Catch the Jew, a new book of interest to Jews Apr 2, 2015 22:11:48 GMT -5
Post by shira on Apr 2, 2015 22:11:48 GMT -5
Playing Dumb in Palestine
April 1, 2015 7:11 p.m. ET
Here is the classic recipe for writing about Israelis and Palestinians: start by mentioning the “cycle of violence” and the distrust it has bred between two peoples in a contested holy land. Next speak of the sane moderates on both sides who are willing to compromise and believe in what “everyone” knows to be the reasonable way forward, a two-state solution. Bemoan how “extremists” on the side you dislike are sabotaging prospects for peace. Repeat until the U.S. president calls for a new peace conference, then insist it represents a last chance.
In “Catch the Jew!,” Tuvia Tenenbom eschews this crusty framework. Crisscrossing Israel and the Palestinian Territories over seven months in 2013-14, Mr. Tenenbom meets with high-ranking politicians, celebrated writers, religious leaders, “human rights” professionals, left-wing political activists and West Bank settlers, cajoling Jews and Arabs to speak for themselves. Mr. Tenenbom’s conversations range from the sacred to the profane, from high-level politics to ribald discussions of the dating rituals of various religious groups and ethnicities. “Catch the Jew!” is an illuminating—and alarming—account of a part of the promised land that few foreigners see.
Mr. Tenenbom did this by playing the part of a gentile foreigner even though he was born in Israel to an ultra-Orthodox family. For the past 30 years, Mr. Tenenbom has lived in both Germany, where he writes for the newspaper Die Zeit, and New York, where he is artistic director of the Jewish Theater. It may have been safe for a Jewish New Yorker to visit the turbulent West Bank city of Jenin for a lively chat about politics, but Mr. Tenenbom had no interest in finding out. During his travels he often presented himself as “Tobi the German,” a Falstaffian reporter interested above all in the pleasures of the flesh. He lets others draw the conclusion that, since he is European and particularly German, he must be a great sympathizer with the Palestinian cause. It’s a smart calculation: It turns out that there are more than a few things some Palestinians and Israelis will say to a European gentile but not to a Jew.
“Catch the Jew!” offers one of the more interesting portraits of Palestinian politics to have appeared in English. Mr. Tenenbom rarely hears the language of compromise in the Fatah-ruled West Bank. Talking to politicians, activists and business owners, he listens to frequent denunciations of Israeli fascism and even praise for Nazis—and this without having spoken to any self-proclaimed members of Hamas. From Mr. Tenenbom’s pages, the current Palestinian leadership appears fairly shrewd (though apparently not shrewd enough to perform background checks on visitors), nepotistic, obsessed with theatrical PR productions of alleged Israeli crimes, but also surprisingly satisfied with the status quo.
Catch the Jew!
By Tuvia Tenenbom
Gefen, 467 pages, $24.95
Eliciting floods of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, the “Occupation” has not been quite so bad for prominent Palestinian politicians like Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association and an éminence grise of the ruling Fatah Party. According to Mr. Tenenbom, he owns several homes and carries around heavy gold-plated business cards protected by nylon coverings.
The effects of foreign money—particularly European—in little Israel is another major theme of “Catch the Jew!” Following some interesting leads, Mr. Tenenbom discovers how “human rights” and foreign-funded “cultural” organizations in Israel are more often than not mere vehicles to attack the Jewish state. A director of one foreign-funded Israeli cultural NGO, the New Fund for Cinema and TV, estimates that 80% of political documentaries made in Israel are co-produced by Europeans. A documentary called “10%—What Makes a Hero,” which equates the Israel Defense Forces with the Nazis, was funded by Germany and Switzerland and produced by a Jewish Israeli. No contemporary German would dare make this movie him- or herself, says Mr. Tenenbom, but German-sponsored NGOs apparently have no objections to paying left-wing Israelis to make such movies themselves.
Mr. Tenenbom naturally has the best access to “thought leaders” of Israeli society. His portrait here is exceptionally tough. He meets Gideon Levy, a star columnist on “Palestinian affairs” for Israel’s most important daily, Ha’aretz, and finds that he speaks no Arabic but freely admits that Jews have “racist” DNA. Asked to define “an Israeli,” Aliza Lavie, a member of parliament from the centrist Yesh Atid party, can muster no better an answer than “a human who wants to live, to get ahead, to survive.” It’s hard to find an Israeli in Mr. Tenenbom’s book who seems fully alive to the political challenges the country is confronting.
Mr. Tenenbom’s often-charming vignettes thus produce a bleak conclusion: The Jewish state faces concerted efforts to undermine it from domestic and foreign threats. Yet its cultural and intellectual elites are too myopic or deluded to see those threats for what they are.
Is this an accurate account of contemporary Israel? Not completely. Absent from “Catch the Jew!” is any reference to Israel’s native economic dynamism in recent years. Case in point: The country’s high-tech industry and its sound economic policy during the recent financial crisis have won global plaudits, even in pro-Palestinian Europe. For this story one has to turn to Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s “Start-Up Nation” (2009).
And the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu by a wide margin further suggests that the Israeli public might not be as naive about security challenges as the country’s elites. On the Palestinian side, Mr. Tenenbom meets many politicians willing to roll out the old anti-Israel canards but none of the (admittedly few) Palestinian dissidents who are bravely working to expose the fecklessness and corruption of the Palestinian leadership. The situation is not quite as bleak as Mr. Tenenbom suggests.
That said, no reader of “Catch the Jew!” can come away having failed to learn many new things about Israelis and Palestinians, two peoples we talk about so much but understand so little.
Mr. Rogachevsky is a writer in New York.