Near the end of Catch the Jew!, Tuvia Tenenbom repeats a joke told to him by Michael Mertes, head of the Jerusalem branch of the German political foundation KAS, one of many European NGOs (non-governmental organizations) operating in Israel:
A man was sitting outside a Tel Aviv café writing when a passerby stopped by to ask him what he was writing about.
Writer: I am an author and I am writing a book about Israel.
Passerby: This is a huge job! How long are you planning to stay in the country?
Writer: I landed yesterday and I’m flying back tomorrow.
Passerby: You are going to write a book about a country after being in it for barely three days?
Passerby: What is the title of your book, if I may ask?
Writer: “Israel: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
Innumerable opinion pieces, countless articles, and a steady stream of books and documentaries purporting to offer insights about Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have been produced by people who have not spent significant amounts of time in the region, who understand neither Hebrew nor Arabic, and who lack a minimal familiarity with the teachings and practices of Judaism or Islam. Catch the Jew! (Gefen, 2015) is a different kind of book, however, written by a different type of author.
Brought up in an anti-Zionist haredi family in Bnei Brak, Tenenbom studied in haredi and Zionist yeshivot, enlisted in the IDF, and after being discharged from the army departed to the United States, where he cast off the yoke of religion. He knows Hebrew, English, German, and Arabic. In Catch the Jew! Tenenbom chronicles the seven months he spent traversing Israel and Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in 2013-2014, during which he met with Jews, Druze, Palestinians, and a whole lot of Europeans. His assignment, as given to him by his editor, was to conduct a walking study of Israel – which he had left thirty-three years before, and then visited “only sporadically” and “for extremely short durations” – its people, and their most intimate thoughts.
Tenenbom goes to Israeli cities and towns, Palestinian cities and refugee camps, remote Bedouin encampments, and isolated Jewish settlements, encountering an array of characters along the way, from Israeli Members of Knesset and Palestinian Authority officials to prostitutes and stray cats. Though always informing those he interviews that he is an author and journalist, Tenenbom assumes different accents and adopts various personas depending on his audience, presenting himself at times as Tuvia, Tobi, or Tobias, and as a Jew, German, or Austrian.
His findings, Tenenbom emphasizes at the end of Catch the Jew!, “are not based on abstract theories and fancy stories concocted in the comfort of remote labs or refreshments-heavy lecture halls,” but the product of months spent gathering facts in person. Or, as Tenenbom wrote in response to an error-laden review of Catch the Jew! in The Forward: “There’s a difference, big difference, between the reviewer and myself. I don’t believe in sipping my latte at a café in NY or LA, Berlin or London, browsing the Web and then writing about events taking place thousands of miles away.” (In fairness to that blundering reviewer, I should note that I am typing these words thousands of miles away from the Middle East. I hope mine are more accurate.)
In general, Tenenbom’s approach resonated with Israelis, and Catch the Jew!, in its Hebrew version, became a best-seller in his native land. Israelis have been interested in Tenenbom’s observations and wide-ranging critiques of the country they live in and the challenges they face. It helps, too, that Tenenbom is an eccentric and dramatic narrator, for the most part maintaining a sense of humor even while describing very troubling matters.
Perhaps the most eye-opening and troubling sections of Catch the Jew! deal with the over one hundred European and European-funded Israeli and Palestinian NGOs operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories and dedicated to the conflict.
The primary function of most of these NGOs, Tenenbom contends, is to catch Jews doing something wrong and then broadcast that fact to the world. At times, the NGOs forgo the catching altogether and simply invent wrongdoings. Whatever works, so long as the state of Israel can be delegitimized and its Jewish citizens maligned: “The age-old story of Europe’s hatred of the Jew is continuing to this very day with just one minor adjustment: In the days of old, Europeans didn’t have to get on a plane to fight Jews, who were then living as guests in their countries and at their mercy, but today they must travel the extra mile to satisfy their thirst to hurt the Jew.”
Tenenbom’s conclusions are somber and depressing. He finds that “the inexplicable hatred of the Jew refuses to die,” and leaves Israel dismayed and despairing: “Witnessing the tremendous investments and endless attempts of the Europeans, not to mention the Germans, all geared to undermine the Jews in this land, in Israel, was an extremely unsettling experience.” Not only that – Tenenbom realizes that this undermining is often helped along by the Israelis themselves. “If logic is any guide, Israel will not survive,” he predicts in his version of Israel: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. If nothing changes, there soon may be no Israel: “Besieged by hate from without and from within, no land can survive for very long.”
It is in chronicling the terrible hatred of Israel today that Catch the Jew! makes its most valuable contribution to understanding the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For example, Tenenbom accompanies young Italians, brought to Israel by the EU-funded NGO Casa per la Pace Milano, on a trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center. The NGO has hired Itamar Shapira, an Israeli citizen and self-proclaimed “ex-Jew,” as a guide. Shapira may not be sure how many Jews exist – “Some say there are fifty-five million Jews in the world, some say twenty million, others say twelve million” – but that doesn’t matter. What’s forty-three million people between friends? Nor does it matter that in 2009 Yad Vashem fired Shapira from his job as a docent at the memorial, where he had worked for three and a half years, because of the political agenda he was infusing into his talks with visitors. After losing his job, Shapira was still able to give private EU-funded tours to foreigners. And he is a guide with a clear program: Holocaust inversion – rendering Jews as Nazis.
“In Israel today, Africans are being put into concentration camps,” Itamar Shapira tells the young Italians. Reaching a section of the memorial on the Final Solution, Shapira explains to the group: “What you see here is all from the eye of Jewish victims, this is after all a Jewish museum. But what you see here, with the Nazis and the Jews, is also happening today, in Palestine. What happens here in Israel is a Holocaust. Today, the Israeli army is doing the same thing, and the American army too.”
African concentration camps in Israel? Holocaust in Palestine? Israeli and American Nazi soldiers? Could the young Italians possibly believe any of this? Tenenbom observes: “When you walk with Itamar, seeing the dead of Auschwitz but hearing the name of Palestine, watching a Nazi officer on a video but hearing the name Israel, you can’t deny how effective Itamar’s propaganda is.”
Major General Jibril Rajoub – former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force and current head of the Palestinian Football Association and the Palestine Olympic Committee – also grasps the effectiveness of such propaganda, and he makes use of it in his lengthy conversations with Tenenbom, whom he thinks is a German gentile. Rajoub tells Tenenbom that if Hitler woke up from his grave and saw Israel’s brutality, he would be shocked, and that Hitler could learn from Israeli soldiers. Why stop at saying Israeli Jews are the same as Nazis? May as well pronounce that they have even outdone Hitler.
Holocaust inversion has long cohabited with Holocaust denial. In Jenin, Tenenbom – again presenting himself as a German gentile – joins Atef Abu a-Rub, a Palestinian journalist and top researcher for the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, and together they visit Bedouin encampments. At one encampment, the topic of Germany’s murder of Jews during WWII comes up. Atef Abu a-Rub, Palestinian journalist and B’Tselem researcher, offers his historical view of the assertion (“what they say”) that millions of Jews were killed: “This is a lie. I don’t believe it.”
It is no surprise that not everyone has welcomed Tenenbom’s revelations. In the above case, B’Tselem at first argued that the video clip showing Atef Abu a-Rub denying the Holocaust to Tenenbom was taken out of context. After additional media exposure, the organization eventually issued a statement distancing itself from the employee: “we wholeheartedly abhor and reject the sentiments he expressed.”
When i24 Morning Edition anchor Yael Lavie interviewed Tenenbom in Israel in 2014, she aired the video of Atef Abu a-Rub, launched into a defense of B’Tselem, insisted that Abu a-Rub was “not a Holocaust denier,” and undertook to minimize the significance of his statements about WWII. Tenenbom remained adamant, however, and so Lavie attempted a different maneuver, questioning the usefulness of bringing such unsavory details into the open even if they are factual: “Let’s say, you know, he’s a Holocaust denier, this, this, and that. What does it help, seriously, what does it help, you know, in the agenda of trying to progress a peace process?”
Apparently, on Lavie’s i24 Morning Edition, any uncovered truths that might contradict the agenda of a peace process ought to be ignored or rejected. Nor could she consider the possibility that entrenched antisemitism, Holocaust inversion, and Holocaust denial help explain, at least in part, why a peace process has not been progressing. After all, it is not only about Abu a-Rub or Major General Jibril Rajoub or the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with similar views – the Palestinian Authority itself is headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who has been promoting Soviet-style Holocaust inversion on and off for four decades. But abstract theories and fancy stories suffice for Lavie. There is no need to, let’s say, you know, pay attention to facts on the ground. What does it help, seriously?
In the end, B’Tselem fired Atef Abu a-Rub due to Tenenbom’s exposé. It remains to be seen how this impacts the agenda of trying to progress a peace process. Meanwhile, maybe Yael Lavie can use her media position to assist the Holocaust-denying journalist and former researcher Atef Abu a-Rub to get a job as a guide for groups brought to tour Yad Vashem by EU-funded NGOs.
While Catch the Jew! excels at supplying readers with important information about Israel today, its portrayal of Israel yesterday is at times less convincing. Tenenbom depicts the excesses of the Israeli left – which by now have alienated an overwhelming majority of the country’s electorate from openly left-wing parties, and from whose ideology most Israeli politicians publicly distance themselves – as something new, rather than situating them historically.
“I have been out of this country long enough to not feel comfortable with so much self-hatred around me,” he writes after witnessing Itamar Shapira’s guided tour of Yad Vashem. Tenenbom is confounded by “the new Left of Israel: the extremist Left. This is a left I don’t know, a Left as far as one’s left hand can reach.” Earlier in the book, he fondly recalls Hebrew University’s Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who “was the leftist I knew and to whose lectures I went to listen. He had the sharpest of tongues and the most brilliant of minds I knew of, and I wonder if today’s leftists are the same.” After meeting a group of professors, one of whom claims to be an expert on Judaism – though it emerges she has never heard of the Vision of Isaiah – Tenenbom finds his answer: “These professors are no Yeshayahu Leibowitz; they are not worthy to even be his servants.”
His servants? Let us hope not. Leibowitz, however sharp his tongue and for all he might have been acquainted with Jewish texts, was also a forerunner of Holocaust inversion, a prelude to Naomi Klein and José “What is happening in Palestine is a crime we can put on the same plain as what happened at Auschwitz” Saramago, as well as to Itamar Shapira, Jibril Rajoub, and Atef Abu a-Rub. A charlatan who especially appealed to younger people, Leibowitz was as dishonest about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and favored similar verbal tactics. “If we will continue to pursue this state policy, then it is certain we will get to” the level of the Nazis, he declared in Hebrew decades ago. Asked by his interviewer if this included death camps for Arabs, along the lines of Auschwitz, Leibowitz answered: “Even that is possible.” In this, he foreshadowed Saramago’s reply, when asked by a reporter in 2002 where, if Palestine was Auschwitz, the gas chambers were: “Not yet here.” In much of that left-wing world, facts on the ground have long been irrelevant, Jews can be held guilty for crimes their detractors fantasize they will one day commit, and the more excited comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis – who, together with their accomplices, eliminated one third of the world’s Jews in twelve years – the better. “There are Judeo-Nazis!” Leibowitz avowed of Jews in Israel, and “a Nazi mentally is widespread among us.”
At least Haaretz’s Gidon Levy, a fierce leftist detractor of Israel, stresses to Tenenbom: “Here there are no plans to annihilate other nations, no plans to rule over the world, no concentration camps.” I am not coming to defend Levy, whose work one can learn more about in Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini’s Industry of Lies – but Leibowitz, were he alive now, would not be worthy to even be Levy’s servant.
As it happens, Yemini – who himself has argued that “the intense international meddling in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whether by governments or by NGOs,” has “become a major obstacle to the peaceful resolution of this century-long feud” – hesitated to accept its findings when Catch the Jew! was published in Israel: “Tennebaum [sic] is a figurative character with figurative writing. Initially, I thought he was exaggerating, but I was wrong. Tennebaum wasn’t only writing, he also documented everything via photos and recorders.”
A colorful author, Tuvia Tenenbom’s idiosyncratic observations and humor nonetheless rest on careful investigation. With time, Catch the Jew!’s revelations may lead to more than just the firing of Atef Abu a-Rub. And though Tenenbom brings disturbing truths to light and makes Israel’s very difficult circumstances evident, there remains room for more than despair and dismay. The Zionist project has proven astonishingly resilient, despite endless attempts to oppose it and despite a besieging hatred of Jewish sovereignty. Israel will still be here tomorrow.
For more by Shai Afsai on Israel and Zionism, see here.
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