Olympics vs. outrage

Olympics vs. outrage

Little did I imagine, when I finished writing my last column that I would so quickly return to the topic.

Yet I must, because a story that is so shocking that it should be on the front pages of every newspaper, general and Jewish, has gone virtually unreported for almost four weeks now. A brief brief (that is a brief that is so brief that it is virtually invisible) did appear in some Jewish newspapers and some general ones, but for the most part, the story that everyone should be talking about — shouting about, writing to Congress about, confronting presidential candidates about — is being ignored. Not even such media biggies as The New York Times thus far have seen fit to publish a word about it.

Only Detroit’s two daily newspapers gave the story any serious play, albeit several weeks late. For them, however, it was a local story (you will read why in a moment), and even then they had to be prodded to cover it by the office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Also giving the story more ink than others was the Israeli daily Haaretz, which augmented a news brief from the Associated Press with some of its own reporting (but not much).

A check at a major Website for Jewish news offers a clue as to why the story received so little play. The lead item on the day I wrote this column was a feature on "The Three Chaverim," swimmers all, who are part of the seven-person Jewish contingent on the U.S. team now in Beijing for the ‘008 Olympic Summer Games. (Are we really so insecure in our American Jewish identity that we need to play "look who’s Jewish" in order to feel better about ourselves? Jewish newspapers obviously think so.)

We should have come a long way from the days of rooting for Mark Spitz, but clearly we have not. Heaven forbid that we ever stop to ask whether the swimmer in question (or actor, or singer, or politician, or whatever) ever did anything that had a positive impact on Jewish life anywhere on the planet. Indeed, Jewish media are so heavily into this "look who’s Jewish" nonsense, they even report on non-Jews who do Jewish-sounding things. Anything Madonna does comes to mind. (Did you know that Cynthia Rodriguez, Mrs. A-Rod, who accused Madonna of using kabbalah to seduce her husband, flew to Paris to hide out in Lenny Kravitz’s home? Kravitz is Jewish, you know.)

So what is this story that deserves screaming, front-page headlines, and that should have every American—Jewish ones especially—looking for positive ways to express their outrage?

Here is how The New York Times reported its genesis back on Feb. ‘1, 1997:

"The Pentagon said today that it had put a tank engineer in Michigan on administrative leave and revoked his work permit while the FBI investigated whether he had divulged military secrets to Israel…. [A] Defense Department spokeswoman emphasized that the engineer, David Tenenbaum, a 39-year-old civilian, had not been arrested and that no charges had been filed….

"The [FBI] said on Wednesday that agents had seized computers, financial records, and other data from Mr. Tenenbaum’s home in Southfield, Mich., a Detroit suburb….

"In an affidavit filed in Federal District Court in Detroit, an FBI special agent, Sean Nicol, said there might be reason to believe that Mr. Tenenbaum violated Federal laws on espionage, counterintelligence, and computer crimes."

From the start, Tenenbaum, who is Orthodox, was subjected to all manner of indignities. Investigators invaded his home on a Shabbat. His family was placed under around-the-clock surveillance. A "mistake" on the part of the FBI (not putting a search warrant request under seal) brought a media invasion swooping down on the Tenenbaum home even as federal agents removed 13 boxes of personal belongings from it, including his children’s coloring books.

Now we come to the part that should concern us all. On what evidence did the Pentagon and the FBI conclude that Tenenbaum was an Israeli spy and that he and his family deserved to be publicly humiliated? According to a 6′-page report by the Pentagon’s own inspector general, there were six facts that set off alarm bells with investigators:

1. He is Jewish.

‘. He wears a kippah.

3. He speaks Hebrew.

4. He keeps kosher.

5. He leaves work early on Friday afternoons.

6. On business trips, he stays in hotels that are "Sabbath friendly," even as his colleagues stay in other, usually more upscale, hotels.

Keeping kosher (which meant he did not eat out with his colleagues) and staying in different hotels apparently were seen as strong circumstantial evidence that Tenenbaum was engaged in spying.

This is not my spin on a sad tale. This is the conclusion of the inspector general, whose report on the case, which cited all of the above points as the basis for suspecting Tenenbaum, was released on July 13 to absolutely no immediate coverage whatsoever. Said the report:

"It was well known that Mr. Tenenbaum was Jewish, lived his religious beliefs, and by his actions appeared to have a close affinity for Israel. We believe that Mr. Tenenbaum was subjected to unusual and unwelcome scrutiny because of his faith and ethnic background, a practice that would undoubtedly fit a definition of discrimination."

Adding to the horror of this story is the possibility that "this case ended up costing American soldiers their lives," as Mayer Morganroth, Tenenbaum’s attorney, put it. That is because the engineer had identified flaws in the armor used on military Humvees and was working to upgrade them. When Tenenbaum was put on leave, that project was shelved. The subsequent failure of the Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq is well documented. One can only guess how many American lives might have been saved if Tenenbaum had been allowed to complete his task.

This is a case that should cause our blood to boil. As Americans, it violates our notion of justice, fair play, and the effectiveness of constitutional guarantees. As Jews, it rips open a gaping hole in our belief that American society views us as equals.

At least, it should do all these things. Yet how can we react to something we know nothing about?

Then again, at least we know that the new season of the "Project Runway" cable reality series has a spate of Jewish guest stars in its first few episodes. Now that is important.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.