I earned my PhD degree in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, where Benzion Netanyahu taught Jewish history from 1971 to 1975. Professor Netanyahu was not only a famed and polarizing historian of the Spanish Inquisition; he was also the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister of the State of Israel. My familiarity with one of Professor Netanyahu’s academic homes made it tempting to approach Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family as a straight-up roman à clef. With the novel set during Netanyahu’s preemployment interview at a fictional Corbin College in New York’s Finger Lakes region, would I recognize the personalities of my grad school lore? Would Ciriaco Morón Arroyo—the fabulously named Spanish translator of Netanyahu’s work and a member of the faculty in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in the building next door—make an appearance? What would daily life in a fictional Ithaca look like?
But to read Cohen’s novel this way is to do it a great disservice. In fact, Netanyahu himself is not the protagonist of the novel; rather, it is his scholarship and the practice of history itself. The work is a bit of a whirlwind tour (accurately mirroring the pace of the academic job interview that is the novel’s central event) through Netanyahu’s scholarship on the Spanish Inquisition from his own and others’ perspectives, and it gives fresh perspective to the real questions that linger about his work and how it shaped and shapes his own identity and others’.
The novel’s titular Netanyahu family is a lightly fictionalized representation of a famed Israeli dynasty. Scions include the recently deposed, two-time former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his older brother Jonathan, who was killed leading the successful 1976 military raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airplane. The plane had been diverted from its Athens–Paris route to land in Entebbe, Uganda, and was full of Israeli passengers who had started the voyage a leg earlier on a Tel Aviv–Athens flight. The youngest of the three Netanyahu brothers is Iddo, who maintains a lower profile as a radiologist and playwright.
The professor was their father. Born in Russian-controlled Poland, Benzion Netanyahu immigrated with his family in 1920, at the age of 10, to Palestine, then under the British mandate. As a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Netanyahu joined up with radically right-wing figures such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky. This was known as the Revisionist Zionist movement, which advocated violent resistance to British rule and total separation of Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine and Transjordan.
An incipient political career of Netanyahu père failed because he was too hawkish and unwilling to compromise. Instead, he sustained his political convictions through lobbying and fundraising efforts abroad while working as an academic historian, both before and after the establishment of Israel as a state.
As for the novel’s Corbin College, it is not Cornell University, not exactly. Instead, it is home to the newly hired Ruben Blum, a Harold Bloom analogue, an historian, he insists, on whom the novel’s version of the visiting Netanyahu clan is foisted and from whose perspective the narrative is told. Blum is the only Jewish member of the faculty, and a historian of early America, rather than of anything Spanish or premodern. Yet it is he who is asked to review Netanyahu’s application for a faculty position, because the chair of his department assumes that he is qualified to assess whether his coreligionist would be a good “fit” there. The chair presents the assignment to Blum with some difficulty, butchering the applicant’s name as he tries to explain the situation: “Bento Nehru, Benzedrene Nakamoto, Benzene Natty Yahoo … .”
From there, the novel follows Blum as he prepares for Netanyahu’s visit, which will be nearly equally an assessment of both men: of Netanyahu for his potential employment and of Blum to resolve the lingering doubts about the suitability of having hired a Jew into the Department of History. Blum reads and wrestles with Netanyahu’s scholarship, considers the kind of ambivalent endorsements that come in the form of letters of questionable recommendation for his Israeli colleague, and is ultimately responsible for ushering Netanyahu through his campus appointments. Following the account of Netanyahu’s campus visit, punctuated by his wife, Tzila’s, catastrophic intervention in the family’s temporary lodging arrangements, the novel ends a bit abruptly, a bit absurdly, a bit deus ex something (if a police car and an erect penis can be considered machinae). But perhaps that is the only way a novel about an academic life and the Spanish Inquisition could end.
This is a book about American Jewish identities and masculinities, to be sure. But, ultimately, it is much more a novel about history writing. Cohen’s The Netanyahus is a meditation on historians and historiography, which will come largely as no surprise to my most immediate colleagues, those of us who dedicate our lives to the same general field as did Benzion Netanyahu: the Jews of medieval Spain. What is shocking is to see historical scholarship—and Netanyahu’s distinctive historical scholarship in particular—reconsidered so lyrically and contemporarily. In this respect, it is a novel very much like Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), which tells the story of the preeminent historian of Karaite Judaism and his intellectual family life against the rapaciously dangerous backdrop of world history, but almost in concentrate.
For a roman à clef, the most true-to-life character in the novel is Netanyahu’s work itself: “What was Dr. Netanyahu’s work about?” Blum asks himself.
I was frustrated, initially, because I couldn’t formulate it clearly … though he couldn’t formulate it either. … But if by chance some of the creepy priests who featured in his texts were to come to life and demand a summary and threaten to slice off one finger with dull iron scissors for every word I used, this is what I’d tell them: Everything you know about the Inquisition is wrong.
That’s eight words, so I’d keep my thumbs.
That is an apt description of the body of Netanyahu’s work: just as he had been a revisionist in his Zionist proclivities, so, too, was he a revisionist historian: neither the Inquisitors themselves nor most historians of the period would recognize its contours in Netanyahu’s version.
A Corbin faculty member comments to the novel’s Netanyahu during his on-campus interview: “Your belief that different peoples have such different relationships to history as to constitute entirely separate histories, instead of some unified common history that can be agreed upon through facts, frankly smacks of what’s been called revisionism.” In the real world, even as the history of Jews in Spain has been radically rewritten in the past few decades to account for the voices of those persecuted by the Inquisition—an important change for which Netanyahu himself advocated—Netanyahu’s revisions, per se, to the historical narrative never really caught on.
Netanyahu’s magnum opus (and when I say magnum, I refer both to its scope and impact and to the weighty authority of its 1,384 pages) is The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain.1 His thesis in that work is that the Spanish Inquisition did not emerge from specific cultural, religious, and geopolitical forces during the 14th and 15th centuries in Spain. Instead, Netanyahu argues, the Inquisition emerged—inexorably—from over a millennium of anti-Jewish hatred.
Few, if any, scholars working today accept Netanyahu’s vision of the inevitability of the process and the universality of its causes. Even so, his work continues to loom in historical conversations. It also features heavily in political conversations that seek to understand current policies of the Israeli government from the perspective of the father-son relationship between the Netanyahus, Benzion and Benjamin.
The novel foregrounds the historiographical consequences of Netanyahu’s particular brand of revisionism while also imputing to it political and real-world motives that we as scholars only speculate about privately. (But make no mistake: we do.) Cohen’s Netanyahu is keenly, perhaps atemporally, aware of what later scholars would come to see as the defects in his style of history writing, and embraces them. He does not write without awareness of the framework he is imposing on his Inquisition subjects, or about the reasons—his perception of the powerlessness of Jews across time and space—for doing it. “Why care about the facts when you can’t create them?” he asks from the pages of Cohen’s book.
This outlook is reflected explicitly and brilliantly in the novel. And it echoes questions that remain with many scholars working on Jewish history today. How do we grapple with scholarship that was so clearly and integrally informed by tragedy—the Holocaust in particular—at the expense of what we might consider to be a fuller, more accurate, and more truthful panorama?
Our own ambivalence about how to walk this line flows from the pens of fictional Netanyahu’s colleagues. In a letter of recommendation written to Corbin College, Rabbi Dr. Chaim “Hank” Edelman, fictional president of a fictionalized version of Philadelphia’s Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning (now, in reality, after several transformations, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, and a division of the University of Pennsylvania), states:
There are numerous professors throughout the States who fled the Nazi genocide. … Do we hold against these folks a “gap” in their CVs between 1933 and 1945? Do we decide against them because their employment histories have “holes”? Of course not! That would be lunacy! And while the lacunae in Ben’s career are of a different nature, they’re not unrelated. Because while he himself didn’t suffer the European ordeal, he certainly did have to contend with less-than-ideal Palestinian conditions, from typewriter shortages and typewriter-ribbon rationing to Arab arsonists and biblioclasts who kept trying to torch the university archives. In other words, history came also to him.
The gravity of both his political and his historical revisionism explains why, in Cohen’s novel, a colleague from the Hebrew University writes in support of novel Netanyahu’s candidacy only after being pestered excessively. His critiques of Netanyahu’s scholarship are frank and account for the impact of the history unfolding around him on Netanyahu’s writing about the history of the Middle Ages: “Regarding that research: As is frequently the case with a solitary scholar, toiling in isolation, his research is not without flaws. Time and again, Netanyahu has demonstrated a tendency to politicize the Jewish past, turning its traumas into propaganda.” And later on in the letter, after he writes of Netanyahu’s contempt for European survivors’ “political fatigue,” he adds: “But imagine! During the greatest tragedy to ever befall his people, Ben-Zion Netanyahu was neither in Europe nor in Palestine but in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, writing about Medieval Spain! Writing about the Inquisition during the Holocaust … writing about the failure of the Iberian Jews to save themselves as a proxy for his own inability to save the Jews of Europe. … What insanity!”
In the fictional universe of nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Netanyahu’s recommenders ask explicitly what scholars today tend to murmur only among ourselves and only behind closed doors: How do we handle scholarship that purports to be about one thing—the Spanish Inquisition—but is so clearly about another: the Holocaust? Where do history and theology intersect? What historiographical flaws are we prepared to forgive and overlook because of the trauma of a generation of historians? And how do we work around them so as not to perpetuate their personal and academic impacts?
As someone who confronts these questions in my somewhat rarefied and obscure professional life, I found it stunning to see them posed in a novel. I can’t help but feel that the novel was written for me or for a select few of my accomplices, but of course that’s not how publishing works. Instead, Cohen places a smart confidence in his readers that they, too, are interested not only in the big questions of history but in the mechanics of how to get there.
It is a strange thing to be able to read books from inside the institutions that engendered them. It is likewise strange to read them and recognize the infelicitous collisions of life and literature.
The slightly chaotic action of the novel is driven by its characters, and in a brief coda entitled “Credits and Extra Credit,” Cohen offers his reader some insights into the genesis of these characters and their relationship to their familiars, who once walked among us readers in the world. The novel’s subplot deals with the Blum family’s resettlement in upstate New York from New York City, and particularly the maladjustment of their daughter, Judith, to her new environs and of both sets of grandparents to their sudden distance from the Blum family nucleus.
Yet in spite of the reminiscences of his brief friendship with Bloom, Cohen tells us that “it should go without saying that ‘Ruben Blum,’ the prosaic professor of American Economic History, is not intended to be a portrayal of Harold Bloom, the furthest-thing-from-prosaic professor of English Literature, in the same way that ‘Edith’ is not intended to be a portrayal of Jeanne, Harold’s highly cultured, shrewd, and witty wife.”
He goes on to explain that the fictionalization of the Blooms came at the behest of the real-life alter-egos of Judith and of Edith,
who confirmed her husband’s account of the Netanyahu visit and graciously blessed my use of it, on one condition: that I clear it first with “Judith.” … She asked me to leave her out of it. I replied that I’d do my best to make her unrecognizable, and in my attempts to do so, I found that the alterations I had to make to her character required me to make alterations to the Bloomian characters too, and soon the “Blums” took on a life of their own, even while the Netanyahus remained the Netanyahus.
But if something persisted, it was Bloom’s interest in the gossip of literature, for which he pumped Cohen when they visited:
He wanted to know what was going on in literature, in publishing; he wanted to know what I was writing and when he could read it, and what my opinions were on Kafka, Proust, D. H. Lawrence (“David Herbert Lawrence”), and Nathanael West (“Nathan Weinstein”); he wanted to know what books had just come out, and which of them I’d read, and which of them were “palatable,” and whatever rumors and gossip about the authors of those books that I could spare him.
He also offered his own gossip in equal, if perhaps self-aggrandizing, measure: “There were stories about writers he’d known … about Philip Roth, who created the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theater by asking himself, ‘what if Harold, instead of making his parents proud and going to the Ivy League, had gone to seed in the Village in the 50s?’—this by Roth’s own admission, apparently.”
This academic culture gives pride of place to the gossip of scholarship rather than the work of it. And it features in the novel, alongside the vivid protagonist that is Netanyahu’s historical writing.
I began my book-reviewing life with another alma mater transformed into fiction. As a teenage staff member of the student newspaper of San Francisco’s Lowell High School, I was assigned to review Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight. This roman à clef transformed our shared alma mater into a racist joke and an extended misogynistic trope. In Handler’s hands, Lowell became Roewer, making fun of the Cantonese-inflected San Francisco accent particular to some students, many of their parents, and some notable teachers and administrators. Handler’s protagonist, Flannery Culp, read to me like a middle-aged man trying to write from the perspective of a high school girl.
I was passionately enraged by the novel (a stance from which I still sometimes, if ill-advisedly, review). And I was angered precisely because it distilled an institution I cared about—and the people who composed it and whom I cared about even more—into a frivolous whodunit that alternated hazardously between the novelesque and the real. (Was Flannery Culp a killer? Had our biology teacher really sexually harassed our classmates?)
And with this, I must pause to reflect on my strange, illustrious-in-spite-of-myself, and ultimately gossipy academic lineage. Every academic institution with which I have been affiliated since high school has been the subject of a genre-bending reconceptualization in literature: Lowell in Handler’s murder mystery, Harold Bloom’s Yale, where I earned my undergraduate degree, and what had been, but was surely no longer, Benzion Netanyahu’s Cornell.
New York University, too, where I now teach, is the subject of much pop fantasy and also features in a panoply of academic fiction. But it is a work of nonfiction that evokes Cohen’s novelistic treatment of gossip, fiction, and the life of an institution: Avital Ronell’s Complaint.
Complaint was published nearly concurrently with a series of newsbreaks. At the time of publication, Ronell stood accused of sexually harassing a graduate student; defying all kinds of personal and professional boundaries; and, following a lengthy Title IX investigation, ultimately receiving what is arguably not a punishment for someone with a deep and active agenda of writing and research that is only disrupted by time in the classroom: a year’s prohibition on teaching.
Like Cohen’s Netanyahus, Complaint combines genres: in this case, memoir, apologia, philosophical monograph. Netanyahu, both real and fictional, cannot separate his scholarship from the backdrop of world history. So, too, Ronell—perhaps also a real person and a character in her own writing—cannot separate those two elements, even if the historical events that intervene are on rather a smaller scale.
There is a special relationship between scholars, their subject matter, and the world. Blum acknowledges this relationship at the beginning of the novel. He observes that
lawyers die and don’t become the law, doctors die and don’t turn into medicine, but biology and chemistry professors pass away and decompose into biology and chemistry, they mineralize into geology, they disperse into their science, just as surely as mathematicians become statistics. The same process holds true for us historians. … We age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time.
This is the guiding principle of a gossipy roman à clef that is so much more than that. And it is, moreover, without a doubt the best presentation I have read of Benzion Netanyahu’s body of work.
It is a strange thing to be able to read books like this, from inside the institutions that, at least in certain ways, engendered them. And it is likewise strange to read them and recognize the infelicitous collisions of life and literature.
In most cases, as in both The Basic Eight and Complaint, it is the gossip and the news that wins out over output of intellectual labor. What is remarkable about The Netanyahus is the absolutely lyric treatment of specialized, technical, and obscure scholarship. Hand in hand with that triumph is the author’s ability—truly—to vivify the letter and make it the protagonist of the novel.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- A more compact and accessible version of Netanyahu’s work may be found in Toward the Inquisition, which comprises individual essays and clocks in at well under 300 pages. ↩