Tuvia Tenenbom: Jew, Undercover German Journalist, Ramallah’s Most Wanted
JNS.org – While visiting Israel in March to speak at Hebrew University’s conference marking 50 years of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, Tuvia Tenenbom, author of Catch the Jew! (Gefen Publishing), stayed clear of Ramallah. But Jibril Rajoub—the former head of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventative Security Force—had welcomed him as a VIP when Tenenbom arrived as “Tobi the German journalist.”
Tuvia is now a wanted man.
“I hurt [Rajoub’s] honor because he believed that I’m German,” Tenenbom told JNS.org at the seaside Fitzroy Lounge in Tel Aviv, his bright red glasses adding the intellectual flair to his self-described “fat and jolly” countenance, and a pack of cigarettes—a character in his recently published book—within close reach. “He did not for a second suspect me of being a Jew. It’s not nice for his self-respect.”
Rajoub and Tenenbom are featured embracing on the cover of the Hebrew version of the book. Rajoub, who once sat in Israeli jails for terrorism, bonded with “Tobi” as Rajoub presented himself as a proud Palestinian patriot, an expert on Zionism, and a fiery Israel-basher who deplores the Jewish homeland as “racist, fascist, and expansionist.” Now, fully aware of Tenenbom’s identity, Rajoub still invited him to attend a dubious media event in Ramallah.
“I’ll get in a car accident,” Tenenbom said, fearing a trap.
This is Tenenbom’s first interview with an American Jewish publication. Most have not yet caught up with “Catch the Jew!”—arguably because Tenenbom’s story of his “undercover” foray into the disputed Palestinian territories breaks rank with politically correct, mainstream media-compliant analysis of Mideast politics. At the same time, Tenenbom’s approach employs the secular, irreverent sassiness that is typical of the left.
Palestinian hatred of Israel shocked Tenenbom less than other characters he discovered: Itamar Shapira, the proud “ex-Jew” who compared the Israeli army to Nazis during a Yad Vashem Holocaust museum tour; a researcher at B’Tselem, a self-labeled human rights organization, who openly denied the Holocaust (and who was subsequently fired after Tenenbom’s exposé); and Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, who put “Tobi” on a tour of the “crimes” of Israeli “settlers.” All their activities were made possible by European funding.
Tenenbom came to the country of his birth without any plans or expectations. His German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, paid him to explore Israel for six months to discover what people really thought—the same way he gallivanted around Germany uncovering hidden admiration for Germany’s historic villain in his German best-seller, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany. His ability to weave between different worlds comes from his having stepped in and out of religious worlds—and the theater. He grew up in the haredi community of Bnei Brak, gradually shedding off religious observance until he founded the Jewish Theater in New York two decades ago. He is a columnist for the Forward newspaper and Germany’s Deir Zeit—the only writer there, he boasted, whose articles are translated from English to German.
“I didn’t think I’d meet Europeans here,” Tenenbom said. “This was one of the things most shocking to me. When I left Israel 33 years ago there were two tribes—the Arab and the Jew. When I came back, there were three tribes: the Arabs, the Jews, and the Europeans.”
During his first few days in Israel, he discovered that German NGOs funded anti-Zionist Israeli films, a trend of German incitement of Palestinians in their narrative of victimhood by Israel. When he presented himself as a “German journalist,” pro-Palestinian activists took for granted that he’d be anti-Israel.
“Look, on the Palestinian side, Germans are good people, because they’re the ones who had the guts to tackle the ‘Jewish question’—the Final Solution—so you’re a hero in their perspective, no matter how moderate you are,” Tenenbom said. “That’s the Palestinian side. On the Hebrew side—the Israeli side—most view Germans very nicely.”
Tenenbom is skeptical of positive hype surrounding celebrations of 50 years of Israel-Germany diplomatic relations. A steady anti-Israel sentiment, he said, “simmers underneath” official German attitudes about Israel. For instance, at the recent Hebrew University conference on Israel-Germany relations, the German Embassy in Israel refused to hold a lecture at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem, citing Jordanian maps to prove the city is situated on “occupied territory.”
“That happens all across Europe—it’s not fair to pinpoint Germany only,” Tenenbom said. “What’s different about Germany is that you have this psychological thing. You like grandma and grandpa, so you ask, ‘Why are grandma and grandpa so bad?’ So when they hear that Jews are like Nazis, it makes them feel better.”
But this motivation, said the author, is completely subconscious. “I claim that 80 percent of Germans are anti-Semitic,” he said. “Most Germans don’t know they’re antisemitic. They’d be totally shocked if you told them that.”
Such statements have made Tenenbom both admired and reviled in Germany. He’s like the country’s “fat and jolly” conscience.
“Suddenly, a Jew comes and tells them all these horrible things and does it with a smile, and doesn’t do it with hate,” he said. “He connects with him, and he touches them—physically.”
In Tenenbom’s view, not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitism in disguise—but persistent, laser-focused criticism of Israel crosses the line.
“Criticizing Israel is not antisemitism, but if there is only one country in the world that you criticize, there’s only one that’s doing evil, and you’re obsessed with criticizing one country—that’s antisemitism,” he said.