Joshua Cohen’s "The Netanyahus" (JP, Eugene Sheppard)


In this episode (originally aired by our partner Novel Dialogue) John and his Brandeis colleague Eugene Sheppard speak with Joshua Cohen about The Netanyahus. Is the 2021 novel a Pulitzer-winning bravura story of the world’s worst job interview? Or is it a searing indictment of ethno-nationalist Zionism–and the strange act of pretense whereby American Jewish writers and thinkers in postwar America pretended that Israel and its more extreme ethno-nationalist strains didn’t concern them?

Cohen dramatizes the return of that repressed by imagining the family of the Benzion Netanyahu (actual medieval Spanish historian and father of Israel’s past and present Prime Minister Bibi) landing itself on a would-be assimilated American Jewish family ripped straight from the pages of a Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud novel.

With John and Eugene, Joshua dissects the legacy of earlier American Jewish writers like Cynthia Ozick, and offers finer details of how Ze’ev Jabotinksy‘s bellicose views would ultimately take hold in Israel, wisecracking his way to a literally jaw-dropping conclusion…

Mentioned in this episode:

  • Zionist and ethnonationalist Ze'ev Jabotinksy (1880-1940): "We must eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate us."
  • Novalis (the German Romantic writer Georg Von Hardenberg) says somewhere "Every book must contain its counter-book."
  • Slavoj Zizek makes the case that everything is political including the choice not to have a politics.
  • Joshua wants readers to think about why celebrated postwar American fiction by Jewish authors like Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth (starting from his 1959 Goodbye Columbus) largely ignores both the Holocaust and Israel until the 1970s or 1980s. Joshua invokes Harold Bloom's 1973 Anxiety of Influence to explain his relationship to them. He is less interested in Hannah Arendt.
  • "Shoah Religion" is the way in which the Holocaust came to not only function as a key element in post-war American Jewish identification but also to legitimate the state of Israel (cf Abba Eban's famous quip "There's no business like Shoah business")
  • Yekke: a German-Jew in Israel or American characterized by an ethos of industrial self-restraint and German culture, satirized in Israeli culture as a man who wears a three piece suit in the middle of summer heat.
  • Leon Feuchtwanger
  • "There's hope but not for us" Joshua (subtly) quotes a line of Kafka's that Walter Benjamin (in "Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death‟ from Illuminations) apparently lifted from Max Brod ("Oh Hoffnung genug, unendlich viel Hoffnung, — nur nicht für uns.")
  • Yitzhak La’or "you ever want a poem to become real"
  • Netanyahu tells the story of the snowy drive to Ithaca (again) in an interview with Barry Weiss.
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer

Read transcript here

Your Host

Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz

Free-ranging discussion of books from the past that cast a sideways light on today's world. Recall This Book is hosted by Elizabeth Ferry, Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and John Plotz, Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative.

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