This book will blow your mind.
But do not read “Catch the Jew” if you are confident you know all about Israel and its Arab neighbors and citizens and refuse to change your mind. Those entrenched either on the “right” or on the “left” must be prepared to shake loose the moorings of long-held, often ossified, views. And who is in the middle if you care about the Middle East?
If you are open to having your views altered and expanded, though, you must read this book. You’ll see what I mean about it being mind-blowing if you do. It will also tickle your funny bone, if you have one.
Tuvia Tenenbom, the merry prankster journalist who is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, English and German, was born and spent his early years in a haredi family in B’nei Brak. He then fled to the United States for intellectual and ideological freedom, including freedom from religion. He was educated in the west, and is now a journalist, dramatist and author who lives at least half the year in Germany.
This book is a chronicle of Tenenbom’s journeys through Israel’s Jewish and Arab towns and the Arab and Jewish hubs in the territories.
I had heard that Tenenbom was prickly and iconoclastic. So, of course, I invited him for Shabbat dinner when I learned he would be in nearby Philadelphia.
He was an entertaining dinner guest – attacking me and my husband for claiming to love Israel so much but living in the luxurious suburbs of a large American city. Fair enough.
I then traveled with Tuvia for a day as he began his exploration of the United States for his upcoming book. I was able to watch his process firsthand, and it confirmed for me what I say about his process, below.
In truth, I did not fully understand what was the point of the book when I began reading it. What was everyone so excited about? The book is a huge bestseller in Israel and in Germany. But it seemed to meander, without a particular direction. Patience, please.
Tenenbom did not have a point in mind when he started, that is itself the point, or at least it reveals why the book is so valuable. He did not start with a thesis, something he was trying to prove.
The book is an exploration and he proceeds with no plan other than to make sure to meet up with as many different kinds of people, representing as many different viewpoints, as possible. If there was a goal, it was simply to find out what Israel is like and who inhabits it.
Tenenbom tags along with tour groups, wanders through the halls of the Knesset, journeys with Jews and Arabs for “peace conferences,” sits in on shiurim in Meah Shearim, and blunders about on the Temple Mount, all in search of people who will speak about the place in which they live.
As a German journalist (well, sort of, remember his brief biography, above), he is readily granted access to people such as Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Jibril Rajoub, the notorious Palestinian Arab terrorist leader and now sports minister.
The list of people who speak freely with Tenenbom – albeit most don’t realize he understands their language when they shoots asides to aides – is fairly comprehensive. And what those people say to someone they think is a German (a blond, no less!) journalist allows readers to get about as close to the truth as most people will ever get.
This book provides invaluable insights through visits with well-known PLO legislator and activist Hanan Ashrawi, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, Shimon Peres and Ayelet Shaked, as well as non-famous Druze, Arab Israelis, Jewish leftists, Syrian victims (in Israeli hospitals) and the foreign media. And that’s not even half of his subjects.