“It’s time to raise this Tenenbom to the stake. I have some friends in Lod who could do the dirty work and leave his body in the sands of Rishon.” That’s what Israeli author and Meretz party activist Alona Kimhi posted on her Facebook page when the gadfly journalist-provocateur Tuvia Tenenbom’s book Catch the Jew! was published in Hebrew. (She later claimed that she was only joking.)
Paunchy, prickly, and mercilessly sarcastic, a playwright as well as a gonzo journalist, Tenenbom was born an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Bnei Brak, but freed himself from religion when he moved to America as a young man. Despite Kimhi’s post Tenenbom the tummler is still around. If surviving death threats counts as a mark of journalistic excellence, Tenenbom can cut a notch on his iPhone. By other measures, though, his achievement looks more dubious.
A few years ago Tenenbom traveled through Germany asking people how they felt about Jews and wrote up his findings in a book called I Sleep in Hitler’s Room. There he explained that anti-Semitism permeates all levels of German society, which—Germans being a bit like Jews in the self-criticism department—greatly increased his popularity. Now he’s released Catch the Jew!, which exposes the anti-Jewish animus of Europeans who favor Palestine instead of Israel and for good measure reveals Israeli leftists as dupes and self-haters. His book was finished before the Gaza war, but the poisonous anti-Israel atmosphere ever since last summer makes it seem prescient. Unfortunately, Tenenbom is not merely prescient: He is also a hatchet man of the first rank, which is to say that quite often he cannot be trusted.
At his worst Tenenbom is a right-wing Max Blumenthal: self-serving distortions galore, and no nuance allowed. Unlike Blumenthal, though, Tenenbom actually knows something about Israel—and speaks Arabic and Hebrew, in addition to German, Yiddish, and English. He has been to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, to Hebron and Ramallah, to the checkpoints and the lone-wolf hilltop Jewish settlements. His book is frequently very funny, and there are some eye-opening conversations, but a warning is in order: To hear what Tenenbom usefully has to say while keeping his bile-spewing at arm’s length is a nearly impossible task.
To write Catch the Jew! Tenenbom disguised himself as a German reporter named Tobi, and under this false persona interviewed monks, rabbis, Palestinian and Israeli politicians, tour guides, NGO apparatchiks, soldiers, and settlers. On a few occasions in Catch the Jew! he drops his mask, but for the most part he is Tobi the German, sympathetic of course to Palestine.
Tenenbom’s Tobi-the-German prank has a polemical purpose. He wants to correct “the story,” the version of Israel-Palestine that Europeans and liberal Americans know by heart: Israel is cruel and heavy-handed, Palestinians are frustrated and helpless. The story made huge gains during the Gaza conflict, during which members of the Western media seemed at ease with the idea that there is an easy, non-military way to prevent thousands of rockets from hitting your country—but that Israel, in its usual brutal fashion, preferred to kill defenseless civilians.
As summarized by Jon Stewart during his interview with Hillary Clinton last summer, the story went like this: Palestinians “have no choice,” Stewart said, but to fire rockets at Israel, which therefore bore the moral weight of the conflict. Palestinians live a miserable, constrained existence under Israeli domination, and if you suffered under such conditions maybe you, too, would want to target Jewish elementary schools with your missiles, tear down a light-rail station in Jerusalem, or plow your car into a crowd of Jews, out of sheer lack of hope for a better future.
Tenenbom’s stated task is to remedy what he sees as the huge gaps in our knowledge of the real state of things in Israel and Palestine that “the story” has created. And those gaps are indeed quite real. The monumentally corrupt finances of the PA and of Hamas, which have made its leaders multimillionaires, go mostly unreported. Reporters almost never visit the beautiful, wealthy streets of Ramallah, for stories of Palestinian prosperity would interfere with the reigning message. The near-disappearance of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, a cataclysmic change, is for Americans and Europeans a nonevent. Palestinians receive more foreign aid per capita than any other people on earth. Israeli Palestinians benefit from affirmative action, but this fact doesn’t fit the story. Tenenbom covers all of these usually invisible matters, and he does us a service by doing so.
Hebron is Tenenbom’s Exhibit A in his gallery of deceptive media coverage. It’s likely that all the Western newspaper reader knows about Hebron is that a small, fanatical band of Jewish settlers insist on living there, and that by doing so these settlers are destroying the chances for peace. That’s the story. But there’s another story, as Tenenbom reports: Hebron, home to a third of West Bank Palestinians, is a prosperous and lovely place. Europeans pay for many of the city’s building projects, and some of these buildings are splendid indeed. The people living in desperate circumstances in Hebron are not the Palestinians but the Jews, who for years have been confined to what Tenenbom calls a “ghetto”—now a mere 3 percent of the city—and who are regularly assaulted by stone-throwing Arab teenagers. The Jewish 3 percent of Hebron is a grim, fortified place; the Arab 97 percent is relaxed and free. This is Tenenbom’s version of the West Bank: wealthy Palestinians with tiny, mostly harmless groups of settlers in their midst. The reader notes that he prefers not to take a walk on the Palestinian wild side: the refugee camp of Qalandiyah, let’s say. And he minimizes his reporting of settler violence against Arabs. But still, he has a point: Given all the space newspapers devote to Israel and Palestine, why don’t we see a story, once in a while, about the thriving Palestinian upper-middle class in Ramallah or Hebron?
Tenenbom reports that there are 300 NGOs on the West Bank. A large number of them are European. How to account for Europe’s obsessive interest in Palestine? For Tenenbom the reason is clear: Europeans love to “catch the Jew,” to prove that the Jews are guilty of oppression—and are maybe even the new Nazis, a formula that conveniently cleanses the real Nazis and their progeny from the shame of their actual historical crimes while allowing them to once again indulge in the pleasures of Jew-hatred.
This is the central message of Tenenbom’s book: that Europeans in particular need to prove Israel guilty. They have no analogous interest in any other country—for example, Turkey, which also occupies another country and which treats its minorities worse than Israel does. Also, cowards that they are, the Europeans want to buy insurance against terrorism by displaying their anti-Israel chops.
Yet there is another side to the question. Europeans often ignore the difference between a country like Israel that is forced to defend itself militarily and countries like Germany or France that don’t have to. This is not exclusion, as Tenenbom says—not an attempt to punish the Jew—but rather a bizarre kind of inclusion. Europeans see Israel as part of Europe, economically and culturally, and they want Israel to act not just like them, but like the idealized selves they wish to show to the rest of the world: to be more peaceful, less discriminatory, kinder to its minorities. When Israel, inevitably, fails this unreasonable test, Europeans declare that the Jews have disappointed them. This dynamic is in part anti-Semitic, in part perversely philo-Semitic, but in any case it is a more tangled one than Tenenbom lets on. It couldn’t survive without the Israeli willingness to play the game and look to Europe for approval.
Tenenbom also neglects to mention that there are many Europeans who take Israel’s side in its conflicts with its Arab enemies and who have done so for decades. It’s odd that Tenenbom accuses Germans of pervasive anti-Semitism when Germany is Israel’s closest military ally except for the United States. German criticism of Israel under Chancellor Merkel is remarkably discreet. Everyone in mainstream politics accepts the intimate relationship between the two countries; Germany stands by Israel just as America does, and at this point in time would seem to be a much more supportive ally. For Tenenbom the fact that Germany doesn’t think the West Bank is part of Israel casts doubt on their allegiance, but nearly everyone in the world, including United States, holds the same opinion.
In Tenenbom’s eyes not only does Europe stand against Israel, Israel stands against itself: Israeli leftists come off in Tenenbom’s telling as a mob of clueless, self-hating buffoons. They claim to love Palestinian culture, yet they know no Palestinians and can’t even speak a sentence in Arabic. They are sure that the day after a peace deal, the Palestinian claim to be the true indigenous inhabitants and owners of all the land between the Jordan and the sea will simply melt away. Some of these leftists want to abolish the Jewish state altogether, convinced that Jews will thrive under Arab rule. A few of them are “ex-Jews” who, like the tour guide Itamar Shapira, profiled by Tenenbom, are spectacularly ignorant of world history and eager to compare their own people to the Nazis.
We all know characters like the ones Tenenbom describes, and as he says, they live in a fantasy rather than the real world. They are not to be taken seriously, because they lack all sense of how real-life politics works. And they are not taken seriously by Israelis: The far left has no traction outside a few universities and NGOs.
But there is another kind of left-leaning Israeli, very visible on the ground but almost completely absent from Tenenbom’s book: the realists who think that the Arab peace initiative can be the basis for greater Israeli security, since the Sunni Arab regimes are far more interested in assuring the stability of the Palestinian territories than they are interested in toppling the state of Israel, which would in fact be a disaster for them. Relying on the Sunni states to pressure the PA into a realistic peace deal of the kind the Palestinians have twice rejected, in 2000 and 2008, is the logical next step for Israel, the way to use the chaos of the Arab winter to increase its own security.
One leftist occupies a special place in Tenenbom’s hall of fools: Gideon Levy, the Haaretz journalist who, as Tenenbom notes, is frequently the go-to man for Western newspapers covering the Israeli occupation. Levy doesn’t know Arabic and is utterly uninterested in the PA’s internal politics. He has one subject: the abuses committed by Israel against Palestine. Tenenbom’s judgment of Levy is harsh: He is not a self-hating but a self-loving Jew, one who expects Israel to be superhuman, to meet bullets with kisses, like Jesus. It is, sad to say, a fair assessment of Levy.
Tenenbom provokes only other people, never himself.
When Tenenbom actually allows himself to talk to a realist-minded Israeli liberal—not Levy, but Amos Oz—he becomes rather lost, even a little desperate. You sense that he doesn’t like Oz, but he has no real opportunity to score points off him. For Oz’s sermon is that separation between Israel and Palestine is the only way to eventual peace, and to this end Jews must make sacrifices. Those sacrifices—if the price is right—might even include uprooting Jews from Hebron, that center of Jewish history and Jewish memory, and giving up Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Here it is Tenenbom who lacks realism, for he seems to think that Jews must continue to populate the West Bank, since a peace deal isn’t coming anyway. This is a profoundly reckless point of view, because it means that Israel has no leverage, no way of safely making concessions in order to extract concessions from the other side. Is it really so important that Jews live in Sheikh Jarrah? Once upon a time it was supremely important that Jews live in the Sinai. It was the height of foolishness to give up those settlements, along with the Sinai’s rich oil fields. As it turned out, though, it was not so foolish.
Tenenbom is convinced that the West Bank must not become like Gaza and Jordan, places where no Jew is allowed to live. But, as he himself points out, Israelis already cannot travel in much of the West Bank, much less live in it (another fact you won’t discover by reading the mainstream press). Israel and Palestine are already well on the road to separation, and they are not about to turn around. Tenenbom wants to turn back the clock to the pre-Oslo era when Israelis and Palestinians interacted freely, and usually peacefully. But there is no going back. You can argue about who is responsible for the change, but the change happened. The future can only mean greater separation, and it is Israel’s task to turn this process to its strategic advantage, instead of fighting against it.
Tenenbom is usually tough on his interviewees, but he gives a free pass to Ayelet Shaked, the MK from Jewish Home. The party did badly in the recent elections, but only because their votes were siphoned off by Netanyahu, who spoke Jewish Home language when he promised there would be no Palestinian state under his watch. But when the right wing dreams about happy, reconciled Palestinians living under Israeli rule they are being just as fantastical as the radical left with their binational utopia. Last week, the right-wing dream won an election. And now the risk is not, as Tenenbom thinks, that Israel will give up everything to the Palestinians, but that it will give up nothing.
Tenenbom is at his best when he writes, “I don’t believe in ‘Death to the Arabs’ and I don’t believe in ‘Death to the Jews.’ ” But while Catch the Jew! amply features the “Death to the Jews” crew, the opposing team is almost invisible. Tenenbom chickens out on this one, much to his discredit. In an Israel where the prime minister laments the fact that too many Arabs are voting (and then apologizes), where Druze IDF soldiers have been beaten up for speaking Arabic, and where Death to Arabs is an increasingly visible slogan, how is it possible to see only anti-Jewish and not anti-Arab hatred?
The fact is that, for Tenenbom, anti-Arab prejudice simply isn’t worth mentioning. After all, he argues, Israeli Arabs have such good lives: They can go to excellent universities for free, and they even have the privilege of scorning their Jewish benefactors by calling them “the occupier”—like a well-known Israeli Palestinian singer whom Tenenbom interviews. And the Jews, born freiers, feel guilty about what they’ve done to the poor Palestinians—look at everything they’ve done for them! But there’s another side to the Israeli Arab story. President Reuven Rivlin’s brave campaign against anti-Arab racism is a response to a real and very disturbing phenomenon. It’s too bad that Tenenbom airbrushes it out of his account.
Tenenbom’s lack of concern for the actual problems of Palestinians goes along with a bizarre idolizing of them as proud, self-sufficient natives who can stand up for themselves, unlike us insecure Jews, who suffer from self-doubt the way Palestinians never do. He claims to love the generosity and friendliness of Palestinians, along with their patriotic willingness to say whatever will make their own cause look good—for example, that Israel is behind the flight of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank. For Tenenbom the Palestinians are the new Zionists. If old-time Zionism wanted to replace cringing, unmanly diaspora Jewry with a new model, the new model Jew has long since started to cringe again, apologizing for itself in front of—of all people—the Europeans. If only Israelis could become like Palestinians, Tenenbom seems to wish: proud and defiant.
We’re coming up to the most bizarre moment in Tenenbom’s book, where he directs a rhapsody of insults at the Jews, of which he himself is, of course, one, when he isn’t Tobi the German goy. “Personally,” he writes—gearing up for his cri de coeur—“I hardly get to meet conviction-driven Jews, say-what-I-think Jews, farming Jews, if-you-slap-me-on-one-cheek-I’ll-slap-you-on-both-your-cheeks Jews. The Jews I know are neurotic Jews, weak Jews, self-hating Jews, hate-filled-narcissist Jews, accept-every-blame Jews, bowing to all non-Jews Jews, ever guilt-ridden Jews, ugly-looking Jews, big-nosed and hunch-backed Jews, cold Jews, brainy Jews, yapping Jews, and here-are-both-my cheeks-and-you-can-slap-them-both Jews.”
After this litany, which comes late in Catch the Jew!, the cat is out of the bag: The reader now knows that European leftists alone are not responsible for Tenenbom’s psychic needs in regard to his people. This could be an interesting window to autobiography, if Tenenbom were actually interested in self-analysis. But he’s not. Tenenbom never asks himself what makes him see weakness everywhere in Jewish life, and why un-Jewishly “strong,” black-and-white convictions make him feel so good. He provokes only other people, never himself.
Tenenbom, like Naftali Bennett with his fake beard and hipster glasses in his famous campaign ad, acts as if a leftist epidemic of self-blame has taken over Israel. His message goes something like this: If we Jews could only abolish self-doubt and act like proud Zionists, Israel’s relationships with Europe, with the United States, with the Palestinians would all be easier. He is, in the end, not a myth-buster but a myth-maker, and the myth he is peddling looks, at this historical moment, rather desperate. Even like a sign of weakness.
Correction, March 31: This article has been revised to incorporate the following corrections: Alona Kimhi was not interviewed by Tuvia Tenenbom; and Tenenbom came to the United States alone, not with his family.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.