You wouldn’t think, to look at Tuvia Tenenbom, that it could work. That his shtick could work.
But it does.
Tuvia is a large, rumpled, unmissable man, a big guy with bright yellow hair and florescent-rimmed glasses, usually in an untucked, blindingly, billowingly white shirt, surrounded by a near-constant fug of cigarette smoke. He’s almost like a 3-D cartoon character, out in the real world.
He approaches the world with childlike innocence, an endearing naivete, a limpid desire to make sense of the incomprehensible people into whose paths he wanders, an open interest in sharing good food and good drink and good talk with them. He asks clear, straightforward questions, then asks follow-up questions, and often gets them to say the most extraordinary things, as he looks at them with unblinking wonder.
It’s a brilliant approach to reporting, if you have the guts for it.
Tuvia is an Israeli-born Jew — born into a very religious family in Bnai Brak — who has spent a great deal of time living in the United States and in Germany; he’s studied science, literature, and theater, and he brings that omnivorous curiosity about everything in the world with him (although he hides the knowledge and experience). As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, he’s attuned to lies and both external and internal cover-ups.
Tuvia’s approach to journalism has taken him in search of anti-Semitism in Germany and intolerance in the United States, among other targets and places. Most recently, he’s gone back to Germany, where he looked at how that country handles immigration. The results are chronicled in his new book, “Hello, Refugees!”
“Germany is the most liberal of liberal countries,” Tuvia said. “It accepted more refugees than any other country.” Germany’s rhetoric is warm and welcoming, he added. “But what is it like when the camera is off? When the journalists leave? When you sneak into the refugee camps when the government doesn’t know that you are there?” That’s what the book is about. “You see that the refugees are treated like animals. If they have running water, it is brown. You see that over and over again.”
To understate, the United States is not welcoming refugees right now. Europe in general, and Germany in particular, is. Literal boatloads of them. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in the last few years. But “they are treated miserably,” Tuvia said. We are deluding ourselves about the split between the U.S. and Europe. It is a fake split.”
The question of what to do with refugees is a real one, he continued. “The refugee is at the heart of the crisis between those who want to be globalists and those who want to be nationalists.”
And then, of course, as the brilliant 1960s-era satirist Tom Lehrer told us decades ago, in “National Brotherhood Week,” “everybody hates the Jews.”
But I get ahead of myself.
“Hello, Refugees!” is Tuvia’s first-person reporting on what he saw in Germany, where he said that he was a Jordanian (despite looking unlike at least the popular idea of what a Jordanian might possibly look like, which does not include blue eyes or yellow hair) and interviewed German officials, opposition leaders, activists, and refugees. His trip was prompted by his curiosity about how Germany, which accepts more refugees than any other European country, actually treats them.
He walked into many of the camps where the refugees live; often he was not allowed in, but he befriended refugees, who sort of half-snuck him inside anyway. He found grotesque conditions; the Germans seemed to want the refugees, or at least did not want to turn them away, but they were more interested in warehousing them and in getting the credit for their big-hearted goodness than in attempting to integrate them into German society. And of course there are good as well as bad reasons for that.
It is not accidental that it is Germany that takes in so many refugees. The lessons of World War II and the Holocaust — filtered through a particularly German sensibility — demand that Germany do so, to attempt to redeem itself. But it can only go so far.
“They want to welcome the stranger, but they don’t want the stranger once the stranger is inside,” Tuvia said. “What is important for Jews to realize is that here is the most liberal country in the world, but when I walk through it with Arabs and with good Germans, I hear more anti-Semitism from the good Germans than from the Arabs. These people — they’re tall, they look good, they go to the gym, they say welcome welcome welcome, but they still can’t stand Jews.
“Many Germans would say to me, ‘We are the best people. We proved ourselves to be human. Unlike the Israelis! Unlike the Jews! You give the Jews a country, and see how they behave. They kill everyone.’
“To be a real liberal is very tough,” he added. “It means that not only do you have to accept everyone who comes in and is different from you, you also have to accept that everyone has a right to his or her opinions, which means that I shouldn’t hate you because of your ideas. It’s very hard to live life like that. It’s almost impossible.”
One of the main lessons that Tuvia got from this adventure — a lesson he’s gotten from just about all of his adventures — is that people are people. Doesn’t sound very profound, does it? But it’s true. And it means that the people to whom he talks will exhibit the full range of human behavior. “It’s not really a fight between good people and bad people,” he said. “It’s a fight between people.”
The world is now overflowing with refugees, fleeing not only political unrest and outright war but also the upheaval caused by climate change, Tuvia said. And conservatives are right; large numbers of refugees do change the cultures that give them refuge. “So we either allow refugees to die, by not accepting them, or we allow them to come in, and they kill our cultures.” Bleak, no? “Those are our options,” he said. “There are no good choices. This is what the world has to decide.”
It used to be different, he said. Not better, but different. “We used to give that decision to kings and queens and dukes and they brought in more people if they needed them, and if they needed fewer people they would just kill them. We can’t do that now. If the climate changes — Africa is drying up — where are the people going to go? They are going to go to Europe, and they will change the culture there, whether we like it or not.
“So Germany decided to open the door.”
When he is working on a book, Tuvia talks to everyone who will talk to him. (To be fair, Tuvia always talks to anyone who wants to talk to him, and a lot of his talking actually is listening. That part of his persona, the part that loves engaging with other people, is real. So is the warmth. That’s why it works so well.)
“I interviewed some real Nazis,” he said. “I interviewed the top leader of the party. I had a great time with him. You don’t like or dislike people because of what they think.
“I think that maybe, because I come from a talmudic background, I know that when you study the Talmud there is always a layer beneath the layer beneath the layer. You have to go there to find the real truth. I use some of those techniques.
“I really do approach people with love, and they trust me. I am also able to guide them into telling me what they really think.
“At the bottom of every human being we really are the same. Even if you are really smart or really dumb, we all guard ourselves. My job is to find out what you really think. Who you really are.”
Still, he said, Jews are different — or at least according to the outside world Jews are different. “It always comes back to the Jews,” he said. He finds many Germans who spew anti-Semitism, when they think it is safe, or even when they think they have no need to be safe, because what they say is so self-evidently true.
But as grim as much of his message is, Tuvia Tenenbom, with his bright colors and open ears and wide-open eyes, does not despair. “It is impossible that one group of people is all good and another group is all bad,” he said. “It is important to realize that. So I don’t get depressed. I just say okay.
“I believe I have to think for myself,” said the man who listens to everything that everyone else says and is entirely unafraid to report it back. “It is important for me not to be part of a herd. I do not believe in a herd mentality.”
If you really want to be frightened, think of an entire herd of Tuvia Tenenboms. That is not something it would be easy to unsee. So, instead, think about his message. Immigration poses real dangers, immigrants are real people — who like all of us deserve to be heard and seen and allowed to live in peace and dignity — nothing is all good or all bad, and life is hard.
So let’s talk, and let’s listen, and also, always, let’s eat.
Who: Tuvia Tenenbom
What: Will speak, mainly about his last book, “Catch the Jew”
Where: At the Young Israel of Fort Lee, 1610 Parker Ave.
When: On Monday, August 13, at noon
For more information: (201) 592-1518