This week: conversations about the end of the Netanyahu era with Joshua Cohen, Sayed Kashua, and Bernard Avishai. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
An unlikely coalition of political opponents recently defeated Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The change’s full meaning isn’t yet clear, but we have help in this week of reflection on the Netanyahu regime. There’s a new novel about Netanyahu (in a way) called The Netanyahus, by Joshua Cohen.
The Netanyahus is a campus comedy about a mid-century American professor who encounters the itinerant historian Benzion Netanyahu (Benjamin’s father). It’s fiction, but draws from close study of Netanyahus then and now—their politics, personalities, conflicts. Cohen found something novelistic in the Netanyahu story, or maybe more than novelistic. Joining us shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu’s ousting, he says on our show, “This morning, I’m feeling that life has once again outstripped fiction, that Netanyahu’s this time 12-year reign has been ended by a coalition that I don’t think even the most extreme fiction writers could come up with.”
This coalition, though fragile, is unprecedented and deeply, deeply strange. I think that Israel, the Knesset, is not going to be able to go forward at this point without really addressing disparities and discrimination against the 20 percent Arab population, the Palestinian population who are Israeli citizens, because of the importance of Ra’am in the Knesset now. The right-wing prime minister is a kind of figurehead, an Israeli born son of Jews from Berkeley, California, who is a right-wing settler but is essentially in golden handcuffs or in a straitjacket.
The real power behind this coalition is Yair Lapid, who, if this coalition holds, will be in power in two years. He’s a former television presenter, centrist, quote unquote a classic kind of adult in the room, who seems to have aged into some degree of of gentility and kindness, and who has seemed much more open to the peace process with Palestinians outside of the state who are not citizens, but has really been on the campaign trail directly addressing the disparities and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.
So I think it’s an interesting mess, but it’s the kind of mess that should be celebrated and not be mourned. And I’m not a person given to celebration, so you should take that as actually rare optimism.
Continuing to follow novelists’ feeling for the psychology and the social reality of politics, we talk this week with the Palestinian-Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua, the author of Track Changes and story-editor for the popular show Shtisel.
Kashua sees indications that far-right politics and policies could maintain a central role, which would mean more of the same for Palestinians confronted with occupation and discrimination. He tells us:
If you listen to the speech of the coming prime minister, Naftali Bennett, he opened his speech quoting from the Bible, and his previous movement actually started with his movement called the Jewish Home. So what kind of Israeli is he bringing to the table? Isn’t he more religious, Biblical, messianic, let’s say, than Benjamin Netanyahu? And I don’t want it to sound like I miss Benjamin Netanyahu. Not at all. I’m happy he’s gone. There are some nice ministers there. I hope something will change. But I have my very strong doubts about it. And fears, actually, it’s more than doubts. Fears.
Joining us, too, is the writer Bernard Avishai, who says that Netanyahu attempted to smother a tradition of cosmopolitan Zionism:
The old pioneering Zionists were people who believed in a kind of liberal civilization. And that’s why they wanted this modernizing project, because they thought that Jews couldn’t survive in the modern era without transforming themselves from a pietistic people to a modern Hebrew-speaking nation, a nation that made room for people like Sayed and myself for that for that matter, when I went to Israel in ’67, it was it was a revelation to me to be part of such a thing. I thought I’d never have to walk into a synagogue for the rest of my life, and I liked that idea.
And they believe in a kind of Hebrew republic today—I mean, their descendants now believe in a kind of Hebrew republic that would make room for people like Sayed, people like myself, people with idiosyncrasies that can be expressed in the Hebrew language. And they don’t believe in “greater Israel,” they believe in global Israel. They want to be part of a cosmopolitan, global society. Netanyahu really smothered that or tried to smother that, but that’s like trying to smother 50 percent of the population or 45 percent of the population.
Read: Joshua Cohen
In a crucial passage of The Netanyahus, the protagonist—Ruben Blum, historian at a western New York college—reflects on two rival theories of history in his own education, one secular and the other religious.
The history in my regular schooling was all about progress, a world that brightened with the Enlightenment and steadily improved; a world that would continue to improve illimitably, so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself. The past was merely the process by which the present was attained, and the present merely the most current stage of the American superlative, to be overtaken by tomorrow’s liberation . . .
By contrast, my Hebrew school history was closed: it was no history, there was no pat, no present, no future. Rather, there was time, as round and perfect as the earth, which from the moment it emerged from God’s spoken light had been marked by a constant repetition
Neither theory of history accounts for Blum’s world, which is too rambunctious for pure repetition and too unhappy for constant improvement. But by bringing together “progressive time” of American intellectuals with “repetitious time” of Benzion Netanyahu’s version of history, Cohen’s novel assumes a different temporal mood, one notoriously dependent on timing: comedy. (This novel is, for all its political/philosophical heft, a comedy).
The philosopher of time Henri Bergson saw related comedy in the collision of social progress with repetitive darkness:
We have seen that the more society improves, the more plastic is the adaptability it obtains from its members; while the greater the tendency towards increasing stability below, the more does it force to the surface the disturbing elements inseparable from so vast a bulk; and thus laughter performs a useful function by emphasizing the form of these significant undulations.
Read in this light, Cohen’s book might be the most meaningful Bergsonian novel since Proust.
Shtisel, which follows the everyday lives of four generations of the eponymous family, makes for unexpectedly compulsive viewing. The fairly glacial pilot episode — it begins with a snowy dream sequence set in a gelid kosher deli — may just pique your interest, but by the third instalment I guarantee you’ll be deeply invested in the dovetailing familial plot lines, and well-versed enough in Yiddish to know your klaftes from your klutzes.
This week’s ephemeral library
On being a blue animal. Adam Colman in the Boston Globe on Edgar Allan Poe, scientist. “Let’s Change Earth’s Orbit.” Jelani Cobb on Juneteenth. “Tennis is the Opposite of Death.” Saree Makdisi in The Nation on continuities between 1948 and 2021. A Palestine diary, from Rachel Kushner. Janet Malcolm Remembered by Writers. A Dad and an Audience of One (David Vecsey remembers his father, NYT sportswriter George Vecsey).
That’s all for this week, folks. Wear a hat out there.
The OS Diplomats.