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Speeding Away from Zion

On Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen. New York Review Books, 248 pages.

What is the American Jew? For the last seventy-three years, this has been a most vexed question, ever since a land was forcibly seized for the Jews to, at last, make their own. “With the establishment of Israel, the poetic was returned to the practical. This is the first example ever in human civilization in which this happened—in which a story became real,” declares Benzion Netanyahu. “It became a real country with a real army, real essential services, real treaties and real trade pacts, real supply chains and real sewage.”

We know Netanyahu today because of who came after him: three sons, including the revanchist prime minister who dominated his young nation and was ripped from power not very long ago. The elder Netanyahu, the restless and pugilistic scholar, has faded from our popular consciousness, lost in the shadow of his juggernaut son. For many Americans today, there is no Israel without Netanyahu the younger, and it is this pure fusion the old man, who managed to live beyond a century, would have probably reveled in most.

How did the oppressed become the oppressors? Or are they still oppressed? Why do we care so much about a group of people who don’t even number 15 million worldwide? Stroll into a dinner party and spit out the word Israel and watch as opinions are disgorged in furious real time. If you went to college and digested a few links in your social media feed, you are ready for combat, and the violence that flares from Israel makes its way to CNN and inevitably bulldozes the discourse. There is slaughter in Syria and Ethiopia and Myanmar, but Israel, for Jews and non-Jews alike, is our lodestar for unresolvable debate.

It is here where Joshua Cohen, one of our best working American novelists, wades now. The above quote is not real—or maybe it was at one time—and exists in a character that Cohen has conjured to life in his new, brilliant novel, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. This character is Benzion Netanyahu, and he is the star of this historical novel, which marries some madcap Rothian scene-making with a greater and uncomfortable plumbing of what it means, all these years later, to be Jewish in America.   

There is slaughter in Syria and Ethiopia and Myanmar, but Israel, for Jews and non-Jews alike, is our lodestar for unresolvable debate.

The Netanyahus is told from the perspective of Ruben Blum, an elderly Jewish historian who is remembering a strange episode in his history, from the winter of 1959–1960. Blum is retired, happily enough, from Corbin College, an imagined liberal arts outpost of no great renown in rural New York. Bemused by the campus wars that have consumed so much digital ink today—former students who are “junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with nearly every remark”—he is quick to note that there was a time when a “Jew would be lucky to pass as white.” And Blum, a product of the working-class immigrant Bronx, is not quite wrong, having come of age when Jewish quotas were maintained at Ivy League schools and downtown law firms. He belonged to the generation, veterans of World War II or those who could remember V-J Day, who taught America what it meant to be a “schlemiel, shlimazl, nebbish, and klutz” and ushered so many self-questioning, self-regarding first-generation Jews into the zeitgeist.

We quickly go back with Blum to the bleak winter of midcentury, when he was a young professor hunting for his footing at a school—and in a town—decidedly without Jews. He is a man adrift, compiling rote research on the history of American taxation. The gregarious dean, of oblivious WASP vintage, tasks him to review the application of a curious foreign academic who is looking to come to Corbin. The academic studies the Medieval period, something Blum has no knowledge of, but this does not matter: the academic is a Jew and Blum is a Jew. Bless identity politics.

Meanwhile, we peer into Blum’s unsatisfying home life. His wife labors at a local library and his whip-smart high school daughter hates her Jewish nose, longing for beauty. In-laws intrude, straight out of other midcentury novels: the pushy immigrants still reverent of their old-world customs, and the assimilated, cash-flush upstarts. Hijinks ensue. Cohen’s writing carries us through, even when the scenes, like generational battles at the dinner table, seem well-worn.

By now, you can probably guess the reveal: this foreign academic is Benzion Netanyahu. We pause here to note that not only was Benzion a real person—you knew this already—but that Cohen wrote the novel based on an episode related to him by the late Harold Bloom, the eminent literary critic. Bloom once chaperoned the elder Netanyahu on a visit to Cornell, where Bloom lectured. Through this episode, minor or not, we have the flowerings of a novel.

Netanyahu the man, much like Netanyahu the character, was difficult. A son of Poland, born well before the founding of Israel, he was a fiery, peripatetic academic who argued that Jews during the Spanish Inquisition converted to Christianity not out of fear of imprisonment or death but simply to integrate into broader society, forcing the Church to “redefine Judaism from a religion to a race.” He is lavishly praised or reviled for this thesis; it is a curious thing for an arch-Zionist to pin his career on, perhaps, but Netanyahu is fervently focused on forging past and present. “There comes a point in nearly every text he produces where it emerges that the true phenomenon under discussion is not anti-Semitism in Early Medieval Lorraine or Late Medieval Iberia but rather anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Nazi Germany,” writes a Hebrew University professor to Blum, warning him away from Netanyahu.

The Netanyahus is an ideas novel. There is a plot that tugs us onward, though it’s a bit beside the point, and we eventually meet Benzion in the flesh, along with his brood, the Yahus—in Blum’s parlance. Alas, young Bibi isn’t terribly notable, being ten; all the boys are little terrors, tearing up the rugs and despoiling precious furniture. Blum’s wife clashes with Netanyahu’s wife. Eventually (spoiler!) young Yoni, future hero and martyr, has sex with Blum’s daughter.

In Blum’s own ruminations, the letters written to him, and Netanyahu’s slashing guest lecture to the Corbin rank-and-file, The Netanyahus coheres. Within it crackles debates central to the struggles of modern Judaism: liberal vs. conservative, Zionist vs. anti-Zionist, tradition vs. reinvention. Benzion Netanyahu himself was an invention. Born Benzion Mileikowsky, the son of the itinerant rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, he was taken as a young man to Mandate Palestine, where the family name was altered to Netanyahu, so all of them, henceforth, could assume a Hebraic identity.

Rabbi Mileikowsky, like his son and grandson, adhered to what became known as Revisionist Zionism. What Cohen tracks, through speeches and letters, is how a fringe ideology came to define, almost entirely, what it is Zionism means in the twenty-first century. Today, when we loudly debate Zionism in America, we do it on the Netanyahu clan’s terms and terrain. You are for what the Revisionists declare—or you are against it. In the twentieth century, the Revisionists locked horns with the dominant liberals of their day, the Labor Zionists and various leaders who did not share their maximalism or their ferocity.

It must be remembered—and Cohen thankfully reminds us—that Zionism, at one time, came in many flavors. Many sought a Jewish state wherever it could be found: British East Africa, Dutch Suriname, the Argentine, a “Jewish colony in Cyprus or Madagascar or Baja California.” The Zionism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries arose from a reasonable enough impulse. Everywhere you looked, Jews were being massacred, and this was even before Hitler was born. Many of the liberal secular Jews you know today, including myself, are descended from these peasant people, the Galicians in particular, who fled across the sea from this mania of violence. If you were a Jew, you felt you were on borrowed time, waiting until the next pogrom decimated whatever it was, in the blood-drenched mud of your village, you had tried to build.

Jewish dairy farmers in Colchester, Connecticut. | Library of Congress

Anti-Semites, in time, had reason to be intrigued by Zionism, too—why not herd all these undesirables into one little spit of land, away from Europe proper, so we never hear from them again? In the braying over Zionism today, there is this notable link between the conservative Jews who wish nothing more than to bind the future of the faith to this nation-state in the desert and the salivating anti-Semites who wish nothing more than to indict every last American Jew as a Zionist foot solider with no loyalty to the Constitution.

Sometimes, the late bloomers win history. To the chagrin of the Netanyahu clan, it was the Labor Zionists, with their dreams of socialism in Palestine, who held political capital in the early years. When the Corbin College faculty, at the height of the Red Scare, interrogate Benzion about his political leanings, he assures them he is no commie. “If I were, I would still be back in my home country, where those politics are welcome. More than that, they’re encouraged. My mere presence here, seeking work in the States, should be proof enough that I share your concerns.”

The Revisionists believed Zion was there for the taking—screw the British, the Arabs, the socialists, and everyone else. Rabbi Mileikowsky, unlike “the Zionists of Vienna, Budapest, and Switzerland,” refused to “wait for the world to ‘give’ the Jews a homeland, whenever and wherever the great powers pleased; God had already ‘given’ the Jews a historical homeland in Palestine; it was there, it was waiting for them (It was Netan-yahu); all they had to do was take it.” The Revisionists loathed the left-wing Jews—dithering and weak-willed, in their view—almost as much as the Arabs, and they vowed to give no quarter to anyone. They looked longingly to America, where glittering metropolises, suburbs, and exurbs had been erected on land pilfered from a slaughtered indigenous people, and they wondered why the Jews of Palestine should expect any less. Found an army, then a country.

A century later, there is barely such a thing as labor Zionism in Israel, and Benzion’s son has only been unseated because a Far Right politician, at last, outfoxed the scandal-ridden king. The West Bank is indefinitely occupied. Gaza, like the shtetls of old, is deeply violent and hellishly poor. The Palestinian people demand liberation, but no one—certainly not the men who control the Israeli government—is going to do anything to give it to them. From America, we look on, mostly impotent. BDS is certainly not making the Likud Party or New Right take the Palestinian plight more seriously.

All of this shadows the Jew today. The Orthodox grow in number, seemingly exponentially, as all other kinds of Jews slowly peter out. We are not a race, after all—we are a religion and, more crucially, its dizzying, attendant customs. The Hebrew School-attending, Hashem-rejecting, liberal-ish American Jew that has been a totem of the culture for so many decades is assimilating into nothing at all—a great and indistinguishable mishmash, the religionists will charge. They marry out of the faith, eschew Shabbos, and embrace a vague cultural cachet over the brilliance and brutality of hard religious law. They never read Torah, they never wear kippah, they never see the inside of synagogue, except on the occasional holiday. Liberated from the memories of the Holocaust, they hardly know what it is to be a Jew at all.

Spend enough time with the liberal Jew and the Orthodox Jew and you find they have little use for each other. The Orthodox, deep in study and reverence, view the liberals as equal parts lily-livered and traitorous, unwilling to fight for a faith that has, seared into it, the fear of extinction. Forsaking Israel, intermarrying—it all amounts, in their eyes, to the effective end of the Jew. Thousands of years of struggle, tossed away for false idols.

And the liberal does not know what to make of the Orthodox. The religion, at its core, is deeply misogynist, and there are Hasidism who can hardly read and write English. The holidays, too numerous to name, become incomprehensible. The Orthodox posture is fundamentally conservative, in social and economic matters, and the worship of a hyper-militarized theocracy bent on degrading another poorer, more oppressed people is too alienating to stomach. An unpopular but not unreasonable opinion, in certain circles at least, is that the Zionism that exists today was a mistake. There is no way to undo this mistake, like there is no way to undo a birth. We cannot simply snap our fingers and make 1948 or 1917 not happen, rush backwards in time to tell Herzl, Jabotinsky, or Mileikowsky to find new hobbies. The Jews could have lived happily on the Great Plains, perhaps, with livestock and grain far beyond any horizon line. But the Torah does not speak of Montana.

An unpopular but not unreasonable opinion is that the Zionism that exists today was a mistake. There is no way to undo this mistake, like there is no way to undo a birth.

Today, the American Jew is simply White, in intersectional terminology, no different than the muscular Christian who once barred her from Yale. No different than the fundamentalist preacher in Texas, the light-skinned Turk in New Jersey, or the Baptist truck driver crooning Luke Bryan on I-80. Anti-Semitic attacks may be rising, but probably not on those sans payot or tzitzit. Reared in Irish and Italian Catholic Brooklyn, most of the anti-Semitism I endured was of the micro-aggressive variety, hardly memorable at all. Far worse to be too fat or too slow or too neglectful of your Pokémon. The kids whose names ended in vowels on my baseball team would sometimes ask me what I did on Christmas. One year, I saw King Kong. I have family in the Jew-deprived Midwest, and there I am as safe as I am here, the land of Christianity no longer obsessed with whatever it is the Jews do.

Yet there is that tug, that nag, a wee voice that might find its way into some hollow of even the most atheistic Jew: What is it at the center of my life? Ruben Blum, sure of his ascendance into the faithless bourgeoise, has it, too, as Benzion Netanyahu thunders away. “This is what I think of America—nothing. This is what I think of American Jews—nothing,” Blum imagines Netanyahu saying to him. “Your democracy, your inclusivity, your exceptionalism—nothing. Your chances for survival—none at all.” Blum is told by this Netanyahu that he is utterly out of history. “In only a generation or two the memory of who your people were will be dead, and America won’t give your unrecognizable descendants anything real with which to replace the sense of peoplehood it took from them.” The American Jew, speeding away from Zion, is then nothing more than a creature doomed to irrelevance, devoid of the awesome power and love of an Old Testament God. Blum wonders what it is he is getting in return, a “life here rich in possessions but poor in spirit” where he has traded his “birthright away for a bowl of plastic lentils.”

If the American Jew, barring the Orthodox, is now fully joined to the assimilated blob, history might still intrude. My father is old enough to have been a target for extermination in the Holocaust—he had the good fortune to have been born in New York City—and the real survivors still hover in Brooklyn and Queens, cradling memories we cannot comprehend. It was simply not long ago that an exceedingly modern and cultured nation-state decided that it would be its prerogative, above all is else, to murder every Jew. The Holocaust is cliché, but it is not—it all happened, and its legacy will never leave us. For the foundation of Israel, it was the final trigger. These cursed people would get a homeland, never mind the geopolitical tempest that would inevitably result.

At the end of The Netanyahus, Blum is leaving a faculty party with his aggrieved wife, Edith. She does not want to host the little Netanyahus or their boorish father in their Dutch Colonial. It is deep winter, and the snow is hitting them both. “Remember when we were young, Ruben?” she asks. “We took everything so seriously. Everything we read. Every exhibition and concert and book. All those poems. We were serious people and believed in things.”

“I remember. We were good little Jews.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Edith responds. “Who said anything about Jews? I’m sick and tired of hearing about Jews. I’m talking about the two of us.”

What is the American Jew? What is America otherwise?