How Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Joshua Cohen mines the Israeli-American relationship for comedy and tragedy


(JTA) — For many younger Jews, being critical of Israel is itself a form of attachment. They may not consider themselves answerable to the Jewish state, but they definitely feel answerable for it in the eyes of the world. The same is true of some Jewish writers, including Michael Chabon and his wife, Israel-born novelist Ayelet Waldman, who together edited the 2017 anthology “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation.”

But the American writer who has found Israel most fruitful as a subject is Joshua Cohen, whose critique of Zionism is more complicated and ironic. Born in 1980 and raised in an Orthodox family in New Jersey, Cohen emerged in the 2010s as the author of “Witz” and “Book of Numbers,” huge, world swallowing novels in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Jewishness is central to those books — “Witz” is a postmodern epic about the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that kills all the world’s Jews on a single night, like Passover in reverse. But it wasn’t until later that Cohen turned his focus to Israel in two books that are more approachable and realistic — at least up to a point: “Moving Kings” (2017) and “The Netanyahus” (2021), named this week as the winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Most American writers mirror their own experience by sending American characters to be tested or redeemed in Israel, but in these novels, Cohen brings Israeli characters to the United States. It’s a canny decision that effectively reverses the burden of proof: Now it is Israeli Jews who have to show whether they can live up to American conditions and ideals.

That reversal is signaled in the name of the protagonist of “Moving Kings.” Instead of King David, Cohen suggests, America produces men like David King, who rules over nothing but a shady moving and storage business. He is a harsh reflection of the social position of American Jewry: King rules high-handedly over his employees, who are poor immigrants of color, but is cowed by the WASPs he encounters at a Republican fundraiser.

“It was distressing — to others, but not to himself, who didn’t notice — how he’d change,” Cohen writes. “How he’d let himself be lectured, talked down to. How he’d become, in certain situations, not servile exactly, but docile, tamed. A Jew.”

Indeed, David is deliberately conceived as an unpleasant Jewish stereotype: “This was how David made money, the same way he drove: by chiselling,” Cohen writes. This is the kind of galut, or Diaspora, Jewishness that Zionism is supposed to have abolished, and David finds psychic compensation in knowing that he has relatives in Israel, where Jews are tough and proud. “What’d bolstered him was Israel: the ideal of it, the abstraction,” Cohen writes. When David agrees to give a job to his Israeli nephew Yoav, just out of the army, he tells him: “Unlike me, Yo, you’re a real Jew. This is who you are naturally, grown up from the land.”

The stage seems to be set for a confrontation of Jewish archetypes, such as the one between Jacob and Tamir in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Here I Am.” But Cohen is a more subtle writer than that, and it soon becomes clear that Yoav hasn’t been toughened by his experience in the army — he’s been shattered by it. Depressed and fearful, he barely leaves his apartment except to work, and when his moving truck gets into an accident he flashes back to the West Bank: “Yoav kept checking the mirrors. He didn’t know where the shooting was coming from. They were pinned.”

The parallel becomes more than imaginary when Yoav’s crew is tasked with evicting Lincoln Avery, a black Vietnam veteran, from his home, just as he once helped dispossess Palestinians from their land. Some critics saw this parallel as tendentious and overly literal, but it’s key to the pessimistic vision of “Moving Kings.” Neither American Jews nor Israeli Jews can be the other’s moral example, Cohen suggests, since both are ensnared in similar systems of exploitation. By the end of the novel, when Yoav is caught up in a scene of violence deadlier than anything he encountered back home, it’s clear that he is nearly as much a victim of that system as Avery.

At the same time, Cohen is impatient with the leftist moralism that only notices violence when Israelis commit it. “We’ve always just been forced to become who we are and still everyone has an opinion about it, treating us like we chose this,” Yoav complains.

When David tells Yoav he’s “a real Jew,” he means it admiringly, as a tribute to Israeli authenticity. But Yoav puts a different spin on the idea when he says, “Everywhere we’re the Jews of Jews” — that is, the outcasts of the outcasts, the ones whom right-thinking people find it virtuous to hate.

Cohen writes about Israel in a very different spirit, as what the philosopher Michael Walzer calls a “connected critic” — one who excoriates his community not in order to distance himself from it, but because he is deeply involved in it, like the Hebrew prophets.

When “Moving Kings” was published, Cohen talked to one interviewer about making aliyah, the Hebrew word for immigrating to Israel: “I think about it all the time. All the days of my life, and all the nights too, except the two weeks per year I spend in Israel.”

“Moving Kings” offers a tragic view of the Israeli-American relationship. When Cohen returned to the subject four years later, the result was the wild comedy of “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.”

The tongue-in-cheek subtitle sets the tone for the story, which focuses not on the most famous member of that family — Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister of Israel — but on his father, the historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu.

The book is inspired by a story Cohen heard from the legendary American scholar Harold Bloom, who once hosted the elder Netanyahu and his family on a visit to Cornell University for a job interview. From this kernel, Cohen created the slapstick plot of his novel, in which historian Ruben Blum plays host to the Netanyahus at a fictional university in upstate New York. The year is 1959 and Blum is the first and only Jew in his department, so the chairman naturally looks to him to host Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an Israeli historian of medieval Jewish Spain.

American author Joshua Cohen is seen at the Coop Ambasciatori bookshop in Bologna, Italy, September 5, 2019. (Roberto Serra–Iguana Press/Getty Images)

Blum isn’t too happy about the request, since it shows that the WASPs around him are acutely aware of the Jewishness he himself tries to forget. “I found no strength in my origins and took every opportunity to ignore them, when I couldn’t deny them,” he admits. Blum compares himself to a Woody Allen character, the “dread-fueled embodiment of the under-coordinated, over-intellectualizing, self-deprecating male Jewish stereotype.” The arrival of the Netanyahus thus means a clash of Jewish archetypes, American vs. Israeli — and not just any Israeli. Ben-Zion Netanyahu arrives with his teenage sons Jonathan and Benjamin, who will grow up to become the hero of Entebbe and the Likud politician, respectively.

As a scholar, the real Ben-Zion Netanyahu was intensely Zionist. His work on the Spanish Inquisition led him to conclude that the Jews must have a country of their own if they’re not to be at the mercy of hostile hosts. The implications for American Jews are clear. Attending Ben-Zion’s lecture, Blum imagines that its subtext is directed at him personally:

What was true for Europe at the emergence of Zionism will one day be true for America too, once assimilation is revealed as a fraud … This is what I think of America — nothing. This is what I think of American Jews — nothing. Your democracy, your inclusivity, your exceptionalism — nothing. Your chances for survival — none at all.

But Blum refuses to be cowed by this pessimism, as does Joshua Cohen. Netanyahu’s Zionist vision of Jewish history is closed, Cohen writes, seeing it as nothing but the eternal repetition of the same scenario: persecution, expulsion, massacre. It is the idea Blum remembers being taught at Hebrew school, that “carnage was the Jewish destiny.”

But his own experience as an American Jew defies this prophecy. “I wasn’t what I was doomed to be; no one was going to murder me in this country. No one was going to drag me and my family off to a camp or shove us together into an oven,” he insists. American history is open, allowing people — even Jews — to rewrite their fates.

The clash of ideas Cohen sets up is entirely serious, but the Netanyahus themselves are farcically odious. They resemble every negative Israeli stereotype as surely as Blum resembles a Woody Allen character. “They’re so horrible, so pushy,” Ruben’s wife, Edith, says, and though he knows this is an antisemitic cliché, he can’t deny it. Ben-Zion is brusque and arrogant, insulting the professors who invited him while expecting royal treatment. The boys are filthy and rude, handling their hosts’ possessions without asking, “wandering the den like they were casing it for a burglary.” Ruben starts to think of them as “the Yahus,” turning the divine Hebrew suffix into the slang insult from Jonathan Swift.

And they only get worse and worse — until the denouement, when a naked Jonathan is discovered in flagrante delicto with Ruben’s teenage daughter, causing him and Benjamin to run away into the freezing American night. With Ruben’s vision of the tumescent Jonathan, Cohen caricatures any ideas his readers may harbor about Israeli masculinity and American passivity. Like “Moving Kings,” “The Netanyahus” concludes that neither type of Jewishness is better than the other; both are absurd, crying out for the kind of satire that can only come from intimate knowledge.

This essay was excerpted from “After the Golden Age: American Jewish Writing in the Twenty-first Century,” the lead essay in the upcoming issue of The Jewish Quarterly. Used with permission.

is an editor at The Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section. His new book of poems, "The Discarded Life," will be published this month by Red Hen Press.

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