“Catch the Jew!” by Tuvia Tenenbom, Gefen Publishing House, 486 pages, $24.95
Tuvia Tenenbom, a playwright and journalist from New York, was commissioned by a German publisher house – under whose imprint he had published his previous book, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Bedroom” (as it’s titled in English) – to document a six-month journey through Israel and Palestine. The result of the journey is “Catch the Jew.” At least one critical reader was persuaded that he approached his new assignment in good faith, armed with sincerity, curiosity and a desire to listen and learn. His tools: perfect cover as a German journalist named “Tobi,” knowledge of the relevant languages and a captivating personality.
Tenenbom had no idea, when he set out, what deep and muddy streams he would find. Be warned: Among some readers, the information uncovered in the book is liable to generate intolerable cognitive dissonance. At least one other critic, who found her worldview undermined by the book, lapsed into genuine distress and, discombobulated, called for Tenenbom, the messenger who brought the news, to be killed.
A comment made by Tenenbom in connection with a riveting conversation he had with former right-wing Likud MK Moshe Feiglin – to the effect that Feiglin has a different approach and it should be heard – is perhaps the book’s connecting thematic thread. Tenenbom practices what he preaches: He came to listen and learn, not to “catch” anyone. On the contrary, it sometimes seems that someone in his image caused people to “catch” him and engage him in conversation innocently, without having to be persuaded to do so.
Tenenbom met a fine gallery of characters from here and there on his journey, some of them public figures, others anonymous. Because the views of many of them are no secret and are already known to the general public, I will not use my limited space on them, even though Tenenbom, an excellent, sensitive listener who refuses to pigeonhole people, is able to extract “something else” from them, for good or for ill. His book introduces us especially to officials of NGOs, human rights activists and foreign correspondents, who flock to our region in disproportionate numbers compared to other bleeding areas of the planet.
Tenenbom’s interlocutors among the Palestinians and the human rights activists, Europeans and Israelis alike, are surprised by his questions, which expose rifts in their narratives. One example of many: In a meeting with a representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which invests substantial funding in organizing peace encounters between Palestinians and Israelis, Tobi asks why the organization contributes to meetings between two sides that don’t seem to be in dispute – Palestinians and Israelis who view Israel as a cruel occupier. Wouldn’t it be better to organize meetings between parties that have significant disagreements?
He is told in response that he is “right-wing.” In some cases, his questions compelled his interlocutors to backtrack from their responses, in the face of the peculiar journalist who doesn’t buy every tall tale, and to supply facts instead of narratives.
Tenenbom’s insights are sharp and clear. After a touchingly humane meeting with a Bedouin woman who shared with him her distress about her husband having taken a second wife, he asks where the feminists are when it comes to the rights of the weakest, most excluded link in the chain: women.
In some cases, Tenenbom’s work is done by others, who contribute insights of their own. A case in point is the wife of the human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman. Mockingly, but without ceasing to love her man, she describes him, the “human rights activist,” as a “persona,” a fashion, a new hit, with a certain cool way of dressing, a particular form of behavior. In a word, a complete “pose.”
Ascherman, for his part, says he is working to advance the cause of tikkun olam.
Some might wonder what the big deal about Tenenbom’s discovery is. Isn’t he, after all, preaching to the converted? Does his book reinforce the views of those who think that “the whole world is against us”? I think not, or, more accurately, that one should not read the book in this way only. Even those whose common sense tells them that something is amiss about the approach of the media and “the world” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be surprised to discover the vast scale of European involvement in it via aid organizations. It emerges that the European (and American) organizations have a long reach, extending even to interfering with decisions by Israeli courts in sovereign Israeli territory.
In addition, and perhaps in contrast to their activity in other regions of the world, in Palestine, Tenenbom finds it difficult to see good intentions in their activity. These organizations view the Palestinians as a faceless, oppressed entity, a kind of excluded “other” and no more, a voiceless “noble savage” lacking intelligence, desires or judiciousness.
Tenenbom points out the superciliousness and the pungent racism that underlie the approach of these self-styled reformers. His “Tobi” rips the mask from the face of the supposed benefactors and shows how they are the ones silencing and devaluing the voice of those who are occupied, how they exploit them to cleanse their European conscience. He urges that the Palestinians’ voice be returned to them, that they be recognized as human beings, possessing both beauty and ugliness like all people, and that they be listened to beyond slogans about occupation.
Tenenbom is stunned to discover another European product in Palestine: familiar, classic, European anti-Semitism, alive and kicking among the moderate secular Palestinian elite. But realizing that reality is complex, Tobi finds that he likes Jibril Rajoub, the former Palestinian security chief, even as he is repulsed by the man’s anti-Semitism.
Tenenbom loves, likes, mocks, confronts, debates, embraces, scorns and handles contradictions well. Almost the only time he loses his cool is when he encounters characters of a singular breed: Jews consumed by self-hatred. One such is the tour guide Itamar Shapira, who terms himself an “ex-Jew,” and who cannot suppress his unabashed delight when he makes the claim to an Italian group that Theodor Herzl died of a venereal disease. In Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, Shapira exploits a tour to draw a comparison between what the Germans did and Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
By now the principle is clear. In the farce that’s recounted in the book, everyone is cast in his role with an authenticity stemming from a Western fantasy, according to which Palestinians have been entrenched in their soil for 14,000 years; their fine, pluralistic culture must be preserved, they have been dispossessed, and the basic commodity they are lacking is human rights. The Israeli or the Jew is the “occupier” and the self-styled “chosen one,” and the moral European has come to inspect the occupier’s crimes and teach the occupied about his rights. Any deviation from the script is out of the question in this play, there is no place for simple human situations, and it is impossible to switch roles or to infuse the characters with depth.
Tenenbom completed his assignment. He leaves us for the time being and returns, probably not without a sigh of relief, to the warm fold of the Jewish theater he established in New York. In an epilogue, he adds with harrowing matter-of-factness a conclusion, based on facts. Israel, he writes, will disappear: It will not be able to survive with the impossible dosages of hatred to which he was exposed on his journey. The staff of aid organizations leave, too, and leave the Palestinians with the same stifling everyday reality, which has not improved; instead of hope they give them business cards on which the name of a new profession appears in curlicue font: “Human rights coordinator.” The message is that, as long as Israel continues to exist, the hypocritical enterprise will continue and will go on being a magnet for others to come in their place.
After I finished rocking with both terror and laughter – I forgot to mention the main point: Tenenbom is extraordinarily funny – insight started to trickle in. We alone can repair the damage that the aid organizations are causing, as described in the book. We alone, the inhabitants of this land, who seem to be on opposite sides of a barrier – occupier and occupied, Israelis and Palestinians – but who, by choice or necessity, are not going anywhere.
On the assumption that there is a limit to the ability of fact-based information to change the order of things, in a world in which there is tacit acceptance of murder when it is being perpetrated in various places – it’s likely that, after generating a sensation, “Catch the Jew!” will be shunted aside by the next sensation. It’s not likely that the book will influence the course of the conflict or its solution.
In the meantime, it’s a call to Israeli peace activists of good conscience to wake up and not play into the wrong hands: not to be tempted to cooperate with unworthy organizations that are not operating in good faith, and whose aim is not to achieve a solution to the conflict but to ensure that the farce goes on forever. It’s a call to stand apart from Israeli peace activists who, too, are not well-intentioned and who exploit the conflict to create spectacular international careers; a call to the left that seeks life, to wake up from the fantasy and from the conceptual fixation.
It’s important for Palestinians to read the book, too, in order to understand that the rewriting of history and the charitable projects that purport to assist them do not benefit them and ingrain their status as eternal victims. Perhaps, in light of developments taking place in this region with dizzying speed, we will be compelled to wean ourselves from dependence on mediation and aid from those who failed (or didn’t want to succeed – let the reader judge).
This conflict will be resolved, or will be conducted, with the participation of local players. It is up to us to complete the task and no one else but us.
Read what Tenenbom has to tell us, without bias. We don’t have the privilege not to know.
Einat Talmon is a translator and a literary critic.