Diaspora Trouble

It goes down easily at first: a little slug of ice-cold bile in a big warm swig of Manischewitz. Most of Joshua Cohen’s new novel The Netanyahus unfolds between September 1959 and January 1960 on the campus of the imaginary Corbin University, in pastoral Chautauqua County, a region that ‘dismissive, geographically-illiterate New York City-folk’ call ‘Upstate’, according to the book’s narrator, Professor Ruben Blum. Cohen evokes the bucolic campus world of this era with a fluent satiric touch, playing off trademark details – kitschy props, (pipes, gimlets, a Hide-a-Bed), academic banter and undergraduate hijinks – in a tone that shifts between semi-realist and wild slapstick. The dialogue is snappy and interspersed with snicker-ready, drum-roll-to-cymbal one-liners. Superficially, the story is often a sort of breezy hoot. But grave questions and menacing true-life figures lurk about the novel from its inception to the end. ‘Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you’, reads the epigraph, a citation from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father figure of the Revisionist Zionist movement to which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s Likud Party is heir. Netanyahu situated his own political project in Jabotinksy’s hegemonistic lineage, and it is the problem not just for Israel but for Jewish identity as such posed by the Netanyahu clan’s authority that gives the novel its raison d’etre.

The sixth novel of the prolific, wide-ranging American writer, The Netanyahus tracks a visit paid by the historian Benzion Netanyahu (a lightly fictionalized version of the recently deposed Israeli Prime Minister’s actual father) to Corbin University in pursuit of a job. He comes with his wife Tzila and their three sons: Jonathan, Benjamin and Iddo. They are a uniformly horrific bunch and wreak something worse than havoc on their hosts, the Blums. In the novel’s credits, Cohen informs us that the core of the story was recounted to him as fact by Harold Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated, and who himself served as campus coordinator for the real-life Netanyahus’ once-upon-a-time visit to Cornell, when the scholar of medieval Judaism was struggling both to establish himself professionally and to promote his reactionary brand of Zionism in the States.

Despite their homonymic names, Blum is no Bloom, but rather a modest expert in the history of American taxation, who wears galoshes and is a scrupulous, obliging character whose colleagues project upon him Pnin-ish tendencies. In Blum’s case, however, the fragility of his orientation is a factor of his status in Corbindale, where, as the hamlet’s only Jews, he and his wife, stalwart, sympathetic Edith, along with their quite dreadful daughter Judith, ‘faced regular slights’ more passive than aggressive. At the university, where Edith works as a librarian, these condescensions can be especially barbed. Still, Blum is grateful for the changes toward at least greater tolerance that have emerged in the United States since his youth, and at the outset of the book, set in our own time, he surveys, benignly, the further advances that have been made toward enfranchising different marginal communities in recent years. The list of Blum’s own publications makes evident that he has been able to use his seemingly arid, hard-fact driven field to shine fresh light on issues vital to social progress, from abolitionism to the suffragist movement. He sees through that American exceptionalism whereby, as he recounts, the past was only ‘the process by which the present was attained, and the present merely the most current stage of the American superlative, to be overtaken by tomorrow’s liberation and capital’s spread, until the ultimate transfiguration of world history into world democracy’. But Blum mistrusts this view only for its quasi-theological grandiosity. He aligns himself with milder forms of meliorism – indeed seems to treasure the notion of a reasonable open-endedness to the country’s destiny.

Blum’s dismissal of the most extreme, expansionist view of American history though pales before his revulsion at what he was taught as a child in Hebrew school. What was offered up there as history ‘was closed: it was no history, there was no past, no present, no future. Rather, there was time, as round and perfect as the earth, which from the moment it emerged from God’s spoken light had been marked by a constant repetition, not of seasons or harvests…but of oppression, violence and death’. The ‘gaunt, shuffly rabbis’ who instructed him in his youth in the Bronx, presented every persecutor of the Jewish people throughout time as fungible ‘avatars of Amalek, Israel’s original enemy from the deserts’. Eventually, they make clear, there will surely be an American Amalek to contend with as well. As it turns out, the teachings of the rabbis of Blum’s youth prefigure the vision laid out by Benzion Netanyahu.

Blum is a recent transplant to Corbin University – his wife and daughter are still smarting at their move to the sticks. His wife is bored. The daughter is foul-tempered. Blum’s home is fragile. One day, Dr. Morse, his Department Chair, calls him into his office for a cocktail and explains that he has been chosen as a kind of chaperone-consultant for Dr. Netanyahu’s candidacy and campus visit, despite the fact that Blum is an American historian and Netanyahu is a European Medievalist. Can Netanyahu integrate, Morse wants to know, and though he dances around the topic a bit, his decision to saddle Blum with the job comes down to the fact of both men being Jews. Ethnic kinship gives Blum (Morse hopes), inherent advantages in appraising the Israeli’s character; and regardless (Morse makes clear), freights Blum with special obligations. Blum raises objections but these are swiftly, firmly subdued; and so the ground is sown for the entry of a whirling abomination in familial form into Blum’s delicate professional-domestic sphere.

Even before the Netanyahus arrive, Blum’s distaste for his appointed role has been piqued by his preparatory reading of the applicant’s work in which the introductions ‘read like conclusions’, and the conclusions ‘read like prayers’. What rankles Blum as he studies Netanyahu’s writings about the Spanish Inquisition is the way that the author appears to be trafficking in dogma gussied up as history. Using arguments from the real-life Benzion Netanyahu’s problematic but not entirely discredited major work The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain as the basis for Blum’s encounter with the scholar’s writing, Cohen allows his protagonist to expound on how Netanyahu is actually flaunting religious gospel under the guise of facts.

Netanyahu’s research focused on the Church’s decision to begin effectively de-converting Jews who had cast off their native religion to become Catholics. Blum doesn’t challenge Netanyahu’s evidence for this claim, but rather lambasts the professor’s interpretation of the move, which, in his telling, amounted to the Catholics’ abiding need to maintain a population it was compulsory to hate, for which reasons ‘the Jews had to remain a people doomed to suffer’. The anti-Semitism of the Inquisition was not genuinely doctrinal then, but racist in a modern sense. While declaiming on anti-Semitism in Medieval Iberia, Netanyahu is really discussing Nazi Germany. Thus, like the shuffly rabbis of Blum’s childhood, the Israeli academic presented time ‘as a chain of changes that are visited down upon us by the will of God’. Only in Netanyahu’s case, the power of transformation was attributed not to divine whim, but to the world’s innumerable, invariably Jew-hating gentiles who were ‘constantly judging the Jews and oppressing them, and effecting change through their oppressions: converting them, unconverting them, massacring and expelling’. This view of matters, cleansing the past of particularity in favour of timeless axioms, chimes with the novel’s epigraph. History becomes merely a zero-sum game in which any dilution of a person’s primal, ethno-religious identity means death – a type of death, moreover, that’s contagious to the tribal collective as well. Though Cohen never says ‘eliminate Zion or Zion will eliminate you’, that obverse face of Jabotinksy’s pronouncement seems a plausible deduction within the novel’s logic.

Much of the book’s middle section returns to Blum’s home life and much of this is schtick and schlock. We hear a good deal from Blum’s comically old-fashioned father and Edith’s gauchely snobbish mother. Blum’s daughter Judith’s revulsion at her Jewish nose leads to a violently grotesque scene in which she tricks her grandfather into destroying this organ with a door – thereby forcing her parents to give her the nose job they’ve been resisting. (Her lust to deny the particularity of her Jewish history by means of full-on physiological assimilation appears just the flipside of the Jabotinsky/Netanyahu insistence on maintaining total ethnic purity.) The domestic scenes are intermittently funny and occasionally cruel, but often also feel facile – slick, period-piece rehearsals of mid-twentieth century American Jewish foibles. In their midst, Cohen provides a concise summary of Zionist history in relation to the rise of the revisionist brand of nationalism as religion. And then the Netanyahus arrive.

From the moment their half-wrecked car pulls up, blocking the Blums’ driveway, all five Netanyahus display a boorish grab-bag of ugly Jewish stereotypes. They exit their vehicle already screaming, fighting, screeching and raring to ruin. Father and mother, bundled in sheepskins, appear at first ‘indistinguishable and completely androgynous’. The whole family wear ‘identically furry toggle-clasped coats, hopefully bought in bulk at substantial discount’. Benzion is about fifty, ‘his face a tough nut of vaguely Mongol features’. (Later on, he’ll be described as having ‘hooded, steppe eyes’.) Tzila is ‘stocky, quiffhaired’, loud with malapropisms and thoughtless insults. Jonathan, Benjamin and Iddo, whose ages, 13, 10 and 7 respectively seem to be ‘the only disciplined and orderly thing about them’, immediately begin soiling and despoiling everything in their path. A couple of pages into their mess-making, Iddo’s diaper is being changed by Tzila in a maximally unhygienic manner while Benjamin leans over his younger brother ‘flicking at his penis’ before pointing at his diaper and saying ‘chocolate chip brownie fudge poop cookies’. Okay, he’s a kid. One can’t expect a revealing ideological disquisition. Nonetheless, the Grand Guignol the Netanyahus proceed to execute on the Blums, which culminates in diverse acts of property destruction as well as the sexual violation and possible rape of Judith by 13-year-old Jonathan (the future martyred hero of Entebbe), complete with Benjamin voyeuristically gawking at the door, seems to make such a cheap cartoon of the demonic tribe that everything about their characters is at once homogenized and trivialized. The way these children, whose careers will prove so momentous in Israel’s later history, appear as hollow puppet versions of their father’s Id points toward a greater moral difficulty with the book.

Ultimately, The Netanyahus suggests that dignity and real meaning arise from recognizing the myriad specificities of being. By honouring the humble, mundane humanity of each individual with their small quirks and homely passions, rather than subscribing to any overbearing, teleological theses, we may avoid history’s Great Mistakes, nationalistic-religious persecution of another community high among them. Fair enough. But the Netanyahus themselves are conflated into a single, transgenerational entity to make this point, and the blight they represent seems implicitly transferred from the father to the governing principle of Israel at large – the blight that makes Cohen take seriously the existential threat in the Jabotinsky quote he’s chosen for his epigraph.

The serious parts of the book’s latter sections centre on lectures and conversations in which Benzion Netanyahu thunderingly, contemptuously recapitulates his primary thesis. Though this doesn’t develop much conceptually beyond its initial formulation, Cohen is good at rendering the force of Netanyahu’s rhetoric about the eternal historical agon in which he envisions himself and his people as lead actors. Who could disagree that this approach is lethally deluded? But as a reflection on the political morass of contemporary Zion I’m not sure how far it takes us. For the father and the son are distinct in crucial ways, even if both men are reprehensible.

Near the end of the novel, in a passage of dialogue between Edith and Blum that provides the ethical counterweight to the message conveyed by the Netanyahu phenomenon, Edith recalls the seriousness and sincerity with which the couple had approached everything in their youth. ‘We were so earnest and principled but so intense, about democracy and love and death, as if we knew what those things were’. Now, having met ‘this horrible man and his horrible wife’ Edith has had a revelation, ‘I don’t believe in anything anymore and not just that, but I don’t care. I have no beliefs and I’m OK with it; I’m more than OK. I’m glad…I’m glad I’m getting older without convictions’. Blum concurs.

I lived in Jerusalem from the end of the 1980s through the time of Bibi Netanyahu’s first election as Prime Minister in the wake of Rabin’s assassination. His thuggery was always in evidence, although I think few people then would have been able to conceive how long he was to cling to power, presiding over the decimation of the Israeli left, the killing of thousands of Palestinians, the destruction of innumerable Palestinian homes, the exponential growth of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, the compromising of the national judiciary, the consummation of an apartheid system in a country once heralded as the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East. Given that he achieved all this in a highly fractured, intensely combative national political arena while under indictment in multiple corruption trials, even those who despise Netanyahu have sometimes conceded that he has a masterful instinct for political survival. This feat of endurance speaks in fact not to monolithic ideological rigidity but to expedient elasticity. Considering Netanyahu’s career some years ago I found myself thinking that he represented the most dangerous species of politician: he has the courage of his lack of convictions. In this sense, one might say that trumping even the Revisionist Zionism inherited from his ideologically absolutist father, Netanyahu embodies a bottomless nihilism not so different from that of the last American president, or the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Another way of looking at the crisis of Western democracy in recent years would be to say that there has, in fact, been a fatal shortage of convictions. Surely we can parse between varieties of convictions and champion those promoting values of justice, equality and freedom without sweeping the lot of them off the table as hopelessly tainted. The extraordinary cascade of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was driven by an irrepressible conviction that the impunity hitherto accorded police brutality could not be borne if even a nominal American democracy were to survive. Only a profound, even transcendent conviction of the role such wrongs play in perpetuating a history that, while not an endless repetition, is layered with correlative injustices could have inspired a movement that made systemic change feel tantalizingly within reach. In its less zealous iterations, the Jewish approach to time and history is similarly sedimentary; its different strata revealing patterns that resonate illuminatingly across the eras without strictly reproducing them.

Confronted by a slew of nihilistic, misery-profiteering ‘strong men’ leaders, armed with flexible propagandas, we must learn to differentiate between types of passionate, serious beliefs just as surely as between types of individuals and histories. Otherwise, farce will only ever be clocking time before becoming tragedy once again.

Read on: Nick Burns, ‘Chosen Nations’, NLR 124.