Tenenbom is Jewish, Israeli in fact, and though to this time he had “carried no flag for any country,” at the end of this book he finds himself holding a Palestinian flag in a group of stone-throwing demonstrators in Bil’in, being filmed by European television and documentary crews. It hadn’t been Tenenbom’s idea to be a part of the show, but since traveling around Israel for some months claiming he was Abu Ali the German or Tobi the German journalist, he’d been invited to this celebration of Palestinian Independence Day, all staged for the benefit of the cameras and their international audience. In Tenenbom’s view, finding himself in this position was the height of absurdity.
Tenenbom went to Israel in 2013 at the request of his publisher. His earlier book, I Sleep in Hitler's Room: An American Jew Visits Germany, about a six-month walking tour of Germany, appears to be a critique of European attitudes towards Jewishness, and became an international bestseller. Tenenbom had been born ultra-Orthodox in Israel from a long line of European rabbis. He was groomed himself to follow that path until as a young man, he moved to the United States and to pursue higher degrees in mathematics and literature. For thirty-three years he pursued a career as journalist and columnist for media outlets in the U.S. and Germany, and as playwright in the Jewish Theatre of New York, which he founded and manages with his wife Isi. His role as journalist, playwright, and failed rabbi gave him the perfect platform to ask probing questions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, and Tenenbom took advantage.
His playful yet incisive questioning and manner allowed him to re-state and re-frame arguments in which sides have been drawn for some time, giving us another angle from which to view the action. This book about a several-month stay in Israel in 2013-24 begins light-heartedly enough, laughing along with the little deceptions of both sides in the Israel/Palestinian debate, feeling a sense of camaraderie, appetite, and deep joy at spending time again in the Middle East.
The longer he stays, however, the more Tenenbom sees traps for the Jewish state in the language Israelis and Palestinians use when describing the actions and positions of each side. There is a huge under-informed army of NGOs and Christian religious organizations that have developed very effective propaganda tools to support the Palestinian cause at the expense of the Jewish state. Tenenbom can see it is big business and grows more distressed when Jewish newspapermen like Gideon Levy writing for Haaretz does not ask better, more thorough questions and instead seems to accept the self-flagellating viewpoint that Israelis are racist.
By the end of the volume Tenenbom is losing his sense of humor about Jews he calls “self-hating” who are not pressing hard enough in their self-examination about what is expected of them, or keeping their minds nimble and open to the realities of the situation. The Palestinians may be milking the “conflict” for all it’s worth, but some of the truly needy are being overlooked in the rush to help the more polished actors. Pay attention we can hear him say in subtext. Stay skeptical.
Tenenbom is very persuasive, and very likable: he has an earthy, warm, and intimate way of pointing to our similarities rather than our differences. It is when he meets a uncompromising right-wing settler who insists on his right to burn the Palestinian olive trees because he is “at war” that Tenenbom’s attitude receives its most damning blow. Tenenbom says the man sounds like a Goy, like any other non-Jewish farmer he’d known, not like a normal Jew.
"Personally, I hardly get to meet conviction-driven Jews, say-what-I-think Jews, farming Jews, if-you-slap-me-on-one-cheek-I’ll-slap-you-on-both-cheeks Jews. The Jews I know are neurotic Jews, weak Jews, self-hating Jews, hate-filled-narcissist Jews, accept-every-blame Jews, bowing to all non-Jews Jews, ever guilt-ridden Jews, ugly-looking Jews, big-nosed and hunch-backed Jews, cold Jews, brainy Jews, yapping Jews, and here-are-both-my-cheeks-and-you-can-slap-them-both Jews.If your convictions haven’t been shaken up in awhile, Tenenbom stands ready to help out. He is funny, and those who appreciate self-deprecation will have an easier time of it. His extra layer of thoughtfulness rearranges the Middle East so that we must go back through our understanding and look again, do more work on examining how the ground game has changed since the last time we looked. At the end we may not agree that Europeans, Americans and Palestinians can exhibit anti-Semitism commonly and regularly, but he will have us looking closely, to make sure. What he is saying is that Jews are really just like anyone else—no better but certainly no worse—and any attempt to categorize them or assign a ‘national character’ is specious.
To me, the biggest proof that Jesus was Jewish is this: Who else, but a Jew, could come up with this statement: ‘If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one as well’?"
This enormously interesting book makes immoderate readers of us. Tenenbom is someone we’d like to encounter again. He makes us think, he makes us laugh, and he seems a perfectly ethical sort. His book is divided into chapters called "gates." Those familiar with the Torah will know of the Fifty Gates of Wisdom or the Fifty Gates of Understanding. Well, Tenenbom has fifty-five gates, but the idea is the same: "Being worthy of receiving prophecy requires character improvement." The thing is, Tenenbom is not optimistic about Israel's longevity in the world. Poor leadership, perhaps, and I agree.
Tenenbom has written a new book on travels around the United States in the lead up to the last election, called The Lies They Tell, just published March 2017.
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