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How the Netanyahus clarify the world

"Forgetting, I would even say that historical errors are an essential factor in the creation of a nation," wrote the French philologist Ernest Renan in 1882. One might have thought the story was about remembering, but it is thanks to Renan and his student Benedict Anderson that nations today are widely understood as "conceited". And as every novelist knows, fiction is an art of choice – the trick of leaving things out.

All of this is nothing new to Ruben Blum, the humble professor and clumsy father at the center of Joshua Cohen's The Netanyahus. Chatty, Jewish and “a historian” (if not “a historian of the Jews”), he believes he is above the fictionalization that both nationalists and novelists indulge in. "I think my job has brought me more than most," he assures the reader, "to the selective use of facts and the way in which every time and every ideological movement cobbled together its own tailor-made chronicles." The announcement comes both as Renanse's echo and as a direct indication of the narrator's unreliability: The common origins of fiction and story, and the dangers inherent in them, are in large part what this very funny, very serious novel – based on true ones – is about Incidents – go.

The Netanyahus: An account of a small and ultimately negligible episode in the history of a very famous family, Joshua Cohen, New York Review Books, 248 pp., $ 16.95, June 2021

American literary literature over the past five years can be roughly divided into two main categories: realistic, seemingly autobiographical fiction set in the present (novels by Ben Lerner and Jenny Offill; Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You; Brandon Taylor's Real Life) and award-winning historical Fiction (Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer and Colson Whiteheads The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, 2017 and 2020). A smaller category of celebrated novels is set in a dystopian near future (Ling Ma’s Severance; Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible). The logic of Donald Trump's presidency permeated many of these books and created an atmosphere of crisis.

Released five months after Trump's dismissal, The Netanyahus, set in the 1950s, marks a turn from another prominent American writer to historical fiction with contemporary resonance, and pushes in on top issues of the Trump years – nativism, nationalism, and national boundaries the frame. a hilarious suburban family drama. By historicizing the rise of Israel's right-wing politics, the novel also circumvents the intranational navel gazing that engulfed the political discourse in the US after the 2016 presidential election.

Israelis and Palestinians have just reached a ceasefire following the outbreak of war in May; Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel is widely regarded as the aggressor. The 11-day conflict was just the latest iteration of the perennial dispute in the Palestinian territories that supranational organizations like the United Nations could not resolve, as well as an expression of encouraged "oblivion" in which all nations, Renan, are participating. Critics of Israel increasingly point out how selective versions of the recent past are being used to justify the country's hegemony and cultural paradigms today.

Are all nations really condemned to such manipulations of history as Renan suggests? Blum reminds us that America is supposed to be the "most extraordinary exception," a state built on bourgeois pluralism rather than the ethno-cultural narratives of the European nation-state to which Renan originally referred. It was Trump's open attack on these bourgeois values ​​- and thus on the viability of American national history as an exception – that made his promise to "make America great again" so offensive to so many. This domestic program, a coded nod to a whiter, less socially advanced era, went hand in hand with its belligerent America-first overseas policy. But it wasn't until several years into his tenure that the American left began to wonder whether Trump, disastrous as it ever was to social progress at home, wasn't in the end an upgrade for the international scene compared to a Hawk interventionist like George W. Busch .

The problem with nationalism in today's world, according to the Netanyahu, may not be so much that history is forgotten or manipulated, but rather that it leaves history behind and takes on the hubris of a religion. The main tenet of America's own civic evangelism, as Blum suggests, was that as long as every country tried to be more like America and America tried to be more like itself, the world would "continue to get better without boundaries." It's the same America that invaded Iraq in 2003.

As a narrator, Blum has many charms, most notably the historic talent of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The novel begins when a certain Benzion Netanyahu is invited to an interview for a joint appointment in the history department and seminary (a dangerous combination) at Corbin College, a rural campus outside of New York City. (It is not considered an “upstate”.) As the only Jewish professor on campus – as the patriarch of the only Jewish family in all of Corbindale – Blum is pigeonholed to accept the Israeli candidate and his family. The contrast between the two becomes the main source of conflict and comedy in the novel. The year is 1959, and the recent founding of a nascent Jewish state casts a long shadow off-screen.

Blum specializes in tongue-in-cheek taxation studies. But with teaching awards for his name from 1968-2001 (it is believed that he has been writing to us since today after this prestigious career), he is also an unofficial historian of the short century of American identity politics. That policy is now the curse of American pro-Trump Conservatives, who argue that the battle for the soul of the nation is currently being fought on college campuses. The novel – especially the sections detailing Netanyahu's criticism of Blum's assimilationist America – can be read as an exposé of the logic of those engaged in the nativist or bourgeois nation-building business and the actual and perceived cost of cultural pluralism to them Projects.

Part of The Netanyahus's game is to guess which parts are true: the actual Benzion Netanyahu was himself an avid scholar emeritus from the Spanish Inquisition at Cornell University. His lengthy major work The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain falsely (or at least unambiguously) argued that the Inquisition's persecution of converted Jews marked the birth of modern racism.

In all respects, Cohen's romanized counterpart appears to be one of the least fictional parts of the book. Like the real Netanyahu, he is unable to get an academic job in Israel; he spent some time in a small theological seminary in Pennsylvania; and in Corbin (read: Cornell), his on-campus lectures present extraordinary views of Jewish history that a little googling can neither confirm nor deny, as the kind of things the actual Netanyahu would have improvised. However, it is no secret that Netanyahu was sympathetic to revisionist Zionism, which combined the religious ideal of a Jewish homeland with a specific political program. Benzion's son Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu shares this view and the territorial expansionism that goes with it. As the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel, the adolescent Bibi is portrayed in the novel with just as happy disrespect; The last time we see him, he is a lustful pest that sprints naked through the snow. In other words, you wouldn't be surprised if the legal department at Cohen's Publishing House prepared for complaints. But the attorney's headache pleases the reader.

In his previous book Moving Kings (2017), Cohen analogized the racial relations in the United States and the Israeli military-industrial complex: Two Israeli ex-soldiers come to New York to work as movers, where they are charged, mostly black residents to have driven from their homes. Like many novels published under Trump, it's not the author's turmoil. The book was also received as controversial because of the comparisons between evictions in Brooklyn and evictions in the Palestinian Territories. (The May escalation was partly instigated by Israeli displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.) Cohen's earlier bestselling Book of Numbers (2015) received greater acclaim; here Cohen recorded the rise of the internet and the decline of literature through puns, structural puns, and metafictional pyrotechnics.

It is safe to say that The Netanyahus strikes a balance between these two precedents, taming the polemics of the former and the aggressive style of the latter. As a result, Cohen is likely poised to attract a wider audience. Cohen was named one of the best young American novelists by Granta in 2017 and has received admiration from critics such as James Wood and Harold Bloom. He has also built a reputation for esoteric maximalism and provocation that has narrowed his readership in the United States.

Hugging a narrator who is capable of self-irony seems to be crucial for this shift towards accessibility: Gone is the nervous boast of the multiple Joshua Cohen who populated the Book of Numbers, here replaced by the bourgeois Aw-Shucks of a middle-class father Age trying to come to light a fire that forever forgets to open the fireplace.

It would be hard to overestimate the comedy that this recalibration of Cohen's skills accomplishes. The first hundred pages of the campus parody and in-laws feuds prepare for the arrival of Benzion Netanyahu. When he finally shows up, in a borrowed car that he has already had an accident, and with an unruly family in tow, it is with the satisfaction of a punchline; The key to situation comedy is timing. At the sentence level, Cohen's puns contain characteristic winking at the digital age. For example, Blum has a habit of checking his faculty mailbox with the frequency of a Gmail addict. This mailbox soon fills up with increasingly absurd, polarized letters of recommendation (spam mail?) For the candidate of the hour, who work out an efficient mechanism for sending background stories: Netanyahu's reputation precedes him in the novel as well.

Here the reader begins to point out certain irregularities in Netanyahu's views and erudition. As one arrogant recommender explains about the “gaps” in Netanyahu's résumé, “I could be luminaries and American patriots like Dr. Albert Einstein and Dr. Quote Hannah Arendt. Are we holding a “gap” in front of these people in their lives between 1933 and 1945? … Of course not! That would be madness! "

A young Benjamin Netanyahu was among the children at a Boy Scout event in Jerusalem in 1957.Israeli Government Press Office / getty images

One of the false comparisons in this statement is the fact that Netanyahu himself was not a refugee from the Holocaust. Born in Poland in 1910, he emigrated 10 years later to the British mandate of Palestine. Netanyahu also never won the academic laurels or the cultural significance of Jewish emigrants like Einstein and Arendt. Although The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-century Spain has been modestly praised for its novelty, the work was ultimately marginalized because it marginalized traditional academic standards for quotations and cross-referencing. Reading between the lines of this review, one wonders whether the actual Netanyahu, like Cohen's fictionalized version, was even a bit historical cherry-picking. Here the novel takes a more serious turn. That Netanyahu's curriculum vitae and scholarship may appear "unorthodox" by American standards, as the above recommender admits, is more the point. (And is such a single-handed cherry-picking really so unorthodox by American standards? Bush's mythical weapons of mass destruction come to mind.)

After the candidate's memorable arrival, the Netanyahu Blum slide begins to contrast the two historians' respective ideas of national and group identity. While Netanyahu's lectures suggest that "different peoples have so different relationships with history that they constitute completely separate stories rather than a single common history that can be agreed upon by facts," Blum tries his best to fit into the "common" American history to insert.

Born in the Bronx in 1922, Blum is anxious to keep his job, keep his head down, and keep up with the non-Jewish Joneses. Modest accomplishments pile up on his “ever expanding performance belt”. He brings the discrimination he has experienced to the extreme, which he has escaped – the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan – while the anti-Semitic abuse that he had to endure regularly as a younger man (“When was the last time you had your horn checked? ? ”Asked a car mechanic while stroking the head) are not considered so bad at all. He presents himself as a walking, speaking counter-example to Netanyahu's view of Jewish history as an eternal return of the pogroms – "in this country nobody would murder me" – and observes with slight astonishment the spread of an increasingly granular identity politics among his students. From today's gender and race debates, Blum apologizes with the qualified waving of the hand of older generations, saying that during his childhood “the most reliable protection consisted in assimilating, not differentiating”. He advocates pluralism by trying to merge as harmlessly as possible with the (white) American majority – a kind of seriousness policy. While Blum was doing his patriotic duty as an accountant in the US Army during World War II, Netanyahu was in Washington, D.C., working with the US Congress to support the creation of a Jewish state whose borders spanned all of Palestine.

In this way, both men are haunted by the past and committed to a kind of “common history” that carries them into the future. However, they differ greatly in their conceptions of the identitary boundaries within which this common history applies – and under which this history is shared. Blum, a professor of US history, is in the controversial business of formalizing a common national narrative that also takes into account the students' rights to differentiation and revision. Netanyahu's national history flirts with predestination and destiny, which not all Israelis – especially non-Jewish Israelis – can partake of. The difference here is that between "the American state of choice and the Jewish state of being chosen". In extreme cases, both approaches lead to a national democratic paradox.

This "loophole" in expectations of their respective nations (and in the résumés of their own personal histories, Cohen consistently suggests, since neither professor experienced Nazism or the Holocaust directly) can best be seen in a charged scene at the end of the novel. While the two men trudge through the snow to another provocative, unorthodox campus lecture by Netanyahu, Benzion tells Blum: “If the situation were the other way around and your feet were in my shoes and you came to Israel, I'm not sure I could get you a job, but I would do absolutely anything to find you a good apartment and in the war I would die for you. "

That statement – "I would die for you" – was casually delivered and translated into another joke (Netanyahu is literally wearing a pair of Blums shoes at the time) persists long after the book is finished. It is, in a sense, the disturbing, invigorating principle of every nation: Who would you die for if not your compatriots? And as long as the nation remains the basic unit of geopolitics, what does it mean to live in America, where the answer to that question can very well be no one?

Nobody, Netanyahu argues, is the answer from a country that has taken its position of power and security for granted. As Blum paraphrased Netanyahu's views in his subsequent lecture: “That's what I think of America – nothing. That's what I think of American Jews – nothing. Your democracy, your inclusiveness, your exceptionalism – nothing. Your chances of survival – none at all. ”This is the mindset of a man prepared for permanent war, actually“ permanent conflict ”as is currently used to describe Bibi's ruling stance on the Palestinians.

The Netanyahus' real trick is that it can be read on two levels, romping or polemic, and not at the same time – it's a bit of a duck rabbit that ends up between the binaries of a's founding story. changes nation and the history of starting a family. (Though these may not be all that different projects in Renan's or Anderson's terms.) Taken from the archives of a “very famous family” as a “small and ultimately negligible episode”, the novel is a lark; Viewed as a metafictional study of national identity and hegemony, it does most of what Cohen has always done well – puns, polemics, puns, assimilation politics, Judaism, innovation in the novel as form – with staggering effects.

Either way, The Netanyahus breaks with Cohen's previous work by offering an escape hatch when it gets too uncomfortable or too dark, and by giving women the final say. Shortly after Netanyahu's lecture, Blum's wife Edith shouts goodbye. “I'm tired of hearing about Jews,” she says. "I'm talking about the two of us."

As a scholar, Renan is best known today for his basic essay "What Is a Nation?" like Benzion Netanyahu can only be described as problematic. The label applies both in the sense that his writings contradict today's progressive social values ​​and in the sense that his legacy is a problem – a mystery – to scholars. As an orientalist philologist, Renan made racial essentialist claims in his early studies of the so-called Semitic race, rooted in the idea that language structures culture and thought; later he rejected biological racism and ethno-cultural nationalism in favor of the nation, modeled as a "daily referendum", reshaped every day by the continued voluntary membership of its citizens. His writings now cross both sides of the Dreyfus affair and Naziarism: anti-Dreyfusards used Renan's early writings for anti-Semitic purposes; In 1943 the American Jewish Committee in New York began reprinting its essays on a more cosmopolitan conception of citizenship than anti-Nazi propaganda.

The most dangerous ideas are those lies that contain a spark of truth, the most dangerous people who send these ideas out into the world not as fictitious but as discovered arguments – God-given, if you will. “God given” is also the English translation of “Netanyahu”, the surname that Benzion's father took when he arrived in Palestine in 1920. His son may have taken the namesake too much to heart. Netanyahu was not wrong in claiming that Europe's debates over citizenship, nationalism and race often centered on the issue of Jewish rights – in Renan's own racist formulation, whether European Jews are part of "the one race, the white race," that is to mark the outer limits of the imagination of white supremacy. We could say that Netanyahu was wrong about everything else. In terms of statecraft, monstrous.

In the end, what is the difference between a novelist like Cohen and a historian like Netanyahu? Both take a license with a scholarship and immerse themselves in the same pool of human time. In a final twist, The Netanyahus directly addresses the intersection of these techniques and breaks the fourth wall to announce that the story we have just read is based on true events. We learn that Blum pays homage to the late literary critic Harold Bloom, the first Jewish professor to ever receive tenure from the Yale English Department and who was also once obliged to receive Benzion Netanyahu on a campus visit. Before his death in 2019, Bloom hailed the Book of Numbers as one of the greatest American novels in recent years; In a conversation with Cohen published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, he described Cohen's subsequent Moving Kings as "a fairly hurtful book." One can imagine that Bloom would find Netanyahus to be the best Cohen novel to date, as well as his most devious, his most subtle, and possibly even his most hurtful, depending on the perspective one brings in. Ideologists across the political spectrum are invited to draw irreconcilable conclusions from the same evidence; it is a novel of contradicting superlatives.

And is that all the novelist is a disgraced historian? The answer, The Netanyahus suggests, is what you make of the borrowed, what goal you envision yourself in. Whether you clearly acknowledge that it was fiction after all.

But it might as well forgive a reader for raising her arms and declaring herself sick to all of these smug men and their damnable historiography and the damage they do. "Are you even listening?" Edith says. "I want to go home." The answer is so simple, historical and impossible.

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