In Joshua Cohen’s novel The Netanyahus, set in 1960, an Israeli historian of the Spanish Inquisition named Benzion Netanyahu arrives for a visit at the American Corbin College, with his wife and three sons in tow, and is hosted by an American Jewish professor named Ruben Blum. Benzion is not a fictional character but a very real historian and the personal secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky; no less real are his wife and three sons, one of whom was until recently the prime minister of Israel. The visit too is real, although Cohen fictionalizes the rest of the work. At its heart is what Allan Arkush calls “a spurious history” of Zionism, apparently designed to flatter the assumptions of American Jews who are uncomfortable with Israel. And that’s not the only flaw Arkush finds:
I find it hard even to list all of the things in the novel that ring false. . . . And just about every character in the book from the precocious teenage daughter to the WASPy chairman of the History Department lacks verisimilitude. They seem to have been put together out of raw materials mined from some other American Jewish novel—or in the case of the narrator’s assimilated nouveau riche in-laws, maybe The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—to play a specific role in the book’s formulaic plot.
Shortly after making the Blums’ acquaintance on a wintry day, these “Yahus” barge into their host’s den without removing their shoes, “tracking snow across the wood, the parquet puddling with the melting runoff.” Then Benzion’s obnoxious wife, Tzila, changes the seven-year-old (!) Iddo’s soiled diaper in the living room. Later, when the adults are out of the house, Iddo smashes the new color television set, and thirteen-year-old Yonatan, still a long way from being the hero of Entebbe, beds the Blums’ teenaged daughter while the ten-year-old Bibi serves as a lookout. This is all clearly supposed to be funny.
Shorn of its pseudoscholarly trimmings, . . . The Netanyahus consists of little besides distasteful mockery of the Zionist idea.