“The Netanyahus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this week, recounts a very funny anecdote about Israel’s famous family that unfolds more than a half-century before one of them became it’s longest-serving prime minister.
But Joshua Cohen, the book’s 41-year-old author, says the novel is about identity and illiberalism, fathers and sons, autocrats and politics-as-entertainment — and that he had another recently dethroned leader in mind when he wrote it.
“I wanted to write something about what it felt like to live the Trump years,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in Jerusalem. He had planned to have a quiet, weeklong writing retreat here that was interrupted late Monday by the news that he had won the prize.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like former President Donald Trump, “comes from a family that became essentially a reality show family,” Cohen said.
“We were living their show. And so I thought that if I looked at the origins of this authoritarian figure reality show as it developed in another country, it would be possible to say certain things about liberalism and about what it meant to be free and to think freely in a culture where you’re bombarded with this spectacle.”
The novel is loosely based on a real-life visit by Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a medieval historian and the former prime minister’s father, to the United States around 1960. The story on which the novel is based was related to Cohen by the eminent literary criticized Harold Bloom, who hosted the real-life Netanyahus.
Netanyahu “showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess,” Cohen writes in the author’s note. The book’s subtitle refers to the series of events as “a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family.”
Benjamin Netanyahu was a young boy at the time and is a minor character in the novel, which focuses on Ben-Zion and the narrator, a fictional professor of American history named Ruben Blum.
The novel paints the Netanyahus as a crude and brash lot who crashed into the Blum family’s quiet life in a quaint college town. The thoroughly Gentile department chair’s assumption that Blum — the sole Jewish member of the faculty — will hit it off with Ben-Zion turns out to be spectacularly unfounded.
Ofer Golan, a spokesman for the real Netanyahu family, declined to comment on the book.
Ben-Zion, a respected if controversial historian of the Spanish Inquisition who died in 2012 at the age of 102, espoused a bleak worldview in which Jews are perpetually at risk of another Holocaust — their best hope being a militarily strong and uncompromising Jewish state.
But he was politically sidelined in the early decades of Israel’s existence and toiled away in obscurity at American universities, instead investing his hopes in his sons.
“It’s in these father-son relationships that these authoritarians get made,” Cohen said, comparing the elder Netanyahu to Fred Trump, the real-estate developer and father of the former president.
Ben-Zion’s oldest son, Yonatan, perished in a commando raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, in which more than 100 Jewish hostages were rescued from Palestinian hijackers. Yonatan is celebrated as one of Israel’s greatest war heroes.
Benjamin, who was first elected prime minister in 1996 as a staunch opponent of the peace process with the Palestinians, returned to office in 2009 and went on to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. His long rule of him ended last year, but he is eyeing a comeback even as he is on trial for corruption.
Netanyahu was a close ally of President Trump and emulated his style of rule. He presented himself as the only leader capable of shepherding Israel through dangerous times, dismissed critical media coverage as “fake news” and accused law enforcement of waging a “witch hunt” against him.
Like Trump, his rule left the country bitterly divided between supporters who view him as an almost messianic savior and opponents who see him as a corrupt fascist threatening the foundations of democracy.
But everyone tuned in for the spectacle.
“They are pets in a way, hated pets, and I resent the omnipresence of this saga that I didn’t sign up for,” Cohen said. “I wanted to take some of its powers of projection and use it for my own purposes.”
In the process, Cohen also contrasts the Jewish-American experience of assimilation in a multi-cultural nation, despite a certain level of antisemitism, and the nationalism of the Israeli right, which is personified by Ben-Zion and is now the dominant strain in Israeli politics.
Anshel Pfeffer, the author of a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu and a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, says the novel captures two separate stories of Jewish success that “contradict and rebuff each other.”
“All of a sudden, after 2000 years of exile and persecution, the Jews had become a success story, but not with just one success,” he wrote in a column last fall. “American Jews were finally proving that, in the land of the free, there was no need for a Jewish homeland and Israeli Jews were proving that only in their homeland could Jews be truly free.”
The novel has increased relevance at a time when the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel — the world’s two largest — seem to be drifting apart.
Israel has lurched to the right over the past two decades and is now dominated by nationalist parties opposed to Palestinian statehood, even as American Jews are increasingly divided over the conflict. Religious affairs in Israel have long been dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, who refuse to recognize the more liberal strains of Judaism to which most American Jews adhere.
Cohen said he was aware of the “gaps and breakages everywhere” — between his generation’s views of Israel and its parents’, and between American and Israeli Jews. But he shies away from discussing his own politics and identity of him, aside from saying he had a religious Jewish upbringing in the United States and has spent considerable time in Israel.
“I’m a writer. That’s a different nationality, it’s a different identity, it’s a different religion,” he said. As to his relationship with Israel, he says he comes from a Jewish tradition in which biting satire is “an act of love.”
“The book was really written as a comedy,” he said. “To me that is its politics.”