Tuvia Tenenbom talks about The Taming of the Jew, his unsettling recent book about the Jewish situation in Great Britain
By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
I was first exposed to the journalism of Tuvia Tenenbom a few years back after a friend in our community passed along a copy of his 2014 book, Catch the Jew, a chronicle of his adventures in Israel and the West Bank that was a #1 bestseller in Israel. By and large my friend’s political beliefs on topics of Jewish concern – peoplehood, Zionism, and anti-Semitism – hew closely to those of Judah the Maccabee. She said that Catch the Jew is one of the most important books about Israel’s situation that she has ever read. When she handed me the book, she told me that I didn’t have to return it to her, but that I did have to promise to pass it along after I finished it. Which I did, making sure the person I gave it to promised to pass it along, as well.
Tenenbom is sometimes compared to the American filmmaker Michael Moore – both are large men who project an ingratiating persona that can put their subjects off their guard, leading them to “say the quiet part out loud” about hot button topics. Both are activists and, for both men, a bit of deception can come into play when pursuing a story – harder to pull off now that both are well-known. Tenenbom thoroughly documents his undercover journalism with audio and video recordings, so while his agenda is often criticized, his facts are not. While Moore is a political progressive, Tenenbom’s project is exposing casual, cultural, political, and institutional manifestations of anti-Semitism. He has his critics – “Tenenbom’s readers re-elected Netanyahu and his book clarifies why,” wrote Raphael Magarik of The Forward in 2015.
In Catch the Jew, Tenenbom (often posing as “Tobias,” a German journalist) targeted the “peace industry” funded by foreign nations and NGOs in Israel and the West Bank. What he uncovered disrupts and often eviscerates many of the prevailing narratives about politics, media coverage, and diplomacy in Israel and the Middle East. Tenenbom says that his book shot to number one on Israel’s bestseller list because his reporting was a revelation even to Israelis, who had little idea of how virulently anti-Israel and anti-Jew the “peace industry” operating in midst can be.
(For all that, Tenenbom is glad that Netanyahu is no longer the leader of Israel. While acknowledging the former prime minister as a “genius politician,” Tenenbom told me that his take on Netanyahu’s ouster is that “overall, it's a blessing that it happened…You know, he did some good things, but he did a lot of bad things. And for me, the spiritual thing is the most important. You know, I saw that he taught that lying is okay. That selfishness is okay in politics.” As a role model, Netanyahu fell short by demonstrating that even if one lies, it’s okay “as long as you advance in life, as long as you get what you want. And I think that is a very hard lesson, a very bad lesson to give the people.”)
Tenenbom’s latest book, The Taming of the Jew, chronicles his travels in the British Isles and the anti-Semitism he encountered in all strata of society, from workingman’s pubs to high levels of government. Begun after Brexit and completed just before the worldwide pandemic lockdowns, the book is not as explosive as his earlier work, in part because Jewish issues are not as central to the British narrative, in part because his reputation seems to have preceded him – many prominent British Jews who could have enriched his story simply would not talk to him.
What Tenenbom found out is that when Jewish issues do emerge from the background in Britain, things get ugly rather quickly. Reporting on Britain’s Jewish community, Tenenbom paints a thoroughly depressing portrait of Diaspora life, one in which Jews feel threatened even in a democratic and pluralistic nation-state like Great Britain.
It’s a story, as well, that publishers in the US and UK don’t want to touch, according to Tenenbom. I reached out to the author this summer after reading a story about how major publishing houses in both the United States and the United Kingdom rejected the book despite his record of popularity. Tenenbom was in New York City and about to travel to Germany, Prague, and Israel when we spoke.
In The Taming of the Jew, Tenenbom – who is also a playwright, director, and founder of the Jewish Theater of New York – writes of his early entrancement with British stagecraft and performers. “They are the masters of theater,” he writes. “No one else can go on the stage and lie, which is what the acting profession is all about, better than the Brits.” He notes the reserve for which the British (excepting their politicians) are known for but finds that the politeness necessitates the development of role-playing abilities to get along. “For years I’ve wondered why English theater is so good,” he writes. “If this is a society of actors, it makes sense why their actors are so good on stage.” As he talks to more and more people during the course of his research, Tenenbom concludes that the British facility with facades is used to mask hypocrisies and a certain quality of what he characterizes as “gutlessness.”
Tenenbom started his journey in Northern Ireland, where he was struck by Palestinian flags painted on outdoor murals and “Free Gaza” and similar goods for sale at the Sinn Fein bookstore in Belfast. He explained: “From the first day in Ireland, I heard how much the Irish people fight each other, sometimes will kill each other, but there’s one thing [they] agree on – ‘We don’t like Israel. We don’t like the Jews.’ You can be the most prolific human rights activist, working for an NGO and its motto is to find the common between all of us. And by the end of the day, if I come to you and I talk to you, and I look like the way I look with the accent I have and I tell you that I am a German journalist – which I actually am – I don't tell you I'm Jewish. And I ask basic questions like, ‘How do you feel about the world? Is anything you would like to change?’ And most often the answer was ‘Free Palestine.’ And it's not because they know where Palestine is – they cannot even locate it on the map. But they know that on the other side of Palestine, or the Palestinians, there are Jews. And so they are against the Jews. Because the Jews are this, the Jews are that, the Jews are this and that.”
“So I write it. My job as a journalist is to write what people tell you. I am a conduit to the people's voice and the people's intimate wishes and dreams. That's my job.”
Tenenbom is also harsh in his characterization of the Jewish population of Britain. “When you start talking to them, they tell you everything is great,” he writes. “But if you continue talking to them, they tell you everything is a disaster.” As he listens to them describe their lives, it is only with patience and prodding that they produce important details – for example, Jews in Prestwich interviewed by Tenenbom did not at first mention how their children are pelted with eggs or that their neighbors shout anti-Semitic epithets or how two kosher restaurants in town were petrol bombed.
What raises Tenenbom’s hackles are the accommodations British Jews make to survive in this increasingly hostile environment. Perhaps most emblematic is what he found in Gateshead, a town in northeast England with a large Jewish presence. Tenenbom observes that the Jewish population lives as inconspicuously as it can – almost clandestinely. The people he spoke to shared that anti-Semitic acts are routine in Gateshead, but downplayed in the media and by the Jewish residents themselves.
As Tenenbom described it to me: “For example, [when I went to] Gateshead, where they have probably the most famous yeshiva in Britain and in Europe, and a big Jewish community there. I remember when I came and I started talking to the people, to the students. Within seconds, a car came speeding out. It was security. ‘What you what do you want? What are you doing here?’ So I answered in Yiddish. So the guy comes down, ‘OK, you can stay.’ There was the fear of seeing somebody who doesn't look like them, with a yarmulke, you know. They have a huge bookstore and there's no sign outside. Everything is shuttered. It's like there is nothing behind the door, like construction is going on. They are afraid because if they put it like a normal bookstore they are afraid it will be vandalized. So many temples in Great Britain have so much security and fences so high that unless you know it was a synagogue, you know, you would not know there is a synagogue there. I mean, it's frightening.”
Tenenbom, in one of the most telling encounters he captures in The Taming of the Jew, asks the rosh yeshiva (rabbinical dean) of the yeshiva how life is like in the UK. “’We are living in the Diaspora,’ he responds, and his face turns sad.”
Along the way, Tenenbom talks with politicians (“ever polite, never direct”), members of the clergy, a gangster, businesspeople (including a successful Palestinian-emigre real estate mogul, Marwan Koukash), Brexit proponent Nigel Farage, academics, and assorted theatre-people. His ultimate target, though, is Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party who was suspended in 2020 after Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) identified "serious failings" with how the party dealt with anti-Semitism.
As Tenenbom puts it, Corbyn is “my dream anti-Semite.” With irony that could not have been scripted, Tenenbom finally meets Corbyn at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event. Posing as Toby the German journalist, he tries to arrange an interview, but the wily politician gives him the slip after using the men’s room, which he visits while escorted by two anti-Zionist Hasidic Jews. Still, Tenenbom manages to hug Corbyn who, “up close, projects warmth few politicians do.” Tenenbom concludes: “I like the man.”
It’s an odd assertion to say the least, but as Tenenbom explains: “When you meet Jeremy Corbyn in person, you can't deny the good qualities. Yes, he's engaging. He is warm. He's friendly. He speaks softly. An anti-Semite, a racist – contrary to Broadway or films or whatever – does not have to have a satanic look and satanic behavior. Some of the biggest killers can be very charming people. I interviewed once a Nazi leader in Hamburg, Germany – we had a hell of a time! We are standing there laughing – we’re having a great time. You want to tell the Jews that?
“You cannot just look at the person and say, ‘okay, he's a racist or a Jew-hater.’ The most interesting thing for me was I am in a Holocaust Remembrance Day, at an event about the Holocaust, here is Jeremy Corbyn – even The Guardian [newspaper], which is to the left of British politics, strongly critical of Israel…even The Guardian, basically bade Jeremy Corbyn to stop his anti-Semitic trash and tropes. And here we are. I have a hell of a time talking to him. We are laughing. We are even hugging. And then he has to go to the toilet. So there are two people who guard him – volunteers. They wait for him, then bring him back. Most of them were Hasidic Jews. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? It's frightening to see. I couldn't believe it.”
Tenenbom pulls no punches, and will certainly offend some readers with the particular disdain he holds for those Jews he decides are either self-hating or simply unwilling to forcefully represent their interests.
The Taming of the Jew is not the whole story – again, Tenenbom was not able to get through to many important people who could have enhanced his narrative, and possibly contravened parts of it. Nevertheless, the British Jewish community he does document operates within a narrowing Diaspora consciousness – it sees itself as a minority living within a majority culture from which it derives certain benefits, but in which it is viewed as “The Other.” American readers of this book who, as I do, feel a cultural and historical kinship with Great Britain will be disappointed by the way Jews are seen and treated there. As a Jew, I came away sharing Tenenbom’s alarm that even the “Diaspora” life of the British Jews, rife with compromise as it is, is becoming more and more untenable.
The most poignant moment in the book comes when Tenenbom confronts a local woman in Prestwich who, in an earlier interview, had covered up that arson attacks on kosher restaurants had been classified as anti-Semitic hate crimes. Tenenbom writes:
Why was I told a different story yesterday? I ask a local Jewish lady.
“We are economical with the truth,” she answers.
But why lie?
“Because it’s painful to admit so many people hate you.”