Too Arabic? Joshua Cohen’s Mizrachi Problem | Gil Ribak


Joshua Cohen is a well-known and award-winning American author, whose 2021 novel, The Netanyahus: the story of a minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family recently won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A prolific writer, Cohen has often tackled Jewish subjects, notably in his previous novel, kings in motion (2017).

It is this latter book, which presents an interesting polarity between Cohen’s critique of Israel’s (mis)treatment of the Palestinians, and his negative portrayal of Mizrachim as the semi-Jewish version (or even that they weren’t Jewish). ) of Arabs, brimming with allegedly similar physical attributes such as a “unibrow” or a “neckbeard”. In “Moving Kings”, almost all the characters are indeed “disgusting” like the New York Times critic, Zachary Lazar, rightly pointed out. However, the Israelis appear to be particularly offensive.

The book tells the story of David King (such flippant symbolism appears in the names of other characters), a moving business magnate in the Greater New York area and the son of Holocaust survivors. King gives a job in his company, without papers, to his Israeli cousin, an IDF veteran named Yoav Matzav (meaning situation/condition), who is then joined by a friend from his unit, Uri Dugri (the term for direct in spoken Hebrew, originally from Arabic). King employs the two not only to move furniture, but also to evict landlords who don’t pay their mortgages. Cohen draws parallels between deporting these people and what Yoav and Uri did to the Palestinians during their military service in the West Bank and Gaza. As soldiers, if there was “a woman screaming in the kitchen… you shut it down with the butt of your gun,” or “if they hit a Palestinian chair or desk or an intact human, they could break” (p. 108). , 188 – page numbers are in accordance with the US edition of Random House, 2017).

Beneath the surface of apparent outrage over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, however, Cohen’s negative portrayal of Israelis is quite telling. Yoav’s father Ilan “looked like Arafat” with his “sparse facial hair”, while cursing Arabs like “Fuck Araboushim”, sitting “spread macho” on a sofa in his living room. King’s Holocaust survivor uncle Sha’ul said of Ilan (his own son-in-law): “Arab Jew, but he looks more like an Arab than a Jew.”

What seems a typical Ashkenazi-Israeli snub of Mizrachi Jews, however, turns out to be how the author sees Mizrachim: at one point, Cohen describes a group of new IDF recruits as “turbulent arsim – Mizrahim braggarts”, whose families came or were “thrown away” from various Arab countries. These “arsim” “hated the Arabs, but in this peculiar and greedy way, only a brother hates a brother”, because they “were actually arguing about who was the most Arab”. Uri can be seen as just another ‘ars, with his violent outbursts, “aviator sunglasses tangling with his monobrow”, and when he spars, his “compact ape face was soaked to the neck “. As for Yoav, right after his arrival in New York, in the apartment that King provided for him, the young veteran uses the plastic cover of the sofa as both “a blanket and a towel”.

It is not just the appearance and behavior of Israelis, but their very essence: Cohen juxtaposes the figure of the diasporic wandering Jew and the Israeli veterans, who travel the world after their service is over. Yet he immediately breaks that comparison, since these soldiers “were not Jewish, or were not exclusively Jewish,” but rather “primarily Israeli.” Then again, what can you expect from the Israelis: Yoav’s mother (and King’s cousin) emailed him after 9/11e terrorist attacks, where his grief was “only lightly tinged with the jubilant suggestion” that New Yorkers have now experienced what Israelis have had to endure for decades. Even the Hebrew language resonates for King as “the speech of the beleaguered, the last exasperation before a spanking.” Israelis are Levantine, aggressive, militaristic and rude, they resemble Arabs in many ways and are simply “not Jewish”. (quotes are on pages 45-46, 50, 100, 97, 86, 81, 52).

In an interview with Cohen published in Tablet Magazine, the interviewer mentioned, “kings in motion doesn’t really have politics,” to which Cohen replies, “Politics, schmolitics. Politics is so small, so tiny”. Nevertheless, the discrepancy between his criticism of Israeli soldiers’ abuses of Palestinians and his derogatory portrayal of Israeli Mizrachi characters for behaving like Arabs, or being Arabs themselves, suggests something else: for Cohen, both the Israeli Mizrachim that Arabs represent a darker-skinned population. , toxically macho, ethnic “Other” from the Middle East. One wonders if the literary establishment would have embraced Cohen if one of his novels included such a disparaging description of another non-white population, whether in the American context or otherwise.

Cohen is not alone in characterizing Israelis, which could be seen in more comical and friendlier examples, such as the You don’t mess with the Zohan and more Saturday Night Live sketches or the television series on the Web, Transparent (2017, especially its fourth season), which is more equivalent to Cohen’s approach. These examples show how cultural contempt for Israelis has sometimes disguised itself as political criticism. Therefore, Cohen’s “political, schmolitic” attitude may encompass deeper hostility toward Levantines—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike—than all the pious verbiage about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Dr. Gil Ribak is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Israel, Dr. Ribak served as an analyst in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office before obtaining a Fulbright scholarship which sent him to pursue his doctoral studies in the United States. In 2021-2022, he is the Marie Curie Principal Investigator of the European Union. at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Study in Freiburg, Germany. I am a scholar and public educator of modern Jewish history, whose research has always been interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together history, sociology, folklore, ethnic studies, and literature. My academic interests and expertise cover various areas of Jewish history – American Jewish history, Eastern European Jewish history, and histories of modern Israel.


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