'Catch the Jew!' - An 'Investigation' as an Unintended Parody

Astonishingly, in researching his book, Tuvia Tenebom couldn’t find one opponent of the occupation who isn’t anti-Semitic or doesn’t loathe his nation.

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Members of Rabbis for Human Rights unload sacks of flour in a Palestinian village. For Tenenbom, they're just members of the tribe of 'self haters.'Credit: Ariel Shalit

Paranoia, according to The Encyclopedia Hebraica, is a functional psychosis characterized by delusions of grandeur and persecution, but without intellectual deterioration. In classic cases of paranoia, the delusions are organized into a coherent, internally consistent delusional system on which the patient is prepared to act.

The encyclopedia adds that sufferers from paranoia can display a variety of persecutory ideas: “The patient claims he is being persecuted, or that a plot to trip him up is being woven, or that he is being followed.”

Tuvia Tenenbom, an Israeli-American who calls himself a “political playwright and a journalist,” went on a journey to acquaint himself with the persecutors of the Jewish people in Israel. The result of his quest, in which he disguised himself as a non-Israeli, German journalist – in order to induce the people he interviewed to say what they “really” think – is his book “Catch the Jew!” (also published in Hebrew and German). In it he describes his meetings in the Holy Land (in both its sovereign and occupied parts) with Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners.

Tenenbom’s findings are bleak in the extreme. He discovered that a worldwide conspiracy among Europeans, Arabs and left-wing self-hating Jews is about to bring catastrophe on the Jewish people’s state. The clock is ticking. Caught between hatred from the outside and the inside, no state can survive for long, he writes in the epilogue.

Full disclosure: I am closely connected with many of the demons that are persecuting Tenenbom. Some of those who are revealed in the book as accomplices in the conspiracy against Israel and against Judaism were or are still my clients, some are my associates in legal and ideological battles, and some are my friends – including close personal friends (such as the client who became a good friend, former air force pilot Yonatan Shapira).

Moreover, the worst of the miscreants in the plot against Israel, according to Tenenbom – the Europeans (all of them, but the Germans especially) – directly or indirectly fund many organizations that are clients of mine. So take what I say with caution. Like with anything I have done or wrote in my life, I am not objective – worse, I make no pretense of being so.

But Tenenbom and his book do have objective pretensions. First, he purports to expose the true face (anti-Semitic, subversive, lying and in some cases Nazi, no less) of some of the activists and organizations that oppose the Israeli occupation. Second, the book purports to be part of a literary genre: the political journey. At its best, this genre is supposed to provide journalistic-literary-publicist documentation of a politically or socially riven country. The reader thus gets an in-depth report about prevailing views held by various population groups that are not given due expression in the traditional press, and unfamiliar angles on endlessly discussed issues, which for one reason or another are outside the public’s field of vision.

Israeli examples of books like this are Amos Oz’s “In the Land of Israel” (English edition, 1983) and David Grossman’s “The Yellow Wind” (English edition, 1987). Both books sprang from series of articles their authors published in the press, which were based on encounters, mostly with “regular” people, rather than with public figures or leaders, in Israel and the occupied territories in the course of several months. Both authors gave their interlocutors wide latitude, but did not spare readers their own opinions and analyses.

Sleeping with Arabs

“Catch the Jew!” is a parody of this literary genre. Don’t misunderstand me: Tenenbom did not set out to write a parody. He purports to offer readers a political journey that reflects a political reality and generates political insights. In his semi-fictional guise, he met with members of organizations such as B’Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors human rights in the occupied territories, Rabbis for Human Rights, Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, as well as with politicians, intellectuals and journalists, activists and just plain folk.

In essence, his book seeks to persuade readers that what he heard from his interlocutors shows that left-wing Jewish Israelis, and particularly Israeli human-rights organizations, which are funded by anti-Semitic Europeans and by Jew-hating Palestinians, who are also funded by the anti-Semitic Europeans, create a world of fabrications that aims to make Israel universally hated. And they are succeeding in their aim.

Grounding such a vicious accusation – which is a version of a set of allegations copyrighted by such right-wing groups as NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu, which for years have been conducting a campaign of delegtimization against segments of Israel’s civil society – involves serious work. Its proponents have to meet at least three requirements: present weighty evidence that this is the agenda of the people they have met, show that these people represent a broad phenomenon, and build a stable, logical structure to draw conclusions from their documentation.

Failing on three counts

To begin with, some of his interviewees are so grotesque that beyond the fact that it’s hard to see how they can represent a large public, one begins to suspect that they don’t really exist. A case in point is his report about a “left-wing scholar” he met in a Georgian restaurant in Tel Aviv. She told him that she loves Arabs so much that she slept with a Palestinian for years. Seriously. This is what he writes. Tenenbom adds that a left-wing intellectual who was sitting with them was delighted with this information. He told the woman he was happy to hear it and now he knows she’s all right.

Now, let’s say that the scholar and the intellectual really exist. What in the world could one learn from their bizarre remarks? Tenenbom’s method is to heighten curiosities and use them as representative phenomena, in this case those of the Tel Aviv left.

On another occasion, a left-wing professor – again, Tenenbom doesn’t divulge her identity – fails a short quiz he gives her about Judaism. He concludes immediately that today’s left-wing professors, in contrast to those of a previous generation, personified by the late professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, are ignorant and superficial. Even in the case of Tenenbom’s great (and only) success – a vague comment by a Palestinian field researcher of B’Tselem to the effect that he doesn’t believe that the Germans killed Jews – it’s hard to say that it represents anything. But that doesn’t stop Tenenbom from turning his amplifier up to full volume and asserting that B’Tselem consists of Jews who devote their lives to helping people who hate them.

Burning Jew-hatred

Even worse is what Tenenbom does in cases where his interlocutors don’t deliver the goods and make inane comments. He simply implants the anti-Semitism for them. Of an International Red Cross employee who didn’t say a word about Jews, he writes that although he doesn’t know the person, the tenor of his speech shows that he really dislikes Jews. His observation about a Jerusalem couple who were hurt by Palestinians but continue to support peace is that they are model self-haters and paragons of Arab lovers.

With no explanation, Tenenbom claims that members of Doctors Without Borders whom he met while they were taking testimony from Bedouin in the Jordan Rift Valley were inventing diseases and blaming Israel for their spread. Annoyed by IRC officials who were doing humanitarian work with 1948 refugees, he declares, without an iota of proof, that they are warming their chairs in their offices while dreaming of a country empty of Jews.

The accusations fly thick and fast: anti-Semitism (most Europeans), anti-Israeliness (human rights organizations), self-hatred (almost every activist he meets) and pathological lying (mainly Palestinians). Tenenbom may have intended to be persecuted, but in practice he embarked on a persecution campaign of his own. His major fallacy is also the primary transgression of his colleagues in the segment of the Israeli right that persecutes its critics: deliberate and far from nave confusion between criticism of Israel’s policy and hatred of Israel and of Jews.

Thus, for example, the refusenik pilot Yonatan Shapira offers an unvarnished critique of Israeli policy in his conversation with Tenenbom, and agrees with him that there are other countries that commit crimes and should be fought against. Nevertheless, this chapter is titled, “A Jewish pilot with a mission: Catch the Jews!”

When an Israeli guest in an Eilat hotel tells Tenenbom that the Israelis are behaving barbarically, the chapter heading is “Jews are barbarians.” And when Rabbi Arik Ascherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, is critical of rights abuses against the Palestinians who are under Israeli occupation – he’s added ingloriously to the tribe of “self-haters.”

Tenenbom does not find even one opponent of the occupation who is not anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli or doesn’t loathe himself and his nation.

And here is the third fallacy: the deep logic that underlies the theory of “Catch the Jew!” Sorrow for the infringement of Palestinians’ rights, opposition to the occupation and criticism of Israeli policy – all are testimony to burning Jew-hatred.

As I read, I became increasingly aware that this groundless inference may well stem from self-projection. Perhaps for Tenenbom and others, all political opposition is translated into hatred of the rival. This is the case with many of those who do battle against the human rights organizations in Israel. They are out not only to vanquish members of that community politically and prevent them from bringing about the changes the activists work for: They also want to prevent them from getting financing, to reduce their right of expression, to incriminate some of their activity and in general to make them disappear from the public map.

“Catch the Jew!” adopts this logic. It is not a documentation project, it is a creation project. And Tenenbom created Israel’s persecutors – in his image, in Tenenbom’s image, did he create them.

Michael Sfard, an attorney, specializes in human rights law. He is a legal adviser to some of the organizations and people mentioned in the book.