Iddo Netanyahu is a highly intelligent, unassuming radiologist whose greatest achievement may be that he has crafted a prosaic existence out of circumstances that might have impelled a less imaginative man to reach for greatness. Like his oldest brother, Jonathan, a leader of the Israeli commando raid on Entebbe, and his next-oldest brother, Benjamin, Israel’s current prime minister, the youngest Netanyahu brother went to an elite American university (Yoni went to Harvard, Bibi went to MIT, and Iddo went to Cornell) before returning to Israel to serve in the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He attended medical school at Hebrew University and then did post-doctoral work at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington and Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York in radiology, which is a branch of medicine that often saves lives and is also notably removed from the agony of patients and their families.
It is certainly possible to imagine Iddo as the Chico or Zeppo Marx of the Netanyahu brothers. But it’s not actually clever. Political history is littered with sad stories of siblings who felt compelled to take up a real or imagined family mantle to the detriment of their own separate human existence, or who wound up destroying themselves to get attention, or to avoid the burden of being someone they plainly were not. Becoming a radiologist—a specialty safely removed from politically damaging malpractice suits—is a much better choice than seeking the spotlight. It’s safer, saner, and far more sensible.
Yet the act of shaping a fulfilling yet largely anonymous life in his brothers’ long shadows—and in the shadow of his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu—also takes a high degree of self-awareness, which is not divorced from literary imagination. Jonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo all wrote books, but Iddo is the most accomplished writer of the three—the only one who was truly inclined toward the work of introspection and empathetic connection that is necessary to create characters and narrative. The myth of Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the heroic commander who wrote sensitive letters to his parents and brothers about life, love, and duty to country before dying at Entebbe, was in some part a posthumous creation of Iddo, who edited and published Yoni’s letters in book form (with Bibi’s help) and then wrote the classic book about Yoni’s exploits. The well-crafted myth of the modern Israeli soldier-patriot who balanced deep humanistic sensitivity with extraordinary courage and daring on the battlefield served as Bibi’s Profiles in Courage, helping to propel his political career. Iddo is also the author of a good book of short stories, a novel that I haven’t read, and a new play, A Happy End, about a Jewish family in 1930s Berlin, which opens in New York tonight.
I met Netanyahu on his most recent trip to New York to supervise rehearsals for A Happy End. Actually, we met not once but twice. The first time, he arrived at my house in Brooklyn at the appointed hour on a Sunday morning. Having slept through my alarm, after assuming, for a variety of reasons, that our appointment had been canceled, I met him at the door in bare feet, sweatpants, and a T-shirt. After staying for a long and very pleasant breakfast, he left for his rehearsal. Before leaving, he graciously agreed to return for an interview, which gave me enough time to take a shower and read his play, a very polished work that struck me as similar in some interesting ways to his older brother’s recent dramatic appearance before the U.S. Congress, in its understanding of how history can be shaped by the propensity—which both brothers identify as Jewish, but more broadly as human—to radically underestimate risk.
I thought your play lived up to its title A Happy End, in that Mark and Leah Erdmann overcome the difficulties in their marriage—namely Leah’s affair—and decide not to immigrate to Princeton, New Jersey, but to stay in Germany and be happy together, as Hitler consolidates his hold on power. What happier end can a playwright deliver?
Humans have a need to view things optimistically, and that can often lead them to misjudge reality, which causes still more problems.
Is misjudging the political realities in the countries where they live a Jewish specialty?
Wishful thinking, or misinterpreting reality, is I think part of human nature. Jews, over the course of history, have been blinder to political reality than other peoples. I think it has to do with the fact that they didn’t have political power, so they didn’t understand how society functions and how politics function.
There’s a lovely effect at the end of your play, which I very much enjoyed, where I found myself truly gladdened by the family’s choice to stay in Berlin.
Well, they’re happy.
To me, the success of the play is in that moment, where I thought, “Yes, good for you, you’ve overcome the obstacles in your marriage and embraced life!” I was rooting for them.
“You think you embraced life, but you bought a ticket to Auschwitz.” It’s something that was common. And certainly in 1933, hardly any Jews left Germany, or even tried to leave Germany.
We Jews owe our present-day selves to the Enlightenment, which freed us from centuries of oppression and allowed us to walk on our hind legs in public spaces like everyone else. So, I think it’s harder for many of us to see the abyss of unreason and violence that lies beneath the surface of post-Enlightenment societies than it might have been for Jews in 15th-century Spain to imagine what was coming.
Don’t forget that until the great pogroms started, Spanish Jews were very much an accepted part of the ruling class. They were basically running the kingdom, until finally the resentment against them became so strong that they were barred from running the kingdom. In my father’s book, of course, he describes the tremendous resentment against the new Christians—the Jews who converted to Christianity and their descendants, who started running the kingdom after the Jews were expelled. Half or more of Spanish Jewry opted to become Christians, and the men at least converted quite willingly, because they didn’t have a particularly strong belief in Judaism any longer. And they were the secretaries of treasury, and great counselors to the king. And since they were not Jews anymore, they also took very high positions in the church. They too did not understand the rumblings underneath.
I enjoyed the bit of rationalization at the end where the father says, “Now I understand what Hitler’s doing. He’s creating the need for a strong man. And once he’s in power, he’ll squelch these vulgar demonstrations.”
We do it all the time. Remember when Assad came to power in Syria, what did they say about him? “He’s a different kind of person than his father—once he gets into power, he will be OK. Of course he had to do some hard things to get himself into power. But now that he’s in power, he’ll behave the way we believe that we would behave.” That’s what they said about Hitler, too.
Is there a gap in the language that is available to us that makes it harder for us to reckon with social realities and forces that depart from our idea of what is—or should be—normal?
It’s very depressing to think that it is our fate to constantly misunderstand reality and therefore we are condemned to experience horrible catastrophes and horrible wars, because we prefer to think of easy solutions and prefer not to think of the horrors that are going on. Think of what ISIS is doing right now. If you told someone a year ago, or half a year ago, that 21 Christians will be led up the coast in Libya and be beheaded and a group called ISIS will videotape it, and everyone will watch it on YouTube, you would have seemed crazy—just like [the German] Dieter seems like the crazy one in my play.
The non-Jewish characters see the cracks in their own society clearly, or at least Dieter does. On the other hand, the needs and the longings and distortions of the Jewish characters are fuzzy to them. They don’t quite grasp them fully, even if they work together, or are sleeping together.
Because they’re not Jews. They don’t understand. Dieter does not understand what motivates Leah and Mark. He cannot grasp it. Which is a reason why he probably doesn’t get through to them. He’s not able to convince them that Germany is in deep trouble and they have to leave.
Dieter hears the talk, he understands German society, and he understands how strong it is. He’s not an anti-Semite, but he knows it thoroughly in and out. His parents are anti-Semites. He understands that it is a grave danger to these people he cares about. But obviously he has a hard time understanding their psychological needs, their tremendous desire to be accepted as Germans, not as Jews.
What is the root of Leah’s attraction to Dieter, besides the fact that she feels neglected by Mark?
Look, she’s not blind. Neither Mark nor Leah is blind. They see, but they don’t see. They try to delude themselves. Her life is being destroyed by the rise of the Nazis. She feels it. She hears Hitler’s voice on the radio. But she wants to mold … no, to force, I would say, Germany to be what she wants it to be. So, she hangs on to Dieter, the ideal German. He loves art. “Well, that’s exactly my thing! He once heard a recording of a symphony I love—that means we love exactly the same music!” She’s a very courageous woman actually. She tries to force Germany or Berlin to be what she wants it to be, and this is her great attraction to Dieter. She has to have some sort of anchor, and that’s Dieter, because she sees that her world is crumbling.
That’s why his detachment from her by the end of the play makes emotional sense, because the man she loves with such ardor is her own construction. It’s not actually him.
If Mark would have seen the Nazi demonstration, he might not have understood what he was seeing. But when she sees that reality, that’s it. She understands that it’s over and done with. But once again, we have psychological needs. We try to live our lives, and we make our decisions on a very, I’d say, erratic basis.
Talk to me a bit about how your sense of how delusion is the normal condition of mankind might connect to your experience of growing up with your father, and his understanding of Spanish Jewry, which is certainly one of the greatest historical portraits of Jewish self-delusion ever written.
As a child, you play soccer games with your brothers, and you go to the boy scouts, and all that. When we were older and mature, we started talking to him. And we realized that he was of value, and maybe he knows something.
The theme of the misunderstanding of reality is certainly a key part of the story he told. The Origins of the Inquisition, which really is a history of Jews, starts with a history of anti-Semitism and a history of the Jews in Spain, up until the Inquisition. And he also talks a little bit about the expulsion. When you fully understand the history of the Jews, it’s extremely depressing. Both because of what they have to undergo, and also because of their continued blindness, time after time after time.
I must confess that this conversation feels very familiar to me. I remember interviewing your brother, the prime minister, when he was in the opposition. I think it must have been in 2006. He was in a small office in the Knesset, and we sat together for an hour and a half, and he was very single-minded on this subject, the way that you are. He first explained how people systematically misread reality, even when it is happening in front of their eyes, and then he started to criticize the pullout from Gaza, and he was telling me about Hamas, and how they were going to start firing missiles, and then the missiles would get bigger and bigger, and they were going to be raining down on Israel.
He was a war-monger!
And then he went from Gaza to Iran, and how they were trying to develop a nuclear bomb to make good on their threat to destroy Israel. I confess that I walked out of his tiny office and I was just like, “Ugh, who wants to listen to this droning monomaniac on such a nice, sunny day? I want an ice-cream cone.” I think about the unpleasantness of being the person that occupies that mental space and is very annoying to all his neighbors. On a human level, I still don’t think I was wrong. And that’s a much bigger problem, right? Because there’s a sense in which I’m not wrong.
I don’t disagree with what you are driving at. You’re very perceptive. The issue here is not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about how human beings understand reality. That’s why it was very important for me to portray these people as not being stupid. They’re just as blind as all of us are. It’s only a few exceptional individuals who are able to see through the screens that even highly intelligent people set up—need to set up—in order to feel sane. Because in the end we all die anyway.
Look at Jabotinsky, poor guy, in 1939. He travels to Warsaw and says, “This is the last hour, this is the minute before the last hour. You have to leave. There should be no considerations of your homes and your furniture and your pianos. Leave before it’s too late. Do not stay here.”
My father wrote and we published a book of his essays about what he called the founders of Zion. There was an essay there that he wrote about Herzl that he wrote in 1937. He was then 27 years old. And he quotes Herzl saying, “This is a matter of survival. The Jews will not survive in Europe.” And he quotes what Herzl wrote to a famous Hungarian leader of Jewry. He says, “I don’t know how it will come, I don’t know whether the Jews will be burned, or banished, but the stone that is rolling down the hill will go all the way to the end.”
You lived in Denver, right?
I was there for a year, finishing a year in high school.
Did your father tell you that America was different than Europe, or an extension of Europe, or who knows what it is?
We never discussed these things.
No. Look, I know what’s been written about us. But we did not have any kind of ideological upbringing. Ben-Gurion was the prime minister and my father was not a member of any party and there was no internal Israeli politics discussed in our home. I think it was not considered appropriate to even speak about the Jewish government of a newborn state.
You’ve lived in America off and on as an adult. You went to college here, and did your medical residencies here. Do you think this society is fundamentally different from Europe, or not?
There’s certainly less anti-Semitism here than in Europe, there’s no question about it. But you had periods in Europe when the Jews were flourishing. And if you’ll tell Jews in certain periods in Spain, or in France, that anti-Semitism will be a big problem, you’d look like you are crazy. So, it’s like we discussed over breakfast: It’s there somewhere. To what extent will it erupt and when, or will it erupt, who knows.
As a writer, I am an American. I don’t really have any rootedness in “Jewish” writing, whatever that is. None of the people who taught me to write English-language sentences and tell stories were Jewish. As a result, I don’t really feel connected to the tropes of American ethnic writing, including American Jewish writing—the push-pull of nostalgia and revulsion for an imagined past, the kitschy in-jokes, the cold-water flat, the nurturing and suffocating Jewish Mama, the wised-up son, the search for one’s so-called “roots,” and so forth. I don’t really connect to that style of storytelling, or even to its negation. It’s a blank space in my stylebook. And yet, in my personal life, I am deeply fascinated by Jewish history and I live part-time in a Jewish community and happily identify myself as a Jew.
I think that the seeming contradictions between my writing life and my everyday life make sense here, because there is something particular in the American DNA that has to do with the fact that it was founded by radically Old Testament-centered English Protestant dissenters who considered themselves to be a New Israel.
In England there was a very strong philo-Semitic tradition. There’s also a very strong anti-Semitic tradition. And maybe those elements imbued American society with some kind of difference, it’s quite possible.
Do you find yourself thinking more or less about these questions when you’re here or in Israel?
I think about these questions all the time, not so much the Jewish condition, but about the general condition of the Western world. The play was shown last in a Muslim country, Uzbekistan. The director himself is Muslim. To him it’s a play about Uzbekistan. I asked him, “Why are you staging this play?” He said, “Oh, it’s a play about me.” So, it’s really not only a Jewish matter. I believe that it’s a problem that’s very current in our day and age: recognizing very real threats that are there. We see things, but we don’t readily admit to the full implications of the horror that’s behind the facade that we see.
I was going to ask you to connect that to your work as a radiologist.
I can make up something if you want.
You look at a film, it says this person has cancer. Do you ever deliver that news to patients?
Usually not, thank God. But in Israel, friends or others occasionally do come to me with film and ask me to read it. About a month and a half ago, a friend came to me with a CT and wanted me to read it, and he had diffuse cancer. I had to tell him, what could I do? But I also tried to give him hope, because there’s always hope, with chemotherapy and all that. To say there’s some hope, it doesn’t mean “hope” in that case. It means something, something that is almost meaningless.
But that’s not what he told my wife a few weeks later. People re-interpret what doctors tell them—what the patient said the doctor said is usually entirely different than what the doctor actually said. And just as you hear bad news from a doctor, and you reinterpret it, we misinterpret the news of the world and your society and what it means, because the alternative is very hard, very harsh and very depressing. You wanted to have ice cream after you heard my brother.
I felt the ice cream would make me feel better, and it did.
It did? What kind of ice cream did you have?
I’m a simple person. I like chocolate ice cream.
Oh, chocolate ice cream. That makes sense then.
It’s not only Jews who like ice cream.
I wrote about Jews because that’s the people I know. But it was first staged in Italy. I don’t think there was a single Jew there. But after initially there were maybe, I don’t know, probably 20 people in the small theater at the beginning and it went to another theater there were 40. But by the third show it was a really full house. In all these small towns, they felt it also mattered to them.
I think that what we do with bad news most of the time is lie to ourselves. This is by far the most appealing choice, even though the consequences are predictably often bad.
The consequences in certain instances can be horrendous. Now, sometimes it’s very good that you lie to yourself because you can’t live otherwise with certain things. But sometimes if you lie to yourself too much, about certain things, you end up in the grave.
Really bad news actually has an enlivening effect on me. I feel, “OK, if the news is this bad, then it must be real, so I must be in contact with reality.” I feel a sense of relief at not having to lie to myself. It’s like a little jolt of adrenaline, which compensates for the fact that the news is bad. “OK, now that I know what reality is, I can make choices that might be effective in whatever bad situation I have created for myself.”
That is the difference between a good military leader and a bad military leader in war, the ability to receive bad news and to assess what needs to be done. War is always hard, and there’s always bad news. To have the mental capacity to assess what’s happening and to do what is necessary in order to get out of a horrible situation and to take the initiative, those are the great leaders, whether political or military. And then there are others who are incapable of doing that.
Your first short story was about a rescue mission that you went on as a young member of Sayeret Matkal in the Golan—
How did you know that? I was really in the reserves at that time, it was after the Yom Kippur war.
Even better. You’re in the reserves, you’re educated, you come from a comfortable, Western-oriented home, and here you are right on a mission with a small unit and one of the soldiers in your unit freezes to death.
It’s true. It’s true. Yes.
Obviously it took you some emotional and mental effort to wrap your head and your feelings around your memory of that, of going to save these soldiers and then waking up to find the frozen corpse of one of your own men.
I felt I needed to write it. And then you need the willpower to go ahead and describe it in whatever way you can.
Do you see Israel as a society that is still capable of producing people who will be able to function in both those realities at the same time?
You mean both humanistic reality and the challenge of warfare?
We had societies like that before. Look at Socrates, he was a great warrior and a great philosopher. And the talent is there, because Jews are there. Like high tech, where does it come from? Or the movies and TV shows that are now being made.
Among my friends from high school and college in America, I knew only two people—both of whom, oddly, were Jewish—who served in the U.S. armed forces. No one else had even the slightest connection with any kind of military service. I think quote-unquote “normal people” of the kind you meet in New York City or even Washington, D.C., are shocked by the experience, the language, the kind of thinking that pertains to violent conflict. It’s legitimately shocking to them. How important is that divergence?
The divergence between Israel and America and from that regard or the Jewish society here and there?
I think it’s very important. Look at the case of Ukraine. They thought, “Great, we don’t need an army. We are our own nation.” And look at the state they’re in now. And we cannot discount what’s happening with this new threat in Iraq and Syria. If Europe thinks that they have no need to imbue their society with the notion that they will be involved in armed conflicts, and that they need to prepare for it, it could be just a matter of time before another catastrophe occurs. The same thing is true here in America.
You can’t just run away. Yes, you can say, “OK, I’m not going to be involved anymore.” But they are going to run after you. You can’t avoid conflict because you decide to avoid conflict. You might be wrong in involving yourself in a certain conflict, absolutely. But don’t think you can avoid conflict.
The world is the world the way it is, and unfortunately it hasn’t changed. There is no end to history. What was that famous article, “The End of History,” which suggested that all societies are going to become democratic and that’s it and we’ll live in peace? I thought it was silly when I read it, and I still think it’s silly. Human nature is such that some societies are peaceful, some societies are not, and some societies within a day become very violent societies after being peaceful. I think the disconnect from that reality is dangerous.
A lot has been written here about the feelings of estrangement and disappointment that some American Jews feel when they look at Israel, and what Israel has become. Great sorrow and other such feelings are often expressed. What do you feel when you listen to the American Jewish conversation about Israel?
Each person has a right to think what he feels, and to express his or her own thoughts.
When American audiences watch your play, might they think that it is a play about them?
I have no idea. I think it’s about any person who watches the play, whether that person is a Muslim in Uzbekistan or an Italian in Italy. A play is a play, art is art, and you write about what you know, and hopefully it has some kind of relevance to other people. So, hopefully it will have relevance here, too.
A Happy End, written by Iddo Netanyahu and directed by Alex Dmitriev, runs through March 29 at the June Havoc Theater in Manhattan.