Not so long ago, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, made some very striking remarks on Italian television. According to the Guardian, he was asked
‘…how Russia could say it needed to “denazify” [Ukraine] when its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish. “As to [Zelensky’s] argument of what kind of nazification can we have if I’m Jewish, if I remember correctly, and I may be wrong, Hitler also had Jewish blood,” Lavrov said... “It doesn’t mean anything at all. We have for a long time listened to the wise Jewish people who say that the most rabid antisemites tend to be Jews. There is no family without a monster” (Guardian, 2 May 2022).
Entertaining as it is to be privy to the Foreign Minister’s off-the-cuff proverbs, perhaps he should leave the generalisations to Leonid Tolstoy. I’m guessing even the Lavrov family acknowledge who their monster is.
It’s hard to know where to start with the nastiness of our Sergey’s insinuations. They set the bar so low, you can only gasp at a feat of moral limbo dancing. Once he’d recovered from his unrestrained amusement, even his scumbag master had to apologise on his Foreign Minister’s behalf. Apologies are not things one immediately associates with Vladimir Putin, or with Russian diplomacy in general. Salisbury, indiscriminate barrel bombs in Syria, the bumping off of political opponents on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, none of these actions were graced with an apology. When Russia sets about fulfilling its worst wishes – in the most recent instance, Putin’s wish to restore the old Soviet empire – everyone has to accept a ruthless economy in these things: if you’ll permit me to get all proverbial for a moment, when you dream of eating omelettes, make sure you break other people’s eggs. There’s no point being apologetic, as from the start it is clear your dream can only be realised as someone else’s nightmare. Far from apologising, therefore, pretend to get angry. Look the camera in the eye and thunder at the world: “The eggs were ours originally and need to be returned to their rightful owners.”
In the case of Salisbury, the grim mendacity was relieved a little by sheer inventiveness. Who could have predicted the interest they took in the spire of the cathedral? Or, for that matter, the antiquity of its clock? These days, none of the Kremlin’s excuses has the virtue of being so original. The big lie currently in vogue is at least as old as the Great Patriotic War. The Kremlin has been telling its people for years that there are Nazis in Ukraine, just like the ones they had to kill back in the Forties, and promising them a ‘world without fascism’. A week after reporting Lavrov’s remarks, the Guardian looked at the routine uses and abuses of history in modern Russia:
‘But already for some years, the victory cult has been referred to by critics as pobedobesie, a derogatory play on the Russian words for victory and obscurantism – “victory mania” is an approximate English translation. As this pobedobesie metastasised year on year, the phenomenon took on forms that were ever more grotesque: schools put on performances in which the children dressed up as Soviet soldiers; people posing as captured Nazis were paraded through the streets. Ever more opponents of modern Russia were branded as Nazis, neo-Nazis or Nazi accomplices’ (‘How Victory Day became central to Putin’s idea of Russian identity,’ The Guardian, 6 May 2022).
Years of repetitive war re-enactments. It must all have gotten a wee bit tedious. What a relief, then, when in February real tanks finally started rolling into a sovereign country, bearing on their sides Z signs that no one could adequately explain. Z for Zelensky? Z for Zombie? Was it (my personal theory) something to do with the scar on Harry Potter’s face? Okay, that Rowling woman is a relentless propagandist for the West, but her creation would serve as a useful reminder of the Zombie Army’s collective childhood. He even had the Lenin glasses. Oh no, hang on a minute, that was Trotsky.
In the end, sadly, none of these explanations quite cut it. In fact, given the paradoxes of the situation, the Z may as well have stood for Zelig. He was the character that first came to mind when I read about Lavrov’s trolling. I actually went back to the film, or I should say excerpts from it on YouTube, to refresh my memory. These days, I don’t often watch Woody Allen films, for reasons of fashion as much as anything else. Maybe I ought to be less of a fashion slave. I have scenes from some of his earlier films stored in my brain, like one from I’ve no idea where, of a dream/nightmare sequence where Woody is carried aloft on a cross, but unable to park as two other crucifixion parties are competing for the same space. That took some chutzpah, as they say.
‘Zelig’ has not aged well from the point of view of production values. These days you could have used the old black and white footage so much more convincingly. But the ideas are as fresh as ever. Zelig is an absurd parody of the assimilated Jew. He assimilates so well, that when placed next to an Irishman his hair instantly turns ginger. This compulsion to adapt and fit in reaches its nadir when he flees the rehab clinic and is spotted attending a rally at Nuremberg, sitting among the Nazi elite behind the Führer. It’s assimilation carried to such absurd lengths that, like Lavrov’s vile mischief, it dares to imagine Jewishness adaptable enough to turn Nazi.
Which brings me back to The Netanyahus. For all my cavils about the novel, I have to say few books ever opened up so many areas of research, including the disputes over another famous Z word. Before, I had only a sketchy knowledge of mainstream Zionism. The concept of Revisionist Zionism was entirely new to me. It was a shock to learn that a man named Ze'ev Jabotinsky, responsible for the novel’s epigraph and with a posthumous role in the narrative, had written an essay called The Iron Wall which explicitly advocated the colonisation of Palestine at the expense of the existing population.
It was an even bigger shock to learn that another revisionist, Abba Ahimeir, had been an early admirer of Mussolini, writing a regular column entitled "From the Notebook of a Fascist" and that, in 1928, he had greeted Jabotinsky’s return to Jerusalem with an article entitled "On the Arrival of Our Duce."
These men didn’t just share the same optician as Trotsky. They were also, like him, myopic visionaries, though their vision was the very antithesis of Marxist, based on that of a man who, if he didn’t like the way you looked at him, would snatch the glasses from your nose, tenderly grind them under his heel, and then march off to conquer Abyssinia.
One doesn’t need to be Christopher Hitchens to wonder if the colonial instincts of the revisionists still linger in the bloodstream of Israel’s right. Joshua Cohen himself certainly thinks so. In an interview after the announcement of his Pulitzer Prize, he characterised revisionism as “the idea that Jews don't have to wait for the powers of the world to give them a land... it had to be taken by force and it had to be governed cruelly.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I said, Jabotinsky has a ghostly presence in the novel. Now one of the problems I have with Cohen’s slimly overweight volume regards tone. It is a hybrid, a kind of chimera, with a tragic story to tell, and yet a tendency to farce or black comedy. Obviously, the ‘tragi-comic’ has a long tradition in literature, but that doesn’t mean it has ever been easy to pull off. The comic part in Cohen’s case is distilled into the incident with Judy’s nose. The darker side is concentrated in her father’s dream about Jabotinsky. When that dream appears, about halfway into the narrative, it promises to take the story in a very different direction. It’s my view that Cohen dodged that route. He opted instead for a rapid, sometimes confusing account of the Netanyahu family’s riotous behaviour, playing it for laughs. The problem is that the laughs are few and far between, and we lose the focus on Blum’s interior agony. After the dream of Jabotinsky – an account reminiscent of Kafka – Cohen goes against his own strengths. Tragi-comedy proves too fine a line to tread.
Allow me to return for a moment to the strictly comic aspect. In my previous article, I began to address the issue of noses. It was not intended to sound trivial. One strand in the novel, which comes from Harold Bloom’s Freudian preoccupations, is the sexuality of Blum’s daughter and her ruse for altering her nose. Without wishing to introduce a spoiler here, let me say she gets her wish and by the end of the story her nose, if we accept the Fagin stereotype, is no longer Jewish. Does this make her a shiksa now? Is this why one of the Netanyahu sons is attracted to her? Like the question of her resistance or consent to his sexual advances, there is no time for careful answers amid the pell-mell of the novel’s catastrophe, but one thing is certain – the nose represents the fulfilment of a wish, and the wish on Judy’s part is to be American, thus renouncing the outsider-history of her suffering people. If this is a parallel to Blum’s dream (in which Judy has a starring role), then it is the American Dream in all its pristine glory, untroubled by the anguish of the ghetto.
Noses were already a Freudian issue. The great mind doctor regularly snorted cocaine for his headaches, but it is an unfortunate incident in his early practice that may be lurking behind Judy’s drama. At the time, Freud was under the spell of a young friend and fellow enquirer into female hysteria, Wilhelm Fliess.
Their conviction that neuroses derived from the nose led to an operation on the one belonging to the unfortunate Emma Eckstein.
There is no need, thankfully, to go into the details of the procedure here, but it was not pretty, and nor was Emma so pretty by the end of it. Freud, who was on the scene, fainted away. Later, it turned out Emma had been conscious throughout the operation, and when Freud came round, she greeted him with the words “So this is the strong sex!” According to David Howes, the whole affair was a trauma for Freud that would never be forgotten:
‘…given his embarrassment at having fainted; […] given Eckstein's taunt to his masculinity; given how his confidence in his friend Fliess (whom he had worshipped up to that point) was shattered; and, given how torn he felt between needing Fliess and blaming him. In light of all this baggage, is it any wonder that Freud chose to cut the nose out of psychoanalytic theory, and to seal off that whole painful period of his life? A sort of nasal taboo took the place of the fascination with nasality that had so occupied him and Fliess throughout the 1890s. As a result, Freud never did come to terms with his own nasality and, it appears, he even projected his own arrested development in this domain onto the human species!’
If Freud cut the nose out of his theories, the incident had another unforeseen outcome. This was a dream Freud experienced some time later, one which was exceptionally vivid and connected to real life events. It involved a different woman, known as Irma. With the help of the dream of Irma’s injection, as it is known, Freud was able to theorise the mechanisms of wish-fulfilment, a key element of psychoanalysis.
Of course, detecting how exactly wishes are fulfilled by our dreams is no easy matter. Despite false leads and feints, the dreamer’s true intent has to be rumbled. The fulfilment of a wish in the real world can also be hard to determine. As Freud demonstrates in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, even accidentally smashing an expensive vase can be the fulfilment of a secret wish to do so. It may be obvious that Judy gets the nose she was after, but the reasons why she was after it in the first place are far harder to divine. As for her father’s nightmare, well, who would attempt to work out the wish fulfilment involved in what is quite probably a fictional dream? Unless, that is, the dream is actually not properly oneiric at all, but the description of how the fulfilment of some people’s daydreams can become other people’s nightmare. I know: complicated.
Before looking at Blum’s dream in Chapter Six, here is another dream, a daydream strictly speaking, from the main player in it. I will quote Jabotinsky’s words at length, as they tell us so much about his attitude to the Old Jewry of the Diaspora and its utopian antidote:
‘To imagine what a true Hebrew is, to picture his image in our minds, we have no example from which to draw. Instead, we must use the method of ipcha mistavra (Aramaic for deriving something from its opposite): We take as our starting point the Yid (used here as pejorative for Jew) of today, and try to imagine in our minds his exact opposite. Let us erase from that picture all the personality traits that are so typical of a Yid, and let us insert into it all the desirable traits whose absence is so typical in him. Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks handsomeness (הדרת פנים) we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty, stature, massive shoulders, vigorous movements, bright colours, and shades of colour. The Yid is frightened and downtrodden; the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is disgusting to all; the Hebrew should charm all. The Yid has accepted submission; the Hebrew ought to know how to command. The Yid likes to hide with bated breath from the eyes of strangers; the Hebrew, with brazenness and greatness, should march ahead to the entire world, look them straight and deep in their eyes and hoist them his banner: “I am a Hebrew!”’ (from Dr Herzl)
That Jabotinsky was writing like this back in 1905 is an indication of how far Zionist thought had already come. In the 1890s, Theodor Herzl had infused the movement with a new ideology and practical urgency, leading to the First Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897, which created the World Zionist Organisation. Herzl’s aim was to initiate the necessary preparatory steps for the development of a Jewish state. However, in Jabotinsky’s words we can already hear the fanatic’s hyperbole. His assertion that ‘we have no example from which to draw’ is belied, not by a Fascist ideal – that would obviously be anachronistic – but by a relatively innocuous Hellenism with a healthy dose of mens sana in corpore sano. This ideal would be difficult to live up to, and the young idealist doesn’t sound easy to please.
However, it is the negative image of the ‘Yid’ that seems the most hyperbolised. To make his point, Jabotinsky has created a nightmare subhuman in contrast to his dream of the Jewish New Man, and to create this Golem he has employed the language and imagery of the kind of people who drew the caricatures or carried out the pogroms. The ‘Yid’ is emphatically not assimilated. Jabotinsky, coming from Odessa, has an image in his mind of the ghettoised and vulnerable populations of the east, routinely subjected to persecution. To this day there are relics of these attitudes in Europe. As recently as 2014, a town called Castrillo Matajudíos (Castrillo Kill the Jews) voted to change its name to Castrillo Mota de Judíos (Castrillo Hill of the Jews). The surprise here is to encounter the same degrading image in the prose of a leading Zionist. I shall come to the Spanish angle in a second.
It is startling to see how the dreamy idealist, with his athletic vision of the Grecian Hebrew, became (by the time he wrote The Iron Wall in 1923) the steely pragmatist of Jewish colonisation. The key is in that word. At a time when the old European empires had taken a sound beating in the Great War and within years of the biggest Empire of them all crumbling into independent fragments, the Zionists were proposing to colonise a country already inhabited by a hostile population. The Iron Wall makes no bones about this: Jabotinsky knows very well that the Arabs in Palestine will not be bought off, that they will fight for their land as other indigenous populations have done, from the Papuans to the native Americans:
‘…this does not mean that there cannot be any agreement with the Palestine Arabs. What is impossible is a voluntary agreement. As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people.’
One cannot accuse Jabotinsky of idealism here. His eyes are so wide open to the reality of what he proposes, one wonders how he could bear to look. The Angel of History must have similar difficulties. Apparently, neither it nor the great ‘revisionist’ have the luxury of the Viennese doctor: they cannot collapse in a faint, nor can they avert their eyes. Instead, Jabotinsky sees with unblinking clarity the consequences of a dream that amounts to someone else’s nightmare. His future looks remarkably similar to the Palestinian present. Here was a man who could acknowledge the other as a mirror image of himself, as a people with the same claim as his own to self-determination, a land and a future, yet for all his flip-flopping over the rights of the Arabs through the years, his guiding conviction never changed that the Arabs would have to be worn down and demoralised before they would comply:
‘…the only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.’
Is this the kind of cruelty Joshua Cohen was alluding to?
Benzion Netanyahu, the antihero of Cohen’s novel, had served as Jabotinsky’s amanuensis. He was also a close friend of Abba Ahimeir. His work on the Inquisition’s treatment of the ‘conversos’ or ‘Marranos’ sought to prove that the Spanish persecuted the Jews who had converted to Christianity not for religious, but for racial reasons, on the basis of limpienza de sangre or purity of the blood. In his obituary, the New York Times accused Netanyahu’s chief work, Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, of ‘looking through the rear-view mirror of the Holocaust.’ I don’t intend to go into the intricacies of the debate here, but Netanyahu’s preoccupations may well inform some of the details of the dream in Chapter Six.
Benzion (whose name, Blum notes, means ‘the son of Zion’) is the bomb that hits Blum’s comfortable American lifestyle. He has renounced both the nostalgia of the ghetto for a forever deferred Zion, and the assimilation that Blum and his daughter’s nose represent. The effects of this ‘bomb’ are both theatrical and farcical. Catastrophe strikes. But on a purely psychological level, the real effect occurs at the centre of the book, right before the violent alteration of Judy’s nose, in a dream sequence concerning Jabotinsky that could have taken the narrative to a very dark place indeed.
It is autumn in Oxbridge. Blum and his daughter Judy are walking between medieval buildings, she in a pill-box hat, her nose clamped with
‘…a type of spring-loaded metal-and-rubber bicycle-clip that was the nasal version of orthodontia: she wore it while sleeping to straighten her nose.’
They pass young cadets doing bayonet drills on a neatly mown lawn until they reach a hall fringed with classrooms, where ‘brown-overcoated guys’ subject captive children, some of Judy’s classmates, to ‘interrogative torture,’ including immersion head first in drums of boiling oil or flaying with combs. Inquisitorial. The Inquisition in this case, however, appear to be the victims from the earlier Inquisition. One boy is tied to a stake and his tormentors demand to know “why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the tracks?” – a reference to Benzion’s anachronistic conflation of the Spanish with the race theorists of Auschwitz. Blum tries to intervene, but the door slams in his face. He scurries to catch up with his daughter and then they enter what appears to be Blum’s office. Here they encounter Jabotinsky:
‘The dark round Bakelite glasses, the plastered-down, swept-aside, steel-grey, steel-white Hitlerite hair topped with a tasselled mortarboard…’
Hitler with a mortarboard. Is this the Jewish Adolf in charge of re-educating the masses? Or a Russian president and self-styled Nazi-hunter about to deliver a history lesson? Jabotinsky, perhaps owing to his short-sightedness, ignores Blum and only offers Judy a seat. He then pores over a piece of paper and reviews Judy’s grades. ‘I’m worried about the lack of physical pursuits,’ he says. ‘Healthy body, healthy mind.’ There it is, the phrase dreaded by every bookish swot. Judy says she has been getting into winter sports and her interrogator is satisfied. After politely asking if she minds, Jabotinsky then removes her nose device and uses it to clip his paperwork together. He demands her absolute obedience, which she pledges to the cause. Then we get this phrase:
‘He opened and closed a few desk drawers, as if to ensure that his own dream was being kept secure…’
This is a dream contained within someone else’s nightmare. Blum’s to be exact. The psychopathology of everyday life is up to its old tricks. Jabotinsky, who earlier regarded Judy ‘heavily, ironically, not without eroticism,’ is like Freud’s doctor with his phallic stethoscope. But it is unclear whether Blum or Cohen interprets the desk drawers in this way. And if it’s Blum, we cannot know for sure if his waking or his sleeping self does the interpreting. If the latter, this dream is a rare example of auto-interpretation. It’s as if the analyst is on the inside, looking out.
Jabotinsky completes the interview and finally acknowledges Blum as a fellow committee member, but Blum doesn’t know what his daughter is being interviewed for. Besides, maybe it is he, the dreamer, who is really being tested. He looks up, a thing his wife tells him he does whenever he lies (another little psychopathological detail), and instead of a ceiling and lights, he sees a high gallery of the kind found in operating theatres or law courts, or even a heavenly scene in Mantua:
A cast of minor characters, from Blum’s college and elsewhere, are seated there, including his Uncle Sruly,
‘…holding the pallid naked body of his wife whom he’d married because she’d gone through Birkenau, which meant she’d had to be kind to him, and who after he’d disappeared gassed herself in the kitchen of their windowless apartment… and they were shouting opinions at me… they were shouting and from their mouths was coming fire…’
At which point the dream ends abruptly, before Blum, or anyone else, has time to ask “Whose dream is this nightmare?”
Footnote: The picture at the top of this article is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Walter Benjamin purchased a print of it in 1921. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) he wrote: ‘the angel’s eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’