The subtitle of the novel FAMILIA NETANYAHU, The Story of a Minor, Ultimately Negligible Episode in the History of an Extremely Famous Family, is a fine irony in the purest Cohenian style, because the incident in question, the descent of the Netanyahu quintet – father, mother and three sons then minors, two of whom will become major figures in Israeli and world history – on a quiet North New York university, he is neither a minor nor negligible. The two characters in direct conflict, Ben-Zion Netanyahu looking for a university job and Ruben Blum, who hosts him with naive generosity and who, as a member of the employment commission, can offer him, embodies two Jewish typologies, two reports to history with significant contemporary echoes. Netanyahu, the “abandoned historian of history,” left on the brink of the two major Jewish events of the last century — the tragedy of the Holocaust and the ascension of the ashes by the birth of the state of Israel — preached, often in the desert and with the passion inherited from his father. , the itinerant orator Rabbi Mileskovsky, an alternative history, a narrative-nation (founding narrative of the nation) in which between 1492 and 1942 the line is straight, in which the direction of the dark Jewish destiny can change radically only by returning to the Holy Land. Many have challenged this approach, transfigured with a militant accent into Jabotinsky’s revisionist Zionism– the employment file, among other things, proves it with multiple testimonies — many saw it as fanaticism, dogma, but re-centering, nationalism, the implicit tribalization he proposes is on the rise, provoking authoritarian drifts and the “war on history” about to become global.
Joshua Cohen: Zionism exhibited on Twitter, dominant today and which many consider apartheid, a racist ideology, is in fact a once marginal current. Ben-Zion Netanyahu was an acolyte, then a sort of secretary to Vladimir / Ze’ev Jabotinsky, leader of the so-called revisionist wing of Zionism. The revisionists were the enemies of all, the Arabs and the British alike. Unlike Labor Zionists, who have been waiting for the great powers to undermine a country, the Revisionists were of the opinion that negotiations or political pressure on Britain or the United States are not the way to go: the state is a matter of survival, so it must be taken, not left to the goodwill of the West. Jabotinsky was eventually exiled from the Palestine Mandate, and Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who became virtually persona non grata, spent the first years after Israel’s independence in the suburbs of New York and Philadelphia, overwhelmed by resentment that the “pacifists”, the Socialists, were power in the new state. His sons grew up in this climate of resentment and anger, the rise and takeover of power by Bibi Netanyahu being, from this perspective, the return of the repressed, the ultimate triumph of revisionist ideology.
Reporter: You describe Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the character, as an “abandoned historian of history.” Is it that simple? His narrative, Israel-centric, diasporaphobic approach is on the rise, transmuted into the tribalisms and nationalisms of the present. This marginal triumphed, and not just because of his middle son.
Joshua Cohen: He lived up to 102 years, so he managed to see his son’s triumph. During a crucial period in Jewish history, the 1940s, the decade in which six million were slaughtered in Europe and then the state of Israel became a reality, Ben-Zion Netanyahu was neither in the Holocaust cattle wagons nor at the founding of the Jewish state. The feelings caused by this absence accompanied him until the 1970s, more precisely until ’76, when his eldest son, Yoni, died in Entebbe, Uganda’s Idi Amin, at the head of the Sayeret Matkal command sent to release passengers on a flight. Air France, which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Yoni becomes a martyr and a national hero, and Bibi, understanding and taking advantage of the value and impact of his brother’s sacrifice, embarks on politics. Since 1976, Ben-Zion Netanyahu has witnessed the rise of revisionist philosophy – a cold formulation given that this rise was facilitated by the death of his much-loved son.
Reporter: One of the reasons why the NETANYAHU FAMILY is such a resonant, relevant novel is that it dramatizes, through an event that is over six decades old, a very topical issue: wars, conflicts for the control of the historical narrative. Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s character says at one point, “The Jews were the first to understand the impossibility of a truth shared by all. Why bother with facts when you can’t create them?” Why all these recurring attempts – from communism to trumpism to the “critical history of race” – to re-write, distort, bury, take over history?
Joshua Cohen: It is the central issue of our age. Amazing technologies have been invented, capable of disseminating, to an unprecedented extent, alternative or divergent histories. The idea that there are primary texts that last, enlightened again and again by continuous re-interpretation, is undoubtedly at the heart of the tradition in which I myself grew up. A tradition that has always belonged to a minority. When you performed the Torah or the Mishnah, when you studied the Talmud, you were not a king, duke or baron, but a simple rabbi in a small room. But when interpretive relativism, amplified by new technologies, is put at the service of large, nation-building projects, it essentially becomes a lever of power. Ben-Zion Netanyahu, born in Warsaw, witnessed the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perceiving it as a consequence of conflicting nationalisms and deriving the idea that multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empires crumble when they fail to recognize and honor the identity of the constituents. Netanyahu-father believed that peoples fall into tribalism, embrace their own notions of history, when they have no place in general history. He saw this in the various national “awakenings” before and after the First World War, and after the Second World War in the creation of the state of Israel. Today, when there is a burning desire to rewrite history in order to conform it to the present discontents, we must remember that the interpretation of history gives power. Revising history is therefore difficult to condemn as a whole, because it is equally useful, honorable for forgotten populations, and harmful, corrosive to democracy.
Reporter: Netanyahu-father sees in this struggle for the control of the historical narrative the seed of the possible decay, disintegration of the American empire.
Joshua Cohen: Ben-Zion Netanyahu expressed in his writings the opinion that the American empire is a fascinating model. He argued that the Arabs, the Palestinians, are the equivalent of the “Indians,” the Native Americans, the whites who colonized the New World as the civilizing agent. It is a model that he thought was positive, an example of what needs to be done in Israel. So he used a dominant American history to create a revisionist Zionist history. When he sees the symptoms of the possible collapse of the American empire, he says, in essence, that if we allow the history of Aboriginal peoples to become part of general history, we abandon all progress, all our civilization, all our future.