Joshua Cohen’s satirical novel ‘The Netanyahus’ wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

(JTA) — The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2022 went to “The Netanyahus,” a scathing satirical novel by Brooklyn writer Joshua Cohen that imagines a visit by the former Israeli prime minister’s family to an American college town in the early 1960s.

The award committee called the novel “a biting and linguistically adept historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience, presenting ideas and disputes as volatile as its tight plot”.

Cohen, 41, based the novel on a real-life visit by Benzion Netanyahu, historian and father of Benjamin Netanyahu, to Cornell University, where the elder Netanyahu served as a professor of Judaic studies from 1971 to 1975. Cohen said that the story of the Netanyahus’ initial visit to campus had been told to him by the late literary critic Harold Bloom.

In the novel, the assimilated Jewish narrator welcomes the family and bristles at Benzion’s fiercely nationalistic worldview. “I wanted to write something about the identity politics and campus politics around us,” Cohen told Hey Alma, JTA’s sister site. “There’s a lot of stuff in Benzion Netanyahu that’s really about the tribalism that happens when these big ethnic or racial collectives are collapsing — these empires are collapsing, and they’re collapsing in tribalism.”

Reviews were largely positive for the novel; The Guardian called it “comic historical fantasy – a dizzying array of bookish learning and worldly craftsmanship is richly and ingeniously expressed”. The novel won the Jewish Book Council Fiction Prize for 2021.

But there were detractors. Jewish currents have criticized the novel for being derived from both Philip Roth and Saul Bellowand the Jewish Book Review said that the novel includes “a capsule history of Zionism which is such a blatant distortion that I just gave up”.

“The Netanyahus” is Cohen’s sixth novel.

One of the fiction award finalists was Francisco Goldman’s “Monkey Boy,” based in part on Goldman’s own background as the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan Catholic mother.

Irene B. Bowles