Tuvia Tenenbom is one of a kind, as is this extraordinary book. Born in Israel and the son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi, Tenenbom rebelled. He left both Israel and religious orthodoxy, obtained advanced degrees in mathematics and literature, founded the Jewish Theater in New York—for which he has written sixteen plays—and became a columnist in German and English.
Catch the Jew! depends on Tenenbom’s talents as both con man and chameleon. He writes: "Yes, I have this strange habit: I enjoy playing with nationalities. By a chance of nature, I have an unidentifiable accent and miraculously people believe me when I tell them that I’m Austrian, Bulgarian, Chinese, or whatever country I happen to fancy at the moment." His ability to pose as various characters helps to give this book its fresh, off-beat slant despite the darkness of its subject matter. His most successful disguise is as Tobi the German, who wins the instant friendship of every Arab he meets, all of whom admire Hitler.
Tenenbom puts his gifts to work wandering around Israel (including the territories administered by the Palestinian Authority) with one target high in his sights: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. An Israeli lieutenant colonel tells Tenenbom that there are roughly 400 of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. All of them are pro-Palestinian. The United States is the No. 1 funder, with Germany coming in second. But there is an important difference. The American NGOs are funded largely by private donors, the George Soros’s of the world. But in Germany, Tenenbom writes, for the most part NGOs "are funded by political parties—or by Church-related organizations that are funded by the government, which means that German NGOs are funded by the taxpayer, millions of taxpayers."
Support comes not just from Germans but from all of Europe. An Arab NGO worker from Bethlehem tells Tenenbom, "In Palestine the economy is NGO. Palestine is an NGO country. We call it ‘NGO Palestine.’ Who pays our government leaders? NGOs. Almost nothing is manufactured here, nothing grows here or is produced here except for NGOs. That’s it."
Of the hundreds of NGOs, Tenenbom reserves special distaste for the one which ironically has the most unsullied reputation, the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tenenbom says the ICRC instigates Arabs against Jews and does what it can to limit Israeli response to provocations. It has "observer status" in the UN and the Security Council has accepted its interpretation of various international laws. Tenenbom finds it incredible that a group with an unelected all-Swiss board whose meetings are held in private should have such clout. Tenenbom is caustic:
When you drive a Red Cross car in Israel, you feel powerful. Nobody stops a Red Cross car. This is no ambulance, dear; this is a Swiss machine that turns you into a King Herod. When you are inside a Red Cross car, you look at Israeli soldiers with spite, like one would look at a slave. You’re the ruler here, not them.
Tenenbom deals with some dark material and he does his best to keep it light as he wanders across the Holy Land in search of an answer as to why the Europeans, who he remembers as people who loved to soak up the sun on the Tel Aviv beach, should now "fully dressed … run around in an obsessive search for a bad Jew." He stumbles upon his answer while visiting the Red Sea resort of Eilat. He meets Zoltan, a street comedian, who has built his bike with a reversed steering rod so that right is left and left is right. He bets people to ride his bike, and all of them fail, even though the mechanism is explained to them. Habit is too hard to break. And it’s here that Tenenbom hits on his theory, which is probably as good as any when it comes to explaining anti-Semitism. It’s force of habit:
For me, it took this Zoltan to make me understand why the Europeans are not coming to Israel for its beaches anymore. It’s much more exciting to catch a Jew than to catch the sun. It’s called habit. You can pause your hatred because of an uncomfortable Auschwitz moment, as the Europeans did a few decades ago, but to completely erase the habit of hatred is a much harder task.
Tenenbom also zeroes in on self-hating Jews. He accompanies Itamar, an Israeli tour guide who takes Italian teens to visit Arab villages he says the Israelis destroyed and then to Yad Vashem, where he compares Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust. Itamar describes himself as an "ex-Jew." Tenenbom meets another specimen in Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, whose recent book is titled, When and How I Stopped Being a Jew. One can’t help wishing that these "ex-Jews" could be barred from using their status as "Jews" to give credibility to their attacks on Israel.
Tenenbom is especially effective when exposing the ignorance of Israel’s Jewish left. He talks to columnist Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz (Israel’s equivalent of the New York Times), who endlessly castigates Israel in his columns for mistreating the Palestinians. It turns out Levy doesn’t really know the Palestinians. "All my friends are Israelis. I don’t have one Palestinian friend," he says. He doesn’t even know Arabic, though Tenenbom does.
Tenenbom also meets Udi Aloni, the son of former Israeli leftwing politician Shulamit Aloni, who dreams of the end of the Jewish State. He too doesn’t speak Arabic. "He loves the Palestinians not for what they are, since he doesn’t really know them, but for what they are not: they are not Jews, they are the Jews’ enemies, and this makes them fantastic people." Writes Tenenbom: "It is mind-boggling to me how people who say they love Palestinians so much and dedicate their lives for preserving Palestinian identity and culture, don’t even entertain the thought of studying this culture."
The point Tenenbom makes is that no one is really in it for the Palestinians. If it weren’t for the fact that they are fighting Jews, no one would care—not the Europeans and not the Jews who hate the Jews.
For all the many virtues of this book, it is unsettling that Tenenbom seems to lack a political compass. He hates phonies. For him the lowest of the low are the Jewish anti-Zionists, the NGOs and others who pretend to be something they are not. His sympathies lie with the "authentic," whoever they may be. Take Jibril Rajoub, a high-ranking official in the Palestinian Authority. He wants to wipe Israel off the map. But Tenenbom says he loves him because "this man has pride. He has no shame. He loves his people." Tenenbom is fixated on this point. He writes: "I personally love the Palestinians … because the Palestinians have pride in their identity." To be a Jew and love Palestinians means overlooking an awful lot. If Tenenbom wanted to emphasize the importance of authenticity he could have just as easily made the point through a Jewish settler he writes about, named Moses. He, too, is proud, without shame, and loves his people.
One gets the impression that Tenenbom relates to Rajoub more than Moses because in Rajoub he sees a kindred spirit: a fellow con man—one who hands out hefty gold-plated business cards. Tenenbom writes: "Jibril and I feel good together. We connect. And he shows it. He tells me he would like to go off record from now on, and just talk man to man." Rajoub is also a terrorist who spent years in Israeli prisons, and if he found out Tenenbom was a Jew, not to mention playing him, it’s unlikely Tenenbom would last long. And that’s why no one has written a book like this. What Tenenbom is doing is dangerous. It takes courage to con someone like Rajoub, himself a master con artist, and Tenenbom needs to be commended for having such guts.
The book conveys a depressing message. Tenenbom shows that anti-Semites feel compelled to pursue the Jew; having wiped out the ones in their own lands they go looking for more, so strong is their passion. Although Tenenbom doesn’t point it out, his work reveals one of Zionism’s failures—a movement that in most respects has been a great success. Zionism’s founders, starting with Theodor Herzl, had hoped that anti-Semitism would pass with the founding of a Jewish State. What they didn’t foresee was that anti-Semites would give chase.
Tenenbom ends on a pessimistic note: "If logic is any guide, Israel will not survive. Besieged by hate from without and from within, no land can survive for very long." But when reading this book it’s important to remember the majority of Jews in Israel who serve their country quietly and proudly and sacrifice a great deal to do so. One hopes that silent majority, the Jews who aren’t in this book, will be enough to tip the scales in favor of Israel’s survival.
Published under: Book reviews