Master of disguise

Master of disguise

Unmistakable Tuvia Tenenbom, journalist extraordinaire, discusses his sad findings about Israel, Europe, Germany, and anti-Semitism

When you try to imagine a crusading journalist, someone who would go undercover, assume false identities, pretend to be someone other than who he is, you probably would imagine someone who does not look like Tuvia Tenenbom.

You might expect a master of disguise, able to change his appearance at will, or maybe someone nondescript, mousy, too boring to describe.

That’s not Tuvia.

Tuvia — who will speak at Temple Emanu-el of Closter this Shabbat morning — is not tall, but he is broad; when I met him, he wore a white billowy button-down shirt, open enough to display the thick gold chain around his neck, wild-and-crazy-guy style. His thicket of hair is an unlikely yellow, his glasses a lovely pink. A near-visible fog of cigarette smoke surrounds him at all times, even when he is not smoking.

Tuvia not only loves to smoke, he loves to eat; even more than that, it seems, he loves to explore, to ask questions, to ask forbidden questions, to follow paths that intrigue him, and to explore them even more avidly once they are marked as off limits to him.

Tuvia — he uses first names for everyone he interviews in his book, “Catch the Jew,” so I think I will too — is a native Israeli, although he left decades ago and now divides his time between Germany, where he is a columnist for Die Zeit; New York; and airplanes and hotels in other parts of the world, alluded to with a hand-wave but not listed. The degrees he earned from Touro College and New York University in literature and mathematics, and the work he does as the founder and executive director of the Jewish Theater of New York, have provided him with a unique set of tools as a journalist.

Tuvia has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. He knows a great deal about Arab culture, and he speaks fluent Arabic.

Tuvia, aka Tobi the German, drapes his arm around his friend-for-a-day-or-so, Jibril Rajoub, and waves a Palestinian flag. They are in the village of Bil’in.
Tuvia, aka Tobi the German, drapes his arm around his friend-for-a-day-or-so, Jibril Rajoub, and waves a Palestinian flag. They are in the village of Bil’in.

Those facts, along with his academic background, gave him the tools he needed when his publisher sent him to Israel to write an impressionistic book about what he saw there. “The fact that I studied computer science and literature added a lot,” he said. “It showed me that everything has a reason.”

In “Catch the Jew,” which has been described — accurately — as a work of gonzo journalism, Tuvia went all over the country, touring both the obvious places and the places no one goes. When he spoke to Jews, he was Jewish; when he was with Palestinians or the European NGO volunteers or staffers with whom he spent a great deal of time, he was Tobi the German, or occasionally Tobias the Austrian.

That’s where the theatrical background came in. Tuvia always played a part, even if the part he was playing was himself.

At first, Tuvia’s Die Zeit-sponsored trip was light-hearted; at the beginning of his book, his absolutely deadpan prose, all short sentences and affectless wonder, poked fun at everyone. Soon, though, his mood darkens.

al quds
Tobi the German (or was it the Austrian?) poses in front of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis. A partial list of funders is on the wall behind him.

To be blunt — because the book is 463 pages but this piece is not — “the real story is the international campaign that puts Israel in the worst light,” Tuvia said. “What I found out is that the European human rights activists are doing their best to destabilize Israel, to teach the Palestinians how to fight Jews, and if they don’t hate them enough, to make them hate them more.”

Yes, this sounds like standard right-wing rhetoric, but the thing is, Tuvia is not a standard right-winger. In fact, he is not a right-winger at all, and this is not at all what he expected to find. “I didn’t have an ax to grind,” he said.

Tuvia’s reporting style is to begin somewhere, with someone, and then to follow the story from person to person, from recommendation to recommendation, introduction to introduction.

From a Jewish woman he met at a Jerusalem dinner party, Tuvia wangled a meeting with Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO spokesperson, at her office in Ramallah. There, he previews for the reader the technique he will use throughout the book. Columbo-like, he asks questions so obvious that generally no one asks them, and that the person to whom he is talking does not at all want to answer.

Ms. Ashrawi, for example, is Christian. She does not like to discuss the status of Christians in Ramallah — they used to make up about 20 percent of the population, but now are down to about 2 percent.

Instead, because she believed that he was a German Christian, she connected him to other Palestinians. “That opened the door,” he said. “I was Tobi the German — who cared about last names? The moment people like you, they like you.”

He met many Palestinians, as well as many Europeans who were in Israel to do earnest good work for the non-governmental agencies Tuvia gradually came to see as damaging for Israel. He admired much of what he saw as Palestinian culture, particularly its pride. Israeli Jews have much less of that pride, he says.

Those Palestinians knew him as Tobi. Did it take courage for him to meet them as he pretended to be someone he wasn’t? “Did I risk my life?” he asked rhetorically. “You bet I did. Every time. But you can’t think about it. If they found out who I was, I would be dead. Palestine is Judenrein.”

In Dimona, Tuvia stands with Theodor Herzl, who does not talk back.
In Dimona, Tuvia stands with Theodor Herzl, who does not talk back.

He told a story about an adventure — excuse me, an exercise in journalism — in Jordan. “Someone invited my wife and me. We were with about 20 people, and in the middle of it, the host looks at me, and says” — here Tuvia flicks at his ear — “‘Your ear. I think, from your ear, that you are not a German. You are a German Jew.’ And everybody stops eating and looks at me.

“What will I say? Will I deny it? If I say that I’m Jewish, of course, it’s all over. So I look at him, and I say, ‘You. You have thin lips. Who has thin lips?

“‘Homos have thin lips. Gays. You are a homo. And who are the homos? Jews. Jews are homos. So what are you doing in this holy land of Islam?’

“Everybody starts looking at him. In fact, he does not really have thin lips, and gays do not have thin lips anyway, but in that culture, what you say, what comes out of your mouth, becomes reality. I said he has thin lips — so he has thin lips. In that moment I made it up — I made it all up — and it became reality.”

Tuvia reports from the field, not via press release; here, he is with a Bedouin family.
Tuvia reports from the field, not via press release; here, he is with a Bedouin family.

How did he get out of it? He had to allow both of them to save face. “I thought about who hates the Jews. I thought of the Poles! So I said, ‘My father was a Polish priest.’ And he says, ‘Ah, now I see. You are Polish! Welcome, brother!’’

Why does he do these things?

“My job as a journalist is not to take things at face value.

“I have been to events that journalists write about, but I am the only one from the press who is there. Everyone else is on the bus, and the next day they write about what happened from a press release. That is not journalism.”

When he was in Israel, Tuvia went to places other journalists did not go. “Not the left-wing journalists, and not the right-wing journalists,” he said. “Both sides are ideologues, and both make up facts. But how can you write about people you don’t know?”

Among the many things he saw, he said, is that “Hebron is a booming city.” Journalists are shown the 3 percent of the city that is desperately poor. That is where the few Jews who stay there live; the stores there are all closed and there are few signs of life. The rest of the city is dotted with villas built with donated European money, he said. And what is true of Hebron is true of Jericho and Ramallah as well, he added. “All you have to do is go there, and you will see it.”

Of course, it is not easy for Jews to go there.

Tuvia reports from the field, not via press release; here, he is with a Bedouin family.
Tuvia reports from the field, not via press release; here, he is with a Bedouin family.

Among the Palestinians with whom he spent time was Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian militant. “When I interview a person, the first thing I say is, ‘Please tell me if you will allow me to interview you,’” Tuvia said. “‘What you will say will be in the book.’ That is the only official thing I say. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds before we are talking to each other like human beings.

“It is hard to interview someone you don’t like. No matter what their political persuasion, it is hard.

“I liked Jibril a lot. I connected with him on very deep levels. He wants to kill me today — he tried to lure me to Ramallah when the book came out — but I still like him, even despite that.”

The result of all the interviews was an understanding that Tuvia did not expect and does not want.

“I am not a right-winger and I am not a left-winger and I am not a centrist. I don’t believe in anything except facts. I am not a rabbi. I am not an imam. I am not an optimist. My job is not to make you feel bad. My job is to tell you what I found.”

What he found is Europeans financing groups that feed Arab hatred of Israel, and that feed self-hating Israeli’s hatred of Israel as well. He found Europeans who go to Israel secure in their prescient knowledge of what they will see, and he found them seeing those very things. He found Europeans financing violence against Jews. He found a toxic blend of Jewish introspection (and it all has to do with them, he adds — most Israeli Jews don’t actually know any Palestinians) and Arab pride and, yes, European anti-Semitism. He found that although many countries finance anti-Semitic NGOs, the country that sends the most money is Germany.

Now, he wrote, he understands “why the Europeans are not coming to Israel for its beaches anymore. It’s much more exciting to catch a Jew than to catch the sun. It’s called habit. You can pause your hatred because of an uncomfortable Auschwitz moment, as the Europeans did a few decades ago, but to completely erase the habit of hatred is a much harder task.”

One of the surprises to come from the book’s publication has been its popularity, he added. Although it has vanished, nearly ripple-less, after some bad press from Jewish publications in this country, it has been a best-seller in Germany; in Israel, Ha’aretz, the left-wing daily, “gave me the best review,” Tuvia said. “The radical left paper in Germany gave it an unbelievable review. In the beginning, the ones who reviewed it were conservative, but at the end of the day, the left did too.”

“My events in Germany are packed,” Tuvia said. “People are standing. And it’s not because of me, but because finally there is a Jew who can stare at them and say, ‘You are anti-Semitic not because of your grandparents, or your parents, but because of you.

“‘This is what I found out. Can you explain to me why you are obsessed with the Jews? If you really care so much about human rights, why don’t you care about human rights any place else in the world? Why don’t you care about what’s happening in Chechnya? Don’t you know that the whole Arab world is in shambles? Don’t you care? Don’t you care about the Yazidis?’

“‘But you really don’t care. But if one Palestinian is hurt, you think it’s okay to blow up a train in Jerusalem. I just want you to explain why, when there is so much injustice in the world, even if you think that Israel is so unjust, why do you care only about injustice in Israel?’

“‘Why can you tell me who is the defense minister in Israel, but not in Germany?’

“‘What is this obsession?’”

Tuvia Tenenbom left Israel depressed. Not personally — he is about to start a new project, an Alexis de Tocqueville-esque journey around America, following the flow of meetings and connections. But he is profoundly unnerved about what he saw in his native country.

“I am not going to give anyone any slack,” he said. “My job is not propaganda. I find a rabbi who is doing horrible things, who is stealing from the poor, I will write about it, and I will condemn it. I don’t care.

“I write about what I see. It is my job to be honest, and I have been honest.

“This book is a j’accuse, aimed at the so-called human rights activists. In their activism, Jews are not human. That is the amazingly missing part. After all the months there, I found out that there is one agenda, and that agenda is catch the Jews.

“The Jews are misbehaving, doing something criminal, something illegal. They are being bad. That is the job.

“You can’t trust western media. It is a huge conspiracy. I don’t believe in conspiracy, but I believe in facts. You can’t just write what you wish it to be.”

Or, as he wrote, toward the end of his book, during a trip to Jordan, in emotional language that is a real break from the flat, faux-childlike tone of the rest of the book:

“I stand in Aqaba, facing Israel, and I stare at the landscape across from me on the other side of the Gulf. I feel my heart beating fast. There, on the other side, is Israel. I have, by now, spent months in Israel, spoken to hundreds if not thousands of its people, and all of them are now so far away.

“From afar, looking at Israel, now just a tiny spot, I entertain the thought that I could fit the whole of Israel into the palm of my hand. What would I do, I ask myself, if Israel indeed landed in the palm of my right hand? Would I keep it close to my heart, or would I throw it into the water in disgust?

“So small, my Palestine, so small, my Israel!

“I stare at the tiny country in my hand and I want to talk to it, but my lips don’t move. Only my eyes speak to it, my wet eyes.”

Who: Tuvia Tenenbom
What: Will speak at Shabbat morning services this week, May 31
Where: At Temple Emanu-el, 180 Piermont Road, Closter
Why: He will talk about his book, “Catch the Jew”
For more information: Call (201) 750-9997 or go to