It is only if you read the additional notes at the end of the book that you learn that Joshua Cohen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Netanyahus is loosely based on a true story. How loosely is up to the reader to decide but it does shine a light on key figures in the history of modern Israel, not just prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu but the legacy of his father and the practical Zionist movement that he was a part of. And this is done in the middle of what can only be described as a classic campus farce centred around the only Jew in the faculty of an upstate New York University in the late 1950s.
Ruben Blum is in his second year as an American History lecturer at Corbin College in upstate New York. He is, by his own admission the
embodiment of the under-coordinated, overintellectualizing (sic), self-deprecating male Jewish stereotype that Woody Allen, for instance, and so many Jewish-American literary writers found outlandish financial and sexual success lampooning (Roth in the generation younger than mine, Bellow and Malamud in the generation older)…
Ruben’s marriage is under pressure and he has a teenage daughter, Judy, who is still punishing him for the move away from New York. On top of this he is asked to help the College with a request to interview a new history teacher – Benzion Netanyahu. Blum is asked, not because of his knowledge of Netanyahu’s research or area of expertise, but because of the shared Jewish heritage of the two. Much of the book is the build up to the arrival of Netanyahu who turns up with his wife and three young boys and proceeds in the space of a few hours to turn Blum’s already crumbling life upside down.
Cohen manages to deliver The Netanayhus in a range of registers that should not work together. It is, at its heart, a satire and comedy of manners. The sections detailing Blum’s relationship with both his parents and his wife’s parents are both broadly satirical, cutting and achingly observed. Behind all of this is a history of Zionism, its different factions and the philosophy and character that has driven recent Israeli politics. There is also a consideration of the role of history and the historian as Netanyahu’s research into the Spanish Inquisition seems to bring in Twentieth Century concepts. But not only that, there is also a take down of American views and values and by revealing the hypocrisy that underlies them.
While there is a lot going on in The Netanyahus it is also a very simple tale of a man who has his values and way of life challenged. Of the chaos that ensues when people with very different ways of seeing and approaching the world come into contact. And it somehow manages to be funny, deeply felt, informative, contemplative, illuminating, scathing and unrestrained all at the same time. Which is a feat in itself.