Monday, March 22, 2021

There is an old joke about two Jews who are about to be executed by firing squad in Czarist Russia. One tells the other that he is going to request a last cigarette, and the other says, "No! Don't make trouble!"

That is how the Jews of the UK sound in Tuvia Tenenbom's latest book, The Taming of the Jew.

The book repeats his style of his previous books - part Borat, part Columbo, but always keenly intelligent, Tenenbom travels the world with genuine curiosity to meet all kinds of people and to get them to reveal how they really feel.

In this book, he visits the United Kingdom, where he meets a serious challenge: British people don't tell the truth. A fan of theatre, Tenenbom recognizes that the reason the British are such wonderful actors on stage is because they hone their skills all their lives, rarely revealing their true feelings, and many times in this book he listens to British people saying things that are the exact opposite of the truth. 

Tenenbom's journey came as the UK was grappling with Brexit and the Labour Party was grappling with its own antisemitism issues. Others have done excellent reviews of the book and there is a lot there  - it is far longer than his other books. 

I would like to concentrate on what he reveals about the Jewish community in Great Britain.

The first Jews he meets are small communities in Ireland, Scotland and Leeds. As he writes about the elderly Leeds community, at first they tell him that everything is great, "but if you continue talking to them, they tell you that everything is a disaster."

In Manchester, there is a significant Jewish community, thousands strong. Tenenbom asks a couple at a pizza shop if they ever heard of any antisemitism there, and they say, not at all. He then asked their eight year old son who responded that he and a friend were pelted with eggs recently because they were Jews. 

The father sheepishly admitted that it was true, and then said, "What do you want me to do? If I tell you about the antisemitic attacks that we experience here, you'll write about them, inviting copycats, and more people will attack us. If I tell you that everything's good, hopefully it will be good."

That is a serious level of fear and denial. And later Tenenbom finds out that two kosher restaurants in Manchester were firebombed and spent months rebuilding. Tenenbom hears similar stories about kosher restaurants in Golders Green, the Jewish section of London. (When I visited Golders Green one weekend in the 1990s, the synagogues there were already fortresses, way before US shuls started worrying about shootings and bombings.)

I follow the news fairly closely and I was not aware of these firebombings. It seems the Jews don't want to make trouble.

In Gateshead, where there is a major yeshiva, the Jews live in absolute fear. The Jewish bookstore keeps its shutter down all the time; Jews are attacked all the time on the streets in similar ways we saw religious Jews attacked in Brooklyn. The Gateshead yeshiva itself does not allow anyone in without authorization. 

The contrast between the security at the synagogues Tenenbom visits and the mosques, which are wide open, couldn't be clearer. Many British synagogues are fortresses and often do not even display their names on the outside. The world talks about Islamophobia but the houses of worship shows who really is in danger.

One other alarming episode is an interview with Lord Stone of Blackheath, who is Jewish. He is more forthcoming than most of the Jews interviewed. He is not close to right wing - he is working on a plan for Jews and Palestinians to join a federation, he has experts working on the constitution for such a Frankenstate, he thinks it is the best chance for peace. He won't directly address the Labour Party antisemitism issue, but then he says something shocking: "I have a bag which I carry everywhere. In it I have my passport nd twenty-seven different currencies. If I had to leave tomorrow, I'd go. I'm 76 and I've lived here for 76 years and I'm a member of the House of Lords and yet.....That's why I've got a flat in Jerusalem."

A Jewish Lord does not feel at home in the country he has lived in his entire life.

(Yesterday, the London Shomrim released a horrific video of a pregnant woman being attacked because she was Jewish. Tenenbom keeps the tone light, but the hate of Jews in the UK is real and dangerous.)

Tenenbom also notes how ubiquitous Palestinian flags and murals are, especially in Ireland. When he speaks to Irish people nearly all of them express hate and disgust for Israel and love of Palestinians. When Tenenbom presses them for details, they know less than nothing about Israelis nor about the Palestinians they show such solidarity with. The Palestinian issue is an excuse to hate Jews and feel righteous about it, that's all. It is proof positive that anti-Zionism is often a thin excuse for good old fashioned Jew-hatred.  It is notable thatTenenbom interview a number of Jewish politicians who agree with the IHRA working definition of antisemitism but are unwilling to apply it to, say, Jeremy Corbin.

Is Tenenbom's characterization of Jews as a group that is too scared to stand up for themselves accurate? To an extent. He did interview Rachel Riley, who didn't grow up with that fear and is now an outspoken voice against antisemitism. There are other Jews in England who are not afraid to make waves with their unabashed support of Israel. But it is hard to escape the fact that so many Jews clearly are scared out of their wits, acting like the pre-war Jews in Russia and Europe who went to great lengths to "not make trouble." 

It never works.

The Taming of the Jew is as funny, entertaining, and maddening as Tenenbom's other books, and it must be read. 

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