Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts
Showing posts with label United States. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom: A Review

Tuvia Tenenbom's new book, The Lies They Tell, is a natural follow-up to his 2015 offering, 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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving: The U.S., Canada and Israel

In a recent video, comedian Seth Rogen complained that he was deprived of celebrating Thanksgiving while growing up in Canada because he was Jewish:

There is actually some truth to this.  For the most part, Canadian Jews do not normally celebrate Thanksgiving.  But there are some reasons for this.  Canadian Thanksgiving differs from American Thanksgiving in at least two key respects. 

1.  Timing.  Timing can be everything.  Canadian Thanksgiving is much earlier in the year than American Thanksgiving.  It takes place in mid-October.  If you happen to be Jewish, that might create some problems.  Thanksgiving can fall on Yom Kippur, on Sukkot or on other Jewish Holy Days.  It might be Rosh Hashanah or it might be Simchat Torah.  So trying to celebrate an annual holiday of festive eating might be quite problematic if it frequently occurs on Yom Kippur, a fast day.  Jewish people are not the only one with the concerns.  October Thanksgiving can also coincide with the Hindu holiday of Diwali or even the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.  Since Diwali, like Jewish holidays, runs according to a solar-adjusted lunar calendar, Diwali is much more likely to fall on Thanksgiving.  Overall, having the holiday take place in mid-October is bound to create problems for some religious and cultural groups.

2.  Multi-Culturalism.  Canadian Thanksgiving has simply never reached the status of a universally celebrated holiday in the way that American Thanksgiving has.  Perhaps the fact that it is on a Monday rather than a Thursday influences its national status.  But I think it has much more to do with the fact that Canada is more of a multicultural society than a melting pot.  There is little sense that Thanksgiving is truly a "national" holiday as it is in the U.S.  There is no real sense, in Canada, that one must celebrate Thanksgiving to be "Canadian."   Seth Rogen jokingly complains in his video that his parents told him that Jews did not celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada.  He says that they "lied to him."  But his parents were probably right.  As he points out, he really only came to celebrate Thanksgiving when he moved to the U.S., where Thanksgiving is one of the two or three most universally celebrated national holidays.  While I know one or two Jewish Canadians who actually have a Thanksgiving dinner, the vast majority of Jewish people do not celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada.

What About Israel?

There is a significant expatriate American community in Israel and many of them are more than happy to celebrate Thanksgiving.  After all, there is something appealing about the notion of a family-oriented holiday that emphasizes giving thanks for all of the great things we are able to enjoy in our lives.  While living in Israel, we have been invited to a few Thanksgiving dinners in Israel, hosted by Americans - or at least couples with one American spouse.  Any time I have the opportunity to get together with friends and family and eat turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin soup (all kosher, of course) - while drinking some great wine - I am hard pressed to pass up that kind of evening.

Some Israelis I know are somewhat opposed to the idea.  If Thanksgiving represents the thanks, as they see it, for the great life in America, how can that be reconciled with the Zionist dream and the notion that Israel is the true homeland of the Jewish people?  Interesting question.  But let's face it - it is hard to deny that the United States is truly one of the greatest nations in the world.  The vibrancy of its democracy, the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the struggle to achieve greater equality are all values promoted by the United States and its ideals.  These are wonderful concepts that are worth celebrating.  Americans are lucky and blessed to be living in a free society.  I don't see a clash between Jewish values and the celebration of Thanksgiving.  As Seth Rogen points out in his video, people get together with their close friends and family, eat a lot and then complain.  What could be more Jewish?

Perhaps Canada will move its version of Thanksgiving to coincide with the American celebration. That would certainly make it more likely that it would be more widely celebrated in the Jewish community.  After all, Canadians also have much to celebrate with the opportunity to live in a truly free society.  But I'm not sure that Israelis will ever really embrace the idea.  We already have so many Jewish holidays.  In Israel, we can wait a few more weeks and start eating donuts and potato latkes while lighting candles and celebrating Chanukah.  Besides, good turkeys are much harder to come by in Israel.  (By the way, Thanksgiving actually took place on the first night of Chanukah last year, leading many American Jews to come up with Thanksgukah recipes....)

But for the closing word on Thanksgiving, I have to defer to potty-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman (2010 video), who has a different take on the holiday (You tube has apparently taken the video down - so here is a working link).  (It is worth watching...)

Although her video is crude at parts, Sarah Silverman manages to touch on some very important topics including cruelty to animals, vegetarianism and the American historical treatment of America's Native communities.  These are issues that resonate for many Americans as they celebrate the holiday.  But although Thanksgiving is becoming overrun with Black Friday hype and shopping craziness, there is still much to be said for a holiday that causes people to think about the many things in life for which they are or should be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those who are celebrating it - in the U.S., Canada, Israel - and anywhere else.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The U.S. Election, Obama, Netanyahu and Israel

So after four years of run-up, the U.S. election came and went yesterday.  Although the electoral college system is quirky and flawed, the U.S. still ranks among a fairly small number of truly democratic nations that hold properly democratic elections and transfer power peacefully.  Election night is a great evening (or morning) of television drama and can be quite suspenseful some years.  While things were uncertain at some points last night, there was definitely an early sense that it was going to be President Obama's night, even while Ohio and Florida remained unpredictable.  By the end of the night, Governor Romney gracefully accepted that the American people had spoken and lauded the American democratic system. 

Israel shares that great democratic tradition with the U.S. and other distinguished company and will go to the polls in January 22, 2013, although as of the writing of this blog entry it appears that the political landscape in Israel is not likely to change any more dramatically than the U.S. changed as a result of its 2012 election.

The whole topic of Israel and the Middle East attracted quite a bit of interest during this U.S. campaign., probably more so than many previous campaigns.  Like in the case with many other issues in this U.S. election, particularly social issues, people's views were very polarized.  There were those, like vice Presidential candidate Ryan and Governor Romney himself, trying to portray President Obama as someone who had "thrown Israel under the bus."  On the other side, there were those like former World Jewish Congress Chair Edgar Bronfman, who staunchly defended President Obama as a great friend of Israel.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to have gotten himself involved in the campaign in a very partisan and unprecedented fashion and this may not have been such a great tactic for ongoing Israeli-U.S. relations even though it might assist Prime Minister Netanyahu in his dealings with his domestic constituency.

In looking at President Obama's record in his first term, it does seem odd and uncomfortable, to say the least, that the President would fly to the Middle East and visit Egypt - in a very apologetic way - and not find the time to visit Israel. While I appreciate that President Obama visited Israel before the 2008 election (and it is fair to say that his trip was better planned and more graceful than Romney's visit this year), he should have found the time to visit Israel at some point during his first term.  Hopefully, he will visit soon.

It was also unhelpful, to say the least, to lay all of the blame for the failed peace negotiations on Israel by insisting that the first step that must be taken, as a precondition for any negotiation is a building freeze.  President Obama realized this and backtracked somewhat.  But his call for a return to 1967 borders also seemed to be handled in a deliberately provocative way even though he added "with mutually agreeable land swaps" to the phrasing.  At the time time, Prime Minister Netanyahu's response was predictably excessive and seemed intended to further the rift with the U.S. President.  Despite all of this, most analysts who are genuinely interested in a peaceful solution recognize that the eventual result will have to be a two state solution with mutually agreeable land swaps.  This is even a solution that the present Israeli government has endorsed - and certainly the kind of solution that former President Bill Clinton pushed so hard to achieve, while remaining extremely popular in Israel.

Another source of tension between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama has been the issue of Iran.  President Obama has overseen a series of very significant sanctions imposed on Iran in an effort to cease the Iranian nuclear program.  Yet despite these sanctions, it is far from clear that the sanctions will actually result in Iran dismantling its program.  So it does seem reasonable for Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he proposed at the U.N. to ask that the world draw a "red line" beyond which other means may become necessary if Iran continues to develop a nuclear program.  Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney were willing to stake out a "red-line" position and in the third U.S. debate, their positions on this issue sounded very similar if not identical.  It may well be naive, given Iran's history, to assume that Iran will concede its position as a result of the sanctions or that this plan of action will actually stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons.  But it is unclear whether any U.S. president would support Israel in conducting a pre-emptive attack at this time.

It may well be the the source of tension is also related to a personality clash between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama or a perception of policy direction rather than actual policies that have been implemented.  In fact, the level of strategic, military and economic cooperation between Israel and the United States is it one of its highest points ever and the two countries remain very close allies and friends.

In Israel, the perception of antipathy towards Israel by President Obama apparently translated into a voting trend by absentee American voters living in Israel choosing to vote for Governor Romney by a margin as high as 85% to 15%.  Of course, the explanation that has been suggested by some is that a significantly high percentage of American expatriates living in Israel are observant Orthodox Jews who might also share some of the social policy preferences of the Republican party and are likely to vote for "right wing" parties in Israel.  I am fairly confident that if one were to poll Conservative (Masorti) and Reform American Jews living in Israel, the results would be quite different.

On the other hand, President Obama apparently carried close to 70% of the Jewish vote in the United States itself.  While some suggest that this is because many American Jews are apathetic about Israel, I don't think this is the real explanation.  American Jews tend to share many policy preferences on a whole range of social issues with the Democrats rather than the Republicans (ranging from abortion and gun control to who might be the most suitable candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court).  Further, while many of these American Jews are staunchly supportive of Israel, that is not necessarily synonymous with being staunchly supportive of all of Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies.  In fact, many very committed Israelis have views about the peace process and other matters that are diametrically opposed to those of Israel's current Prime Minister.  Overall, most American Jews probably prefer Edgar Bronfman's viewpoint that President Obama is, and will continue to be a strong friend of Israel rather than the rhetoric that was coming from the likes of Sheldon Adelson.

Even though President Obama has vowed to continue the strong relationship between Israel and the United States, there are certainly areas of concern.  The tension over Iran's nuclear program will heat up as Iran draws closer to its goals.  The continuing absence of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is also a sore spot and one that is potentially explosive.  And the personal tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has probably been exacerbated after Netanyahu's failed efforts to bolster Governor Romney's campaign.
The tension even increase further if President Obama chooses to become as involved in the Israeli election as Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the American election.

Yet, it seems to me that with all of this said, the best thing that President Obama could do in the area of Mideast policy, would be to plan a visit to Israel, Jordan and the area governed by the Palestinian Authority at a fairly early stage in his second term.  With a short but meaningful visit, President Obama could send a confidence boosting message to the Israeli public and to the Palestinians that would probably help him regain some of the trust he would need to oversee a peace deal successfully.