It’s a Novel: An Exchange

Allan Arkush’s original review of The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family can be found here.

I regret that Allan Arkush didn’t like my new book, but not as much as I regret that he seems to have forgotten—or not noticed?—that The Netanyahus is a novel (see “Fictional Revisionism,” I suppose I could use this letter to explain what that means, or what that should mean, in a few funny sentences, but then what would be the point? Arkush doesn’t share my sense of humor.

I should better spend my time clearing up a few things—a few mistakes, which I don’t want to end up reading on Wikipedia:

1. The book never states that Corbin College, later Corbin U, “is” Cornell. Fair Corbin is a far less illustrious institution and bears just about as much resemblance to Arkush’s alma mater as SUNY Fredonia bears to, well, the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia.

2.  The fictional (I can’t believe I’m reminding you: fictional) letter of recommendation that Arkush unpacks is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Zionism. It is meant to be a fictional (I can’t believe I’m reminding you: fictional) letter of recommendation. Still, the corrections that Arkush offers are half split-hair quibbling and half just flat-out wrong . . . for example:

3.  Arkush writes, “In fact, Jabotinsky never declared himself to be the mortal enemy of the British. As Anita Shapira has written, ‘He demonstrated his loyalty to, and friendship for, Britain throughout the course of his entire political career.’” Seriously? Jabotinsky was arrested and imprisoned by the British. His publications were routinely shuttered. Eventually, he was banned from Mandatory Palestine altogether. It’s true that if you read VJ’s speeches and journalism, you’ll find that he tried his best to be polite to the British—he, yes, “demonstrated his loyalty”; he kissed the ring and flaunted his manners, trying to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. This, I’d imagine, is good diplomacy, good statecraft. But the idea that he demonstrated “friendship for, Britain throughout the course of his entire political career” is total nonsense. Jabotinsky conducted an on-and-off guerilla war against the British for decades, and I’d suspect that his true feelings for the lesser of two evils (the greater, to him, being Arabs) are most clearly revealed on the occasions he went off script. In 1932, for instance, when he infamously speculated (threatened?) that “the Jews might become the dynamite that will blow up the British Empire.” In that same speech, he declared that the hatred that every Jew once felt toward Russia will now be directed at England, which “has deceived us, destroyed our hopes, and we shall proclaim her lie to the world.” I could go on and on, but . . . I’m a novelist.

4.  Arkush writes that Benzion Netanyahu “would never have claimed . . . that the mass conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity before the establishment of the Inquisition was ‘not compelled, but voluntary.’” Really? The Marranos of Spain, B. Netanyahu, page 96: “By 1415, voluntary conversion was not a minor current. . . . And it was this decisive fact, more than anything else, that engendered the opinion . . . about the ‘great betrayal’ of the Jews of Spain.” The Marranos of Spain, by B. Netanyahu, page 121: “The very fact that most of Spain’s Jews were now in the Christian orbit, and that the voluntary converts now constituted the majority of the Marranos, made clandestine Jewish life, and further resistance to assimilation, appear more futile than ever before.” Netanyahu mentions the pre-Inquisition voluntary conversions most prominently in The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, dedicating dozens of pages to the phenomenon. I suspect that Arkush flagged this because he thinks I’m having my (again) fictional Netanyahu use the word “voluntary” in some happy giddy way, so let me assure him that I’m not. Maybe what he should do is this: Take a, say, yellow highlighter and highlight each time the word “voluntary” appears in my text. This yellow highlighter will be our special sign for IRONY. . . . Or maybe it’d be better if he just crossed out every “voluntary” and replaced it with “ironic” (and every “voluntarily” with “ironically”)? Like so: The mass conversion of Spanish Jews was not compelled, but ironic. . . . It’s amazing what you wind up doing ironically after a review like a pogrom.

Joshua Cohen
via email

Allan Arkush responds:

Joshua Cohen wants to have it both ways. When he creates a wildly implausible scenario about real historical people or ventriloquizes potted, misleading history through an academic character, well, then he’s just a writer of fiction. But he also insists that he and his character are actually right about Jabotinsky and that Anita Shapira, a leading historian of Zionism whom I quoted in my review, was spouting “total nonsense.” He also attempts to paper over his misunderstanding of the claims of Benzion Netanyahu (the former prime minister’s historian father) about Spanish Jewry before the Inquisition. He seems to have mistaken cherry-picking quotes for historical research, the kind of thing that one might expect from one of the students at his fictional (yes, fictional) Corbin College.

Cohen’s protestations as a novelist notwithstanding, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family comes with a postscript to assure the reader that there is a historical kernel of truth in his story. The late literary critic Harold Bloom, he tells us, liked to tell him the story of hosting Benzion Netanyahu and his young family during his disastrous academic job talk in the 1950s (though Cohen has also admitted to interviewers, Bloom changed it a little with each telling). Moreover, Cohen has tracked down the girl in Bloom’s story and reproduces the over-the-top email from her in his postscript, which I quoted in my review. Or perhaps he hasn’t; maybe that, too, is a bit of ironic metafictional game playing. One thing is certain, however: the attention this book has received is predicated on it being an at least true-ish story about “a very famous” and widely reviled political family, and Cohen and his publisher know it.

Imagine now that having heard the very same anecdote from Harold Bloom but knowing that Bloom was famous for telling tall tales—he liked to tell students that the scar on his forehead was the result of a bullet wound he received during the Israeli War of Independence, when in fact he wasan undergraduate at Cornell—Cohen decided to tell the very same story in the very same words but called it The Etzionis: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Fictional Family. As a work of fiction, nothing would have changed except for a few proper names and the cutesy postscript, but would the New York Times’ critic call it “a history lesson”; would the Wall Street Journal call it “an ideological origin story”? Would its feeble wit have been widely celebrated? Foreign Policy certainly wouldn’t have headlined its review “How the Etzionis Explain the World.” In fact, it wouldn’t have reviewed it at all. And I doubt very much that any Jewish intellectuals would have been chuckling this summer over the crude, shambolic goings-on in Cohen’s book if they weren’t supposed to be about Bibi’s family.

One doesn’t have to be an admirer of the Netanyahus, or of Jabotinsky, for that matter, to see Cohen’s fabrications and distortions as cheap and wrongheaded. Neither the things the British did to Jabotinsky in Palestine nor a belligerent oration he delivered in Warsaw substantiate the claim that he was a mortal enemy of the British. Completely losing sight of Jabotinsky’s ongoing openness (even in his last book, in 1940) to the creation of a Jewish state that would be a dominion of the British Empire, Cohen asserts that he was engaged in “an on-and-off guerilla war against the British for decades.” This actually is nonsense, a confusion of the actions of the Lehi and the Irgun in the 1940s, after Jabotinsky’s death, with what Jabotinsky himself did in the 1920s and 1930s.

In my review, I wrote that Benzion Netanyahu never claimed that the mass conversion of Spanish Jews before the establishment of the Inquisition was “not compelled, but voluntary.” Cohen triumphantly notes the numerous occasions on which Netanyahu discussed the voluntary conversion of Jews to Catholicism during the fifteenth century. What he fails to mention is that Netanyahu related how this took place in the aftermath of the cleric Ferrand Martínez’s anti-Jewish campaign in 1391, which he described as “the only pogromist movement in Jewish history that inscribed on its banner the conversion of the Jews.” Netanyahu stressed that this fiercely violent persecution “facilitated the transfer of many Jews to Christianity; and thus was born the converso problem” (The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain). The real Benzion Netanyahu saw the forced conversion in 1391 as a crucial factor in setting the stage for the only kind of conversion that Cohen’s Netanyahu or Cohen himself is prepared to acknowledge.

An issue that Cohen doesn’t address in his letter is the question of when the purported event behind his novel took place. In my review, I noted that I attended Benzion Netanyahu’s (successful) job talk at Cornell in the school year 1970–1971, but that it can’t have been the basis of Cohen/Bloom’s academic tale of the late 1950s. I have since learned that in the fall of 1957, Isaac Rabinowitz was installed in the Cornell Classics Department as a professor of biblical and Hebrew studies, and Benzion Netanyahu might have competed with Rabinowitz for the position, along with Nahum Sarna (though I can’t confirm that he actually did). However, by that time, Harold Bloom was at Yale, having received his BA from Cornell in 1951—making his anecdote, at best, yet another tall tale in which he placed himself at the center of an episode that he might have heard something about and then went on to embroider with all sorts of improbabilities . . . which Cohen then further fictionalized, leading to the novel before us, which is neither funny nor “a history lesson.” One thing Cohen is right about is that I don’t share his sense of humor.


  1. Michael Reiff

    You guys need to lighten up. I found this novel (fiction) to be funny, laughing along as I read it. That’s entertainment…exactly what fiction is meant to be. Whatever plausible or implausible events are stated, whether real, stretched, or not, and even the use of Netanyahu name as the catch which caused me to buy it and read it, good for Joshua Cohen. That’s smart marketing, as Arkush doubts that any publication would have reviewed it without the Netanyahu name. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

  2. Frederic

    I enjoyed the book mostly and find the reviewer too self impressed and negative.
    People are or were interested in the Netanyahus and the books timing fortuitous

  3. Mandi Abrahams

    Funny (mostly) book, a bit of summer lightness. The most believable bit was the boys running riot round the house while the parents are distracted elsewhere. I see that no-one has cared to comment on the characterization of Bibi's Mum. She would make an interesting piece in her own right. My understanding of reading into the Jewish community of Ireland would be that Jabotinsky was a very keen supporter of the Irish fight for independence from England, seeing Palestine's fight for recognition as a close sister to the Irish struggle, helped by fireside chats with his great friend Lt-Col John Henry Patterson and the Zion Muleteers. Can Arkush v Cohen be a regular column? It's very entertaining.

  4. Jack Forman

    Joshua Cohen's work of fiction is not a historical novel. It is simply a "novel", filled with juvenile humor that is occasionally funny but mostly not. It is also (and primarily) a political hit piece on Bibi and his family that could just as easily have been written on the Clintons or the Kennedys, highlighting their yahoo ("yahu") idiosyncrasies and bad behavior (though I doubt whether Cohen would be interested in dissecting that side of the political spectrum). The positive critical reception to the novel by the establishment media is more a comment on the media than it is on the novel.

    1. Carole Kessner

      Professor Allan Arkush has forgotten how to read literature. He has especially forgotten how to recognize comic literature. Joshua Cohen's novel is a work of comic fiction -- not history; the former is a work of the imagination, the latter a work of fact and analysis. To the point, before there was Professor Harold Bloom, there was the venerable Professor M.H. Abrams of Cornell University where Benzion Netanyahu taught and where Professor Arkush received his B.A. and heard Netanyahu speak. That's a fact. Germain to field of literature and the creative imagination, Professor Abrams has written,"In a wider sense "poetic license" is applied to all the ways in which a poet is held to be free to violate the ordinary norms of speech and of literal truth, . . . including the use of fiction and myth."

      1. Suellen Safir Rubin, Ph.D.

        I disagree with you about Professor Arkush's review. I believe that if a novel puts real names and dates into a book, and then at the end claims, maybe facetiously, that the episode started with a story of Harold Bloom, implying it was a real episode, then better research should have occurred. I was a student at Cornell from 1961-5. Harold bloom was indeed at Yale when this book was supposed to have taken place, and had only married a year or 2 before. I think it is possible that Mr. Cohen was bamboozled by Bloom's (fairy) tale. Bloom's admired mentor was M.H. Abrams, who was indeed at Cornell at that time. I believe that this story may have originated from him, since my research revealed that Abrams and Bloom remained friends.

        I also was annoyed by Cohen's description of a Cornell- located (He describes an exact location in the book) scenario. Cornell was far too large to have a mandatory chapel for all students and professors! Cohen also implies that there were very few Jews at Cornell at that time. M<y research uncovered a small book entirely online entitled "Jewish Life at Cornell 1865-2005" by Elaine D. Engst. By 2005, there were about 3500 Jewish students at Cornell. There was an active Synagogue in Ithaca and services for High Holy Days on campus for several denominations of Jews.

        So, I agree that this was a sloppy satirical fiction and could have been greatly improved. It has good writing style, but the Pulitzer committee has made a grave error honoring this book!

  5. Joseph Lowin

    I feel your reviewer has fallen into a trap. It is axiomatic that one should never take literally what a writer of novels writes between the covers of his novels, not his titles, not his prefaces, or even a post-face about meeting with Harold Bloom. It's all story, after all, not history. The writer's version of a story. For that matter. this applies to any work of art, even a painting with a "historical" title, e.g., "Washington's Crossing." In general, as well, JRB should try to avoid assigning reviews to people who so enjoy polemical writing that they might let mauvaise foi creep into their defense of their political reviews of works of art.

  6. Jacob Arnon

    I tried reading Joshua Cohen’s novels on several occasions but had a hard time finishing them. The Netanyahus is no exception. The plot is trivial and the execution is puerile.

    He should stick to translating from the Hebrew, as we need more translators.

    1. Beth Adelman

      I agree. I stopped reading after the bathroom episode with the narrator's father-in-law. Do people really find bathroom noises funny these days?
      The author perhaps wanted to be a second Saul Bellow-but this book has none of Bellow's energy or authenticity.

  7. Jeffrey Sheff

    Does the claim of an author to be writing fiction sufficient to prevent his work from a lawsuit by the offspring of the "fictional" family he is libeling?

  8. Peter Collins

    Joshua Cohen is a novelist and novelists write fiction. The Netanyahus fits in the genre known as real person fiction which has been around for years. I wonder how Allan Arkush would have reviewed the murder mysteries penned by Elliot Roosevelt, the son of FDR. The main character was none other than his mother, Eleanor, who solved crimes in books entitled "Murder in the Oval Office" and "Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom". I read novels for entertainment. I also read non-fiction for entertainment as but view both with different lens and don't confuse the two.

  9. Matthew Schweber

    In a review of Joshua Cohen’s latest novel, “The Netanyahus”— a review that for joyless pedantic caviling recalls Irving Howe’s notoriously sententious essay about “Portnoy’s Complaint”— Professor Allan Arkush unwittingly captures the novel’s chief pleasure: “the narrative itself… display[s] the selfish, repugnant, and destructive behavior not only of Benzion but of the whole Netanyahu family, whom Blum and his wife come to call ‘the Yahus.’” Such unerring verisimilitude warrants a Nobel Prize or at the very least, a Pulitzer.

  10. Phil Cohen

    I begin with the confession of not having yet read Joshua Cohen's book. So this comment is kind of a super-commentary, when such a commentary is commentary on the commentaries.

    The fiction author is guaranteed complete freedom and control over the world he or she creates. This holds true over the world of the Hobbits as well as the world created by authors of historical fiction, e.g., (at random, though I like his stuff) Alan Furst. It seems, however, that Furst has a responsibility that Tolkien does not, and that is to construct a reasonable facsimile of WWII Europe, and that I as a reader can take the representation pretty much for granted, and do not have to fact check Furst's world.

    It seems to me that Joshua Cohen has a similar responsibility in constructing the world that the Netanyahus entered in Upstate NY. In building a world apparently based on an anecdote by Harold Bloom, Cohen builds an apparently (recall I haven't yet read this novel) hysterical world out of that adaptation of a real job application visit of the real Netanyahus to Corbin University, a fictional Upstate (not Cornell!) university, apparently the only characters who carry actual names.

    Fiction, hysterical, Pulitzer Prize winning material (I can't wait to read Cohen's work), the book is to be understood as a world as faraway from reality as that occupied by Bilbo Baggins.

    But something sticks in my craw: the fake Netanyahus somehow resonate the actual ones, by design (heaven forfend!) or by the natural sort of association any reader who's ever heard of Benzion and company might naturally make.

    And here I believe lies the critic's rub: fictionally straying from the documented truth of things and exaggerating the character of folks who bear actual names of actual people leads to, well, character assassination or worse. It leaves one (i.e., me) suspicious that the novelist used the fiction writer's various prerogatives to make actual political statements about actual people, the writer's protests to the contrary to an English speaking audience already predisposed to dislike the eponymous characters of the book.

  11. Juliana Geran Pilon

    Arkush is absolutely right to be outraged. Cohen should be ashamed of himself for claiming to be writing fiction while knowingly misleading his readers about historical events that are easily verified. But worst of all, this travesty of a book can only give comfort to the enemies of Israel. And for what?

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