in the Hebrew Bible to the principle that sins are not transferrable up and down the generational ladder, that “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). But the life history of Benjamin Netanyahu summons forth a competing biblical sensibility: the idea that a wrathful God does “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). In line with this ominous framing, it is hard to think of Bibi Netanyahu and his trail of destruction without conjuring up the impact of his father, the radical Zionist activist and historian Benzion Netanyahu.


II.


Netanyahu fils once declared that “we all owe everything to our parents.” In his case, it was indeed Benzion who bequeathed to Bibi an unwavering Zionist conviction, an unmistakably lachrymose view of Jewish history, and an American-Israeli biculturalism resulting from the father’s transcontinental quest for a stable academic post. Benzion also harbored, as the scholar Adi Armon observes, a deep hostility toward both Arabs and Jewish leftists, traces of which can be readily seen in the son. [1]


Born in Warsaw and raised in Mandatory Palestine, Benzion Netanyahu followed in the footsteps of his father Nathan (né Mileikowsky) as a peripatetic political activist. Indeed, while the two were deeply wedded to the romantic idyll of a Jewish return to the ancestral homeland, Nathan and Benzion spent much of their time outside of the region preaching to others to move there. For all of their declared passion, the transplanted homeland of Israel was never truly home to them.


For Benzion, the sense of displacement was as much characterological as geographic. Wherever he was, he found himself on the margins, looking enviously and critically from the outside. As a university student in Jerusalem, he made his way to the circle of far-right nationalists associated with the Revisionist Zionist movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Revisionists sought to revise what they perceived to be the accommodationist stance of other Zionist strands by agitating for nothing less than a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. This territorial maximalism was often accompanied by a commitment to the necessity and even desirability of violence against their foes, including British Mandatory officials, fellow Jews, and, of course, the indigenous Arab population.


There was another persistent feature of Netanyahu père’s political worldview: a deeply ingrained hermeneutic of suspicion (per Paul Ricoeur) that led him to regard the world as uniformly hostile to Jews — and Jews who believed it possible to build alliances with others as dangerously, even treasonously, naïve. This perspective was not only an anchor of Netanyahu’s sense of politics, but also a cornerstone of his emerging scholarly work. As a PhD student at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia, he wrote a dissertation on the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish grandee Don Isaac Abravanel, who failed in his effort to intervene with the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to forestall the 1492 expulsion of Jews. For Netanyahu, the failure of Abravanel was not only an instance of one man’s delusion of grandeur, but a link in a long chain of misguided Jewish political leadership that made its way up from late antiquity to the Labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion of his day. His dissertation on Abravanel became a template for all of his subsequent scholarship, which not only sought to extract from history lessons applicable to today, but unfailingly read the past through the lens of the present.


The essence of that approach was displayed in Netanyahu’s major work, the nearly 1,400-page The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, published in 1995. There Netanyahu argued against the grain of other scholarship that the large class of Jews who converted to Christianity in 15th-century Spain, known as conversos, did not include a fair number of secretly practicing “crypto-Jews,” but joined the new faith en masse with gusto and enthusiasm. The Inquisition, then, took rise not to attack a genuine problem of Judaizing heresy within the Catholic faithful. Rather, it invented the threat out of whole cloth — and developed an accompanying criterion of racial difference to distinguish between old and new Christians in order to remove any taint of the Jewish race from the heart of the Church.


While other scholars such as Yosef Yerushalmi have noted affinities between early modern Spanish proto-racialism and 20th-century Nazi racial thinking, none goes as far as Netanyahu in advancing the notion that the conversos’ abandonment of Judaism — in his view, a cowardly act of betrayal — was total, and that the Inquisition was built on a mound of lies. With one eye cast on the present, Netanyahu saw late 15th-century Spain as a prelude to subsequent tragedies to befall the Jews, culminating in the Nazi genocidal assault. It is this kind of thinking that led Netanyahu to confide once to David Remnick that “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.”


That line came in a 1998 New Yorker profile on the impact of Benzion Netanyahu on his middle son Benjamin, which was fittingly called “The Outsider.” To be sure, as Anshel Pfeffer notes in his excellent biography, Bibi, père and fils differ markedly in temperament, political savvy, and public recognition. And yet, a good portion of the father’s dark worldview — his iniquity, some might say — was passed on to the son, manifesting itself in an increasingly authoritarian and paranoid demeanor over the past decade.


III.


Such a biblical framing implies a tragic emplotment to the Netanyahu family story, to borrow Hayden White’s famous term. How could one imagine any other kind of emplotment, let alone a comic one? But herein lies the genius of Joshua Cohen’s new novel, The Netanyahus. Author of a number of well-received novels and works of short fiction, Cohen has performed a literary miracle of sorts, transforming the shadowy, dour figure of Benzion Netanyahu into the protagonist of an uproariously funny book. In its skewering of the small-mindedness of academic culture, The Netanyahus conjures up the hilarity of David Lodge, and in its piercing gaze and over-the-top, transgressive moves, it evokes the late Philip Roth, who ripped open the soul of the American Jewish parvenu — and that figure’s grinding quest for respectability — like no one else.


The mise-en-scène is Corbin College, a small, undistinguished institution of higher education located in the rural precincts of western New York. There a young Jewish scholar of US economic history, Ruben Blum, finds his first professorial post in the late 1950s, hoping to achieve a measure of recognition that would soon propel him beyond the clutches of his middling colleagues and the ambient antisemitism that hovers over the college like a heavy fog. Corbin is golus, exile, for Blum and his wife Edith who hail from New York City. But the rural life does afford them a measure of liberation from the world of their parents — one pair of whom is German Jewish and the other Eastern European Jewish, thereby assuring a constant undercurrent of cultural dissonance between the families.


The predicament is familiar — the Rothian trap of Ruben Blum’s life in which he is sprung from one insufferable setting only to land in another. Blum’s home life with Edith and their teenage daughter, Judy, whose chief concern in life is, perhaps a bit too predictably, to get a nose job, is no source of joy. Nor is his professional life in the company of his dullard colleagues in the Corbin history department any better.


This recognizable tale of American Jewish ennui takes a sudden turn when Blum is summoned to the office of the department chair, Dr. George Lloyd Morse. Over the obligatory cocktail, dutifully served in Mad Men fashion by the department’s female secretary, the chair gives Blum a doubly curious assignment of serving on a hiring committee for a new position in medieval history. In the first instance, he is a junior professor upon whom such responsibility typically does not fall. In the second instance, the chair maintains that Blum is a logical choice for the committee as one of the candidates for the new position is a scholar of medieval Jewish history and a Jew himself. Blum begs to differ, arguing that his specialty is in modern US economic history and that he has no expertise in Jewish history. And yet, the chair, in his supremely paternalistic fashion, insists that Blum take on the job, since the candidate “is one of [his] own,” with whom he is likely to have a high degree of social and intellectual affinity. (It is a similar form of cultural insensitivity that prompts the chair to ask Blum to don the Santa Claus costume at the annual department Christmas party because “it’ll free up the people who actually celebrate the holiday to enjoy themselves.”)


It turns out that the fellow Jew who will be coming to the Corbin campus is Benzion Netanyahu. What unfolds, as the subtitle of the book describes, is “an account of a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family.” Netanyahu père comes across as a rigid, maladjusted, and self-righteous personality who appears to be a terrible fit with Corbin in just about every way. He is single-mindedly devoted to research while the college is principally dedicated to teaching. He works in a field, Jewish history, for which there is no natural audience at Corbin. And because he is a Jew, the theology department is interested in him in the hopes that he will be able to teach the Bible, which he is neither equipped nor willing to do. Yet another case of Gentile presumption gone awry.


The orgy of misunderstanding continues throughout. The proudly insular Corbin faculty, in a moment of transition from the hyper-conformist white Christian America of the 1950s to the turbulent, free-love, multicultural ambience of the 1960s, has no idea how to deal with a Jew of any sort; and Netanyahu has no idea what an undergraduate American college is. Set against this constant misapprehension is the crystal-clear exposition by the narrator of the scholarly idiosyncrasies of Benzion Netanyahu — especially the historian’s views of the true intentions of both Spanish conversos and the custodians of the Inquisition. It is striking how much Cohen gets right about Netanyahu’s scholarship, the historiographical traditions against which he pushed, and the milieux in which he was formed, particularly the distinctive academic culture of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (which may be familiar to viewers of the 2011 Israeli film Footnote).


The fact that he doesn’t get everything right periodically brings the reader back to the recognition that The Netayahus is a work of fiction, not archivally grounded biography (though it is based on a story about an actual job talk given by Netanyahu, which was related to Cohen by Harold Bloom and found its way into the pages of LARB). But here art imitates life. Cohen’s narrator captures something essential about the actual Netanyahu, whose fictional alter ego is seen trudging around Corbin in the depths of winter as “an uncompassed loner in the snowy wastes, a solitary quick-draw artist in hood and beaver hat, thumbless mittens, unraveling scarf and floppy bluchers whose soles flapped loose like a horse’s lips.”


The absurdity of this spectacle is compounded by the appearance of the rest of the Netanyahu clan, who also show up for the job interview. That includes Benzion’s wife, Tzila, whose lack of decorum is impressive even by Israeli standards, and the couple’s three children, Jonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo — the last of whom is a diaper-wearing seven-year-old. As they cross the threshold of the Blum home in Corbin, they willfully ignore Edith’s request to take off their wet and dirty shoes, barreling into the living room as the snowball-bearing boys start chasing each other around the piano.


This out-of-control arrival is but the dress rehearsal for Benzion’s outrageous performance later that day. He is first called upon to teach a class in the Corbin Theological Seminary — the class on the Bible about which he complains bitterly before and, true to form, during his lecture. When introduced by a Corbin theologian, he immediately declares that he is “a teacher of history, not of the Bible” and proceeds to shock his earnest Christian audience by suggesting that “we could have ourselves an old-fashioned theological disputation, at the end of which the loser would be murdered.” This is the opening for Netanyahu to declaim his central thesis about history and his guiding credo as a Jew: “[N]o matter what arguments I’d advance, I’d be the loser and murdered.” That is indeed Benzion Netanyahu tout court, in fiction and in real life: in every generation, there is an enemy, extending back to the biblical Amalek, intent on destroying the Jew.


Netanyahu proceeds to propound this Amalekite view throughout his visit, capping off his string of insults and faux pas with a by-now predictable job talk in which he argues that the Inquisition racialized Jewish identity so that conversos could be rejudaized, oppressed, and ultimately expelled. Cohen lays out the twists and consequences of Netanyahu’s argument with exceptional acuity. But he is equally exceptional in tacking back to the comic. The truly unexpected climax to the book comes in the madcap scene near the end when the Blums and Netanyahus return home to discover a naked Jonathan Netanyahu dashing from the room of the Blum’s deflowered naked daughter, Judy. It is at this point that Edith Blum, in a fit of long-suppressed rage, sets off “like a sacking linebacker and slid[es] directly into Tzila, tackling her into a snowbed.”


IV.


The staging of this confrontation — one of several at which the reader is likely to explode in laughter — pushes to the fore a powerful subtext of the book: the enduring tension between two Jewish types, the Diaspora Jew and the Jew of Zion. At a certain point in their conversations, Benzion dismissively labels Ruben Blum “El judío de corte, der Hofjude, the Court Jew.” The Court Jew is an exemplar of political and social accommodation, accommodation to Gentile hosts who tolerate but never favor the Jew’s presence — as in Blum’s own position in the Corbin History Department. Benzion Netanyahu, for his part, is an unrelenting advocate of the Jew’s return to Zion as a moral and political imperative — although ironically he himself never finds his place there. Neither Jewish type, as The Netanyahus reveals, is ever fully at home in his chosen habitat.


Benzion Netanyahu’s real-life son, Bibi, embodied within him this very tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist Jew, moving back and forth between the United States and Israel as a teenager and young man. But in his career as an Israeli politician, especially in his recently concluded tenure as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, he has become his father’s son, not only a Jew of Zion but the bearer of an Amalekite view that distorts and deforms the present as well as the past. The sins of the father have indeed been visited on the son.


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David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA, where he directs the Luskin Center for History and Policy.


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[1] Armon has written a multi-part study of Benzion Netanyahu in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Netanyahu fils’ s quote about owing everything to one’s parents came in a eulogy for the Israeli writer Aharon Megged (Haaretz, April 1, 2014) that is included in Adi Armon, “The Political Battles that Shaped Benzion Netanyahu” (Hebrew), Haaretz, August 5, 2016. On Benzion’s hostility to Arabs and leftists, see Armon, “Benzion Netanayahu: The Formative Years, Chapter 2,” Haaretz, November 11, 2016.