New Book Explores UK-Jewish Relations Through Humor and Firsthand Experience
The Taming of the Jew, by Tuvia Tenenbom (Geffen Publishing, 2021).
Prophecy is gone from Israel. We no longer hear vox dei, but only vox populi, in this case, through the medium of the brilliant Israeli writer Tuvia Tenenbom. Posing as a German or Arab journalist (and sometimes even posing as himself), Tenenbom travels the world, provoking people from all walks of life into telling him what they really think about the Jews.
Where is God?, he asks in effect, when so much hatred afflicts God’s people? The result is quizzical and tragic at the same time, the sort of comedy sketches that Samuel Beckett might have written if he were Jewish rather than Irish.
Tenenbom’s 2011 book Allein unter den Deutschen (“Alone among the Germans”) became a bestseller in Germany, as did his romp through the world of non-governmental organizations, Catch the Jew. In 2011 I reviewed a self-published English edition of his first book — to my knowledge the first review he received — and characterized him as a Jewish Hunter S. Thompson. That was glib, and wrong.
A Talmud prodigy in his native Bnei Barak who moved to New York to learn mathematics and then theater, Tenenbom brings a deep religious sensibility to what at first seems like journalistic street theater. In his latest book, The Taming of the Jew, a political travelogue of the British Isles, he speaks with the prophetic tone of Mordechai in the Book of Esther. In place of Haman his antagonist is former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the world’s leading antisemites.
The book was complete, but for an epilogue, before the December 2019 national election, Labour’s worst humiliation since the general election of 1935. That led quickly to Corbyn’s removal as leader and a purge of the antisemites he had brought into the party leadership.
In the book, we learn at length that many Scots, Irish, and English hate Jews, especially the Scots and Irish, who seem to believe a lot of the anti-Israel propaganda that they hear, and the English aren’t much better. We tour Gateshead, the site of Britain’s largest yeshiva, and find that the talmidim live at constant risk of physical assault. We tour Manchester, home to several kosher restaurants, several of which were firebombed.
We further learn that some prominent British Jews equivocate and temporize when asked to state clearly whether Corbyn is an antisemite. Tenenbom reports:
One day, I’ll always remember it, a lord said to me: “You haven’t heard anything interesting from me, right?”
Totally right. One after the other, I have the feeling, they lie to me when they deem my questions to be politically sensitive. Yesterday, in a kind of a test, I turned off my recording equipment and asked the lord I was interviewing, a Jewish lord, to talk to me off the record. He did.
And what he said off the record was exactly the opposite of what he told me on the record. What did he tell me off the record? Well, here goes: anti-Semitism is ingrained in society, and in the highest levels of it; the Foreign Office is populated with anti-Israel, anti-Semitic officials; self-hating Jews lead anti-Semitic political organizations in Britain.
The last part, about the self-hating, is quite intriguing to me, and I want to chat about it with a local maven. Maybe tomorrow. Labour is great. Corbyn needs an education. And as for anti-Semitism? Well, there are some idiots here and there, but who doesn’t have idiots?
Tenenbom reports a maddening conversation with Lord Levy, the Labour Party’s biggest fundraiser and alter ego to former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yes, there are antisemitic elements in the Labour Party, conceded Levy. “Within three months, maximum, he shares his belief with me, all the bad apples within Labour will be out,” Tenenbom reports. He adds:
Lord Levy, as I see him, is a perfect example of present-day British Jews: extremely well tamed. The non-Jews, the real lords of the land, have tamed their Jews just perfectly. Here comes the day, I dread the moment, when Brits and tourists flock to see The Taming of the Jew on one of the bigger London stages, applauding its jesters with zest.
I won’t be among them.
Tenenbom ends his narrative with this prophetic imprecation:
I am leaving Britain, and I will never come back, my eagle says to me.
There are too many anti-Semites here, says my eagle, two teardrops falling from its eyes onto my face as it flies fast into the far heavens.
Lord Levy’s glib promise the antisemites would be out of the Labour Party in three months was an exaggeration; it took a year. But in October 2020, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the party after Britain’s human rights watchdog accused the Labour Party under his leadership of systematic antisemitism. The new Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer bewailed “a day of shame” for Labour, and apologized to Britain’s Jews.
Britain has a monarchy and an establishment, and the Jews are part of it; the Chief Rabbi, whose office was founded in 1704, is a crown servant. When Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks died in November 2020, just after Tenenbom’s book went to press, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, delivered a heartfelt eulogy for the former Chief Rabbi, who was the most popular religious figure in England for many years (Tenenbom criticizes Sacks in this book). Sacks’s predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, had been the spiritual advisor to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Jew-hatred is endemic to England, but the monarchy sets limits. It also provides free education in religious day schools for almost every Jew who wants it; the Jews’ Free School is the largest Jewish day school in the world. Compared to the United States, where the financial cost of day school education per child is tens of thousands of dollars a year, the British system is supportive of Jewish life. That may explain why the intermarriage rate among Britain’s Jews is just one-quarter, less than half the American level.
Perhaps the behind-the-scenes efforts of Britain’s Jewish establishment accomplished more than Tenenbom gave them credit for. After all, it wasn’t Mordechai’s prophetic rage but rather Esther’s political cunning that persuaded Ahasuerus to save Persia’s Jews. In the absence of prophecy, we sometimes have to live by our wits.
Do Britain’s Jews trust the monarchy? Not entirely. Lord Stone of Blackheath, a Labour Peer who worked his way up in the rag trade, told Tenenbom that he didn’t want to be interviewed about antisemitism in his party, but added:
I have a bag which I carry everywhere. In it I have my passport and twenty-seven different currencies. If I had to leave tomorrow, I’d go. I’m seventy-six and I’ve lived here for seventy-six years and I’m a member of the House of Lords and yet…And that’s why I’ve got a flat in Jerusalem.
David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times.