Writing the Counter-Book: Joshua Cohen with Eugene Sheppard

“I was exorcising, if not the anxiety of influence, then the accusations of the anxiety of influence, and also issuing somewhat of a corrective.”

Eugene Sheppard joins his Brandeis colleague John Plotz to 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 the 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.…



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View a transcript of the episode here.


Mentioned in this Episode

  • Zionist and ethno-nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinksy (1880-1940): “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.
  • Novalis (the German Romantic writer Georg von Hardenberg) says somewhere, “Every book must contain its counter-book.”
  • Slavoj Žižek 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 postwar 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.
  • 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 Laor, “You never want a poem to become real.”
  • Netanyahu tells the story of the snowy drive to Ithaca (again) in an interview with Bari Weiss.
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
Headstone at Granary Burying Ground, Boston, MA / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).”