Catch the Jew, which I reviewed at that time. The writing style is the same but this time the target is the United States, rather than Israel. Tenenbom sets out for a trip across the United States to meet people, ask difficult questions and gather material for his assessment of the current American condition. The book was completed before the most recent election but many of Tenenbom's observations and insights were certainly prescient.
Over the course of his six month travels, he manages to visit quite a wide ranging section of the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as a large number of states across the mainland. He meets and speaks with many different types of people including politicians, native American leaders, black and white Americans in all kinds of locations, church leaders and other categories. He asks them pointed questions, and wittily summarizes the responses he receives with his running commentary.
This certainly makes for interesting reading in a style that is light, irreverent, entertaining and often, quite sarcastic. Like Tenenbom's account of his trip across Israel, this is ultimately a pessimistic account, at times arrogant and even patronizing. But it covers a great deal of ground in places where many readers may not have had the chance to visit.
Tenenbom describes his journey in open ended terms. A curious adventure to meet all different kinds of people from Muslims, Jews and Mormons to rednecks, gang-members, religious conservatives and others. Some of the book seems to fit the bill. Daring to go where most people would not, Tenenbom amasses a fairly diverse range of interviewees.
That being said, midway through, I came to view this as more of a Socratic method journey, with questions that were intended to elicit certain responses as opposed to truly open minded discussions.
One of the interesting themes that Tenenbom aims to cover off is to categorize people based on a few select questions. The obvious and easy first question is whether a person is "blue" or "red," in other words Republican or Democrat. This type of starting question seems to get many of the people riled up and marks the discussion as a political one. Some people will only express their opinion if Tenenbom agrees to hide their identity or not record the answers. Others simply refuse to provide any detailed responses.
From there, many of the discussions proceed to questions about Israel/Palestine and questions about global warming and environmentalism. It is a fascinating linkage that Tenenbom proposes, aiming to group people with respect to their views on these two issues along with their approach to smoking restrictions.
Although Tenenbom claims that he "hasn't made up his mind" on the question of whether global warming is real (as opposed to a cyclical phenomenon, that has not been specially affected by human beings), he finds a consistent linkage between those who wish to take action against it and those who claim to support "Palestine" when asked questions about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Splitting these groups on a right/left line, he adds smoking restrictions to the mix.
Tenenbom clearly has little time for those who advocate on the Palestinian side of the spectrum. He views American leftists as hypocritical on this issue. In his view, they call for action against Israel while ignoring so many other conflicts around the world that are far more devastating and while ignoring so many serious U.S.issues including poverty and race relations. Some of this scorn is directed towards American Jewish liberal groups, who spend more time worrying about attacking Israel than about supporting and building their own American Jewish communities. Even though Tenenbom purports to be coming at all of this from the left of the political spectrum, much of his derision is aimed at the left. Quite a bit of it seems aimed at Obama and Kerry in particular.
Tenenbom ties "pro-Palestinians" in with environmentalists and the anti-smoking crowd. It is a strange leap and one that seems awkward, at best. While Tenenbom's explanation for his Pro-Israel leaning is cogent and analyzed reasonably, he has no explanation for his leanings towards anti-environmentalism. His dismissal of global warming concerns seems to be based on gut reaction to the environmentalist crowd rather than any logical discussion of the issues. (And he repeatedly reminds the readers that there is lots of gut...)
But his glorification of smoking is even less compelling. Since Tenenbom is a self-described chain smoker, his assessment of many of the people he meets and places he visits seems tied to whether not they support or oppose smoking limitations. So Seattle, a place with a variety of smoking restrictions is very inhospitable for him. Heck, you can't even smoke in your hotel room, imagine that. On the other hand, in parts of the southern U.S., you can apparently smoke wherever you like, so Tenenbom is much more at home.
As is evident in his first book, Tenenbom is somewhat of a narcissist. His writing about some of his encounters is arrogant and even patronizing. While he sometimes asks difficult questions out of interest, more often the questions are intended to attract a visceral, angry response. He can then ridicule the subject simply by presenting the answers provided.
Tenenbom has very high standards for the type of food he is trying to find which goes along with his search for fine spirits, cannabis, places he can freely smoke and his mainly unsuccessful search for good coffee. There is also a great deal of discussion about his relationship with his car and about guns and gun control laws across the U.S.
Along the way, he also manages to visit a wonderful collection of American parks and natural landmarks. Like in his previous book, these trips to beautiful sites (and to the really good restaurants) seem to be the highlights of his journey rather than the people he actually meets and the interviews he conducts, despite his protestations to the contrary.
In fairness, Tenenbom does ask some pointed questions of those on right, including the religious right and the very far right. Even though people on the religious right often claim to be "Pro-Israel," Tenenbom digs deeper to try and see if he can get them to state that only those Jews who accept Jesus are destined to avoid eternal damnation. He sometimes succeeds. His point is that the veneer of pro-Israel support on the right side of the spectrum often masks a deep rooted anti-Semitism. He also has some less than favourable things to say about Trump and references his own left-leaning political convictions on several occasions.
Interestingly enough, Tenenbom visits very few Synagogues or other Jewish institutions but seems to be in a Church just about every Sunday (as well as many days during the week). He greatly enjoys trips to black churches that he portrays as inspired, spiritually uplifting and meaningful. He is far more critical of other houses of worship, including the Synagogue or two and the many Evangelical churches that he visit.
Overall, the book is entertaining and, at times, insightful. There are many other interesting encounters with places and people that this review does not describe. But there are certainly some nagging concerns about Tenenbom's logic. The hazy clouds of smoke that constantly surround him probably fog up some of his choices on places to choose, people to meet and conclusions to draw. For example, visiting a few centrist, pro-Israel Jewish organizations would probably upset his characterization of American Jews as a largely self-hating.
That being said, one of his pessimistic themes is that America is filled with liars - politicians, everyday people disguising their animosity towards others and people who are simply afraid to stand up for their political views. He warns of an America that has not well integrated its diversity and seems headed towards a boiling point. Written all prior to November, much of this assessment turns out to be all too accurate and provides yet another reason to consider Tenenbom's escapades.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Thursday, January 1, 2015
Tenenbom has quite an interesting resume. In his introduction, he describes himself as having been born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist home, groomed to be the next in a family lineage of rabbis. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he had an extensive ultra-Orthodox religious education. He left that world completely and went to study in the United States, accumulating degrees in computer science, math, theater and literature. From the book, it is apparent that he speaks English, Arabic, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.
In 2012, he published "I Sleep in Hitler's Room," a book in which he detailed his travels across German in the summer of 2010, exposing outrageously high levels of German anti-Semitism, as he saw it. Now, Tenenbom was recruited, as he puts it, to travel across Israel and write a book about his travels. Catch the Jew is a collection of chapters that summarize Tenenbom's interactions, observations and discussions with a very wide range of Israeli and Palestinian characters across Israel. It is witty, irreverent, satirical, and well written.
Although I had a sense that this would be somewhat like Amos Oz's landmark 1993 book "Here and There in the Land of Israel," there were significant differences. Tenenbom's book probably covers a wider range of territory, is significantly more cynical than Oz's and is even more pessimistic. But it is also funnier.
Given Tenenbom's educational and linguistic background, he was able to disguise his identity, somewhat, to gain access to a wider range of subjects, who were apparently somewhat disarmed by the persona that he adopted. So, while travelling throughout the Palestinian Territories and among Israeli-Arab communities in Israel, Tenenbom claimed to be "Toby the German" and spoke only English and German. For other interviews, he could put on a kippah and attend a Friday night dinner with some ultra-Orthodox hosts, using his own real name, Tuvia Tenenbom. At other times, he would simply be Toby or Tobias the German reporter, to gain access to prominent Israeli officials, including members of Israel's Knesset, Palestinian Authority leaders and other writers and well known personalities.
Tenenbom delights in posing difficult questions to his subjects, many of which are apparently quite unexpected. Although purporting to be a German reporter, highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he still manages to ask Palestinian leaders some very uncomfortable questions about the "facts" that they provide him in the course of interviews and discussions. Similarly, he asks pro-Palestinian NGOs all kinds of questions about the work they are doing, the claims they are making and their underlying motives and the answers are often quite fascinating.
Along the way, Tenenbom covers quite a wide variety of ground. He spends some time with anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Rabbis and asks them about many different subjects. He interviews Israeli prostitutes and winds up asking them about their views about Sudanese refugees. He spends some time with Israeli soldiers, wounded Syrians being treated in Israeli hospitals, Bedouins, Palestinians in Ramallah and Jenin and settlers in isolated West Bank settlements. He also speaks to quite a number of Israeli MKs including parliamentarians from several different parties.
Ultimately, Tenenbom offers some very pessimistic predictions for the future of Israel and its society. But along the way, the book includes some very interesting sections.
One of Tenenbom's major targets is the whole range of left-leaning pro-Palestinian NGOs, often funded by German and other European countries as well as American donors. He details the sources of the funds, the types of people working in these organizations and the rampant anti-Semitism that so often permeates these organizations. His targets include the IRC (International Red Cross and Red Crescent), Doctors Without Borders, the New Israel Fund, Adalah and many others. He exposes examples of falsified facts, doctored photographs and videos, hypocrisy, and other ways in which many of these organizations seem to be on a mission to delegitimize Israel. In one shocking example, he follows an Israeli born tour guide named Itamar taking a group of European "fact-finders" on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, at the expense of the EU. The tour guide uses the museum entirely for the purpose of trying to draw parallels between the Holocaust and modern day Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Tenenbom has nothing but scorn and outrage after debunking this type of ridiculous and baseless propaganda.
Tenenbom also attacks what he describes as self-hating Israelis, particularly those who, in his view, spend more time working to benefit the Palestinians than they do trying to improve their own lives. He uses a number of exchanges with some of these leftists to demonstrate their lack of historical and/or biblical knowledge, or the difficulties with a black and white approach that they take to problems that are often far more complex. Some of his harshest attacks are aimed at Israel's major left wing newspaper, Haaretz and some specifically named writers. Another two page missive is aimed at Israeli writer Shlomo Sand. (I reviewed one of Sand's book's on this site here in 2011).
It is worth highlighting this section for a moment. Sand had recently published a book entitled "When and How I stopped being a Jew." Tenenbom attended a gathering with Sand along with a number of left wing Israelis. I couldn't help but include the last few lines of that section of Tenenbom's assessment:
"If you're a self-hater, if you have no capacity to love even yourself, how can you love anybody else? There ain't no room for love in your heart, man, and you had better start living with it. As I sit here and watch these self-haters, I hear a voice within me asking: Is there anybody out there who is brainwashing these Jews to hate themselves? Good question."
Some of Tenenbom's exchanges with Israeli MKs are quite amusing. He ridicules Labor MK Merav Michaeli for a stream of drivel that comes out of her mouth when he asks her to speak about Israeli challenges and her vision for the future of society. He is apparently much more impressed by Ayelet Shaked of "Habayit Hayehudi" party, who, in fairness, is far more coherent than Michaeli in these interviews. Tenenbom's descriptions of meetings with other MKs, including Yitzhak Cohen of Shas and MK Meir Porush of Torah Judaism, are biting and derisive.
There are several themes that appear throughout the book even though this is not an essay or a polemic. One theme involves the type of anti-Semitism to which Tenenbom is exposed as a German reporter when he is with Palestinians and European funded NGOs. He details numerous pro-Nazi comments, and many other exchanges that are targeted far more at Jews as Jews than at any political issues. Tenenbom also raises the very same type of question that Israeli MK Avigdor Lieberman has been asking for years. Why is it that in a Palestinian state - there should no Jews whatsoever (like in some other present day Arab states), whereas the state of Israel should accept and absorb even more Palestinian refugees in its half of the two state solution? Why is a Zionist state "racist" but Muslim states and Christian states are not? Tenenbom raises these questions with Palestinians, NGO workers and others but is not provided with any reasonable answers.
Another of Tenenbom's recurring themes is the enormous resources invested by Germany and other EU countries as well as investments by German donors to fund anti-Israel NGOs, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel films and all kinds of other anti-Israeli activities under the guise of "peace." Tenenbom wonders about where else in the world the Germans and other Europeans are so involved in such activities and poses these questions. He does not receive any reasonable answers.
These themes are strung together with many others in a collection of interviews that cannot be easily portrayed as "right" or "left" wing. There are targets on both sides of the spectrum, right and left, Israeli and Palestinian, religious and secular.
Over the course of his adventures, Tenenbom writes repeatedly about his enjoyment of food, both Israeli and Palestinian. Wherever he goes, he offers comments about the meals that he is served, and even nicer comments if it is accompanied by good whiskey or strong coffee. Certainly in this area, it sounds like he would be a fun guest to have over for a meal, despite his incessant, self-described chain smoking.
But having read the entire book, I am hard pressed to think of very many positive things that he has had to say about any Israelis, on any part of the spectrum. Some of his kindest words are for some hijab-wearing Palestinian women that he met. He also seems to have quite a bit of admiration for Jirbril Rajoub, a Palestinian political and militant figure. Tenenbom admires the fact that Rajoub has acted, unwaveringly, in support of his people. It is precisely this characteristic that Tenenbom finds so sorely lacking among Israeli leftists.
If that were really his viewpoint, one might have thought he could find some centrist, or slightly right of centre Israelis that he could present favourably. But those interviews are sorely lacking.
So ultimately the book is far more negative than positive, in its coverage of just about everything other than the beautiful Israeli landscapes, the food and, perhaps, the ancient history. Although Tenenbom seems to be able to present a reasonably disarming nature to people he meets such that he is able to make friends and gain access, his condescending assessment of just about everyone he meets must ultimately leave readers wondering about the type of person Tenenbom really is.
When Amos Oz wrote his book, as biting as it was in parts, it was written by a person dedicated to working on the various challenges that Israel faces, as difficult as these challenges might seem. While many Israelis might disagree with Oz on a whole range of issues, I would find it quite a stretch to describe Oz with language that is anywhere near "self-hating." Not that Tenenbom says that about Oz, specifically. But it is Tenenbom's general characterization of the Israeli left.
On the other hand, it is far easier to criticize everyone you meet as an outsider. And then to leave and go back to New York or Germany and continue to pose as Toby the German, Toby the Christian or just Toby; anything other than Tuvia the Jew or Tuvia the Israeli.
After finishing the book and considering the themes, as well as Tenenbom's self-described introductory background, I can't help but wonder whether the "self-hating" description is most aptly applied to Tenenbom himself rather than many of the subjects he interviewed. Hard to say. I tend to agree with his arguments regarding many of the subjects. But the "self-hating" description is applied so liberally, to so many, that I started to wonder.