This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
“How the Abraham Accords came about is pure Midtown,” writes Joshua Cohen in a review of Jared Kushner’s memoir from the magazine’s October 20 issue, referring to the 2020 agreement among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain that was negotiated by Jared Kushner on behalf of the Trump White House. In typical New York real estate dealmaking fashion, this “quasi-accidental policy success,” Kushner’s biggest achievement during his tenure as White House senior advisor, also proved to be a boon for “an on-the-ropes Benjamin Netanyahu”—a friend of Jared’s father, Charles—who “was looking to claim any victory he could on the eve of yet another election.” And while Netanyahu was ousted as prime minister nine months after the accords were signed, this week his enduring image as a hawkish protector of Israel swept him back to power in the country’s fifth legislative elections in four years.
Some sixty years before the Abraham Accords, Netanyahu’s father moved his family from Jerusalem to suburban Philadelphia, to teach at a local college. In Cohen’s novel The Netanyahus, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he imagined how the family may have experienced midcentury America, and how America might have experienced them, when the name Netanyahu “was still a generation from its infamy.”
This week, I called Cohen to ask him about the Kushners and Netanyahus, how he approaches writing novels and fiction, and growing up in the shadow of Donald Trump’s casino.
Daniel Drake: When did you start to take writing seriously, either as a vocation or as a creative outlet?
Joshua Cohen: Oh, I still don’t know how seriously I take it. It’s more like I try not to take it very seriously. But I’ve always written. At first, I didn’t know anything—not that I know much now—but I definitely didn’t know anything when I was younger. For example, I thought the way to support myself as a novelist was to work as a journalist. You can take a measure of my intelligence from that. Journalism satisfied that need I had to communicate, that need I had to be read, whereas I never had those desires for my fiction. For me, fiction has always been a way to clarify and order my feelings and thoughts. There’s something about the public nature or immediacy of “nonfiction” that allowed me to preserve the sanctity of my fiction, which I know sounds a little pious, but there it is. Journalism and criticism and essays and the like were and to a degree still are my way of making certain concessions to social and market expectations, permitting me to assert the personal, the private inviolability of the fiction I’m trying to write.
Your review of Jared Kushner’s memoir, which is decidedly nonfictional, does seem to be related in some way to The Netanyahus, which is a fictional nonfiction account. Both tell stories of filial piety, of conservative personal missions that are bound up with Zionism. How did you work through these themes in two very different modes?
These are issues I’ve been thinking about my entire life, which I hope I’ve dealt with differently in different genres—each genre giving its own frame. The issues I mean are patrimony, the sins of the fathers, the burdens of sons, inheritance, expectation, dynasties, the filial or familial aspects of tradition. And then also the ancient question, or unanswerable accusation, of dual loyalties, which is to say what it means to benefit from the freedoms of a theoretically multicultural, multi-ethnic, multiracial, multi-everything egalitarian democracy while also enjoying or psychically relying on the purported security and insurance of an ethno-nation-state.
The Netanyahus tries to do this by superimposing contemporary “identity politics” onto the past, specifically onto 1959–1960, when the book is set. The essay on Kushner, in a way, reverses the dynamic: among other things, it tries to bring the Shoah to bear on present-day politics, to consider how the travails of the last European generation of the Kushner family influenced not just its descendants but the rest of us too. If much of this analysis comes from reading Jared Kushner’s very bad book, some also comes from my own experience, as the grandchild of European refugees, as a Jersey kid who moved into New York. It’s a very similar Jewish world—so similar in its Jewishness, I’d say, as to erase a lot of other differences in our upbringings: class differences, his Livingston versus my Atlantic City, et cetera. And I’d even say the same when it comes to Bibi, whose presence in and around Philadelphia was certainly felt down the Jersey Shore, though more so by my parents’ generation.
Both narratives—of Kushner and Netanyahu, old family friends—seem to converge in Israel.
The milieu in which The Netanyahus is set is one of a “good Israel,” a baby nation of ancient pride fighting and winning its existential wars. There is, at the time the book is set, no sense of an occupation. The conflicts are with the Arab nations and, more intimately, within the soul of the nation itself, within the soul of the Jewish people: Who are we? Who can we be? Skip ahead some seventy years and find out: after nearly a decade and a half of Netanyahu in power, the occupation has hardened, the settlements have expanded, and the technology couldn’t be more sophisticated, or deadlier. It’s Kushner’s belief, and not just his, that these are net positives—“good for the Jews”—and that to want a weaker Israel is anti-Semitism. To his mind, Israel’s strength is what has earned the country regional respectability: its ability to defend itself, its economy. There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing about this thesis—but what is mind-blowing is that the Sunni ummah agrees, and that the very Arab nations that expelled their Jews after 1948 are now prepared to make their rapprochement. In fact, given the threats posed by Iran, they’re almost compelled to—they can’t afford not to. Kushner recognized this. And now you can fly directly from Tel Aviv to Dubai, passing over land that should’ve been Palestine, the once-upon-a-time future homeland of the Palestinians.
And it sounds like Kushner’s recognition of this, as you put it, was almost accidental.
It was pure comedy. It was like a version of The Producers in which the US government was trying to produce an Israel–Palestine peace deal that flopped and instead wound up with a hit on their hands—but a hit involving trade pacts with the Emirates. “Man plans, God laughs” constitutes much of diplomacy, but the Abraham Accords were more like “man doesn’t plan and Bibi laughs all the way to re-election.” It was the mess that I found fascinating—the mess and the pace, the let’s-make-a-deal real-estate spirit, everything held together with spit and gum and gumption, like in a Kushner property, or in a Trump property for that matter. I was trying to bring that out in my essay, both by describing the agreements and embodying their style. We live in a paranoid world, which believes in conspiracies, coordinated efforts. People for some reason find this reassuring—at least more reassuring than what I believe to be true, which is that we live hopeful amid utter senselessness. I’m thinking of Harold Bloom, who looms over my novel, and his penchant for the gnostic. If we live in a gnostic universe, then the gods that tug us aren’t good and evil but Chaos and Stupidity, Chaos and Rank Idiocy. Compared to an all-the-dots-connect, QAnon/Deep State understanding of power, Chaos and Dumb Selfishness seems a better rubric for the Trump years.
Did you encounter the Trumps often?
I grew up in Atlantic City. I knew of Trump before Kushner did. When Ivana was doing the interiors of the Trump Taj Mahal, Ivanka was sent to my school—the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County. The Jersey Shore might be to blame for her philo-Semitism, and then for her…Semitism. My father’s law firm sued Trump, my uncle’s fishing business had to deal with Trump and the changes he made to the marina. I remember Trump attending at least one bar mitzvah of a friend of mine. I was more interested in the other guest of honor, Mike Tyson. Both of them wore yarmulkes. Only Trump’s stayed on. There’s a certain phenomenon at work here: local politics becoming national, or international. I’m thinking of the tabloids when I was a kid, the people and the personalities: Trump, John Gotti, Leona Helmsley leaving all that money to her dog. You never expect, say, Ivan Boesky or Bernie Goetz to be negotiating with North Korea. And yet that’s what happened with the Donald. He was a joke, an inside joke, which New Yorkers became responsible for explaining to the world. And we all know what happens to humor when you explain it.
Do you have any thoughts on Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power?
Speaking of farce…the afterlife of tragedy. I will say this: we’re at the point where I’m thinking, “Thank the God I’m not sure exists for the existence of Bibi Netanyahu.” Because compared to the farther right—the righteous—that won big in this election, he’s at least predictable, he’s at least consistent. We were just talking about local New York of the last millennium, so here’s another name for you: Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League in America and the Kach movement in Israel, which was so extremist and violent that it was criminalized by the Israeli government under Shimon Peres. And one more marquee name: Baruch Goldstein, the Kahanist terrorist who shot up Hebron. These homegrown boys, these Flatbush Yeshiva boys, are the heroes of Israel’s new leaders—particularly of the Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, who carries a gun on his person, along with Bezalel Smotrich and Aryeh Deri, who each lead far-right political parties. These are angry and ambitious men, who have succeeded at exploiting the grievances of the poor and the messianism of the religious into one of the most powerful political blocs in Israeli history. It’s a sad state of affairs when your only hope is for Netanyahu to restrain them.