By Amelia Katzen/JNS.org
Alan Dershowitz is fond of pointing out that, were a Martian to land in the middle of the United Nations, he would think that Israel was the worst place on the earth, which is otherwise perfect.
In the recently published “Catch the Jew!” Tuvia Tenenbom is a German journalist playing the role of that Martian, but he lands in middle of the state of Israel. His publisher has given him the assignment of writing about Israel by interviewing its inhabitants over the course of seven months. He arrives in Israel more or less a tabula rasa, a blank slate, with no political agenda or expectations. What does he find? People of all sorts, who are surprising, predictable, infuriating, self-serving, dedicated, funny, sad, uplifting, depressing, and enlightening. There’s something for everyone.
Tenenbom was born in Jerusalem to an ultra-religious and anti-Zionist family, left the fold as a young man to live in the United States, and later moved to Germany, where he works as a journalist. He is fluent in Hebrew, English, German, and Arabic, all of which he uses both as cover and to ingratiate himself as needed with the subjects of his interviews.
Tenenbom talks to Palestinians and Jews, the religious and the secular, leftists and conservatives, Bedouins and settlers, streetwalkers and Members of Knesset. He asks Jews what it means to be an Israeli, Palestinians what it means to live in Israel, Bedouin women what their sex life is like (and can they please invite him inside their house?), NGOs where they get their money. Though they are initially evasive, Tuvia persists, and what they tell him is amazingly revealing.
Tuvia starts his Israeli sojourn with a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. He is puzzled by his inability as either a Jew or a Christian (he tries both identities) to visit the mosques without being denied access by Israeli police or chased away by Arabs. In contrast to other places in the world, he discovers, “Here the ones occupied, the Arabs, dictate to the occupiers, the Jews, that they, the Jews, must protect them, the Arabs, from their brethren, the other Jews, and from the Christians.” This type of insight is typical.
Among the Arabs that “Tobi the German journalist” befriends is General Jibril Rajoub, a charismatic leader jailed more than once by the Israelis for terrorism and previously head of the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence and security apparatus. Jibril invites Tobi to a Palestinian Independence Day party in Bil’in, site of ongoing protests against the separation wall and the star of the film “5 Broken Cameras.”
As it turns out, Tobi is not the only guest, and it’s not exactly a party. He mounts a bus full of European diplomats and NGO workers, some wearing Hermes scarves with their keffiyehs, which takes them to a spot guarded by a handful of Israel Defense Forces soldiers. European journalists set up their cameras in one area; Palestinians are praying in another. An imam incites the crowd, youths start to throw rocks, the soldiers do nothing. Eventually the rocks become boulders, then firebombs. Now the soldiers respond with tear gas, the cameras start to roll, and the party guests run for cover. Once the journalists have enough and begin to pack up, the “protest” ends.
As he travels through Palestinian towns, Tuvia learns that funding for the beautiful homes and Arab cultural centers comes from the European Union (EU), especially Germany. He visits Gerald Steinberg of the NGO Monitor research institute. Of 150 international NGOs operating in Israel, 50 are funded by Germany or German foundations, and all of them are pro-Palestinian. Tuvia wonders why these young Europeans are so dedicated to protecting the Palestinians from Israeli oppression.
Tuvia finds his answer as he follows a group of Italian youths touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, led by an Israeli named Itamar, “a proud ex-Jew.” The educational trip has been arranged by an Italian institution in Milano and paid for by the EU. Tuvia wonders what these Europeans will think about the “Dead Jews’ Museum.” But Itamar the educator does his best to turn the World War II story into a contemporary one, by making comparisons between then and now—that is, between yesterday’s Nazis and today’s Israelis.
Thanks to their guide, at each exhibit, the Italians see the dead Jews of the camps but hear the name “Palestine.” They watch a film of Nazi officers but hear the name Israel. As Tenenbom puts it, the Europeans are “using Yad Vashem, the monument for millions of Jews slaughtered at their hands, as a platform for poisonous propaganda against the survivors of their butchery.”
“Catch the Jew!” is filled with such realizations, small and large. It is at once a breezily written travelogue and a voyage through the political landscape, spotted with ideological landmines at every step. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about Israel, you’ll meet people you never knew existed and you’ll have fun getting to know them. But beware: in June, Tuvia told JNS.org, he will be starting his research for a new book—about the U.S.
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