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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joshua Cohen discussed his 2021 novel “The Netanyahus” at an event hosted by Harvard Hillel and the Harvard Book Store on Thursday.
Cohen’s novel centers on fictional Jewish academic Ruben Blum’s experience hosting Benzion Netanyahu — Israeli scholar and father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — for a job interview at the fictional Corbin College. Cohen’s novel won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.
The talk was moderated by Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer James Wood.
Cohen said the novel’s premise was inspired by an anecdote he heard from Yale English professor and literary critic Harold Bloom, who told Cohen about his encounter with Benzion Netanyahu and his family. Bloom — who died in 2019 — became Cohen’s inspiration for the fictional Ruben Blum.
After hearing the story from Bloom, Cohen said, “it just wouldn’t leave me,” even though it was “nothing more than a few sentences.”
Cohen described Netanyahu’s motivations for leaving Hebrew University to pursue a career in the U.S. and for subscribing to and advancing the Revisionist Zionism movement.
“He’s a person who comes from a movement that believed its fundamental purpose was saving the Jews of Europe,” Cohen said. “He also feels excluded from history during the most consequential decades of Jewish history.”
“He’s living in suburban Long Island and suburban Philadelphia, exiled,” Cohen added.
Cohen went on to discuss the early years of the Revisionist Zionism movement and Netanyahu’s role in its development, comparing the historical movement to that of today.
“It’s very easy, I think, to calcify people into camps retrospectively,” Cohen said. “I think that there were generally people who believed that the way to get a Jewish state and Jewish self-autonomy in Palestine was to ask it, beg it from the great powers or appease the great powers.”
“And then there were the revisionists, the Jabotinskyites, and a number of other much more extreme movements who would not wait around for the Britains of this world to grant statehood,” Cohen added.
During a question-and-answer session, Cohen described the process of writing the book, which he began during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This was a book written during April, May of 2020 that 24 publishers rejected,” Cohen said.
When an audience member asked about the novel’s use of slapstick comedy, Cohen described how “the idea that someone could not want to be comic” lends itself to humor.
“I feel like the one thing I realized was that I really loved Benzion Netanyahu, and I realized that as someone who could have these ideas that I disagree with, that I find troubling,” Cohen said.
“They become endearing when they’re had by someone who lives in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, who’s not a Prime Minister,” Cohen added.
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