Life & Culture

Review: The Taming of the Jew by Tuvia Tenenbom

The Taming of the Jew a tough read and one I liked but didn’t love, writes Jonathan Margolis


The Taming of the Jew
by Tuvia Tenenbom
Gefen, £15.25

Reviewed by Jonathan Margolis

Tuvia Tenenbom is not a big name in Britain, but in Israel and Germany, even in the US a little, this Israeli with degrees in maths, computer science, dramatic writing and literature is known as a theatre director, author, playwright, journalist and essayist rolled into one portly and amusing 63-year-old.

His latest book, The Taming of the Jew details a months-long journey around the UK and Ireland in the time of Theresa May’s Brexit-prolonged death rattle. It is fascinating as a travelogue on Britain through foreign, and specifically Israeli, eyes. It may be just me who laughed out loud when Tenenbom meets some bird-watchers in Scotland and asks them the most Jewish question imaginable: “What drives them,” he wants to know. “Why are they watching birds and not, let’s say, cats, rats and ants?” I also chuckle at Tenenbom’s lack of interest in scenery and nature – and, by contrast, his loving reports of delicious meals he has en route and of delightfully luxurious hotels.

But Tenenbom’s purpose is only partly to entertain the world about the quirks of the Brits. The Taming of the Jew is, more importantly, an investigation into British and Irish attitudes to Jews and to Israel. He is fascinated in particular by what he perceives to be the British obsession with the Palestinians.

Time and again, he meets people who often have no knowledge at all of the issues, even where or what Palestine is, but who profess themselves supporters, waving flags and wearing scarves – without seemingly caring about any other beleaguered group in the world.

This is a peculiar British phenomenon, but I take issue with Tenenbom’s rationale that it demonstrates how the British are radically antisemitic. “The Jews are the scourge of the Earth,” a drinker in a Republican pub in Londonderry tells Tenenbom. It’s a shame people feel that way, but I would suggest if you asked the majority of people in the world to say candidly what they think of any other ethnic group, they would be equally scathing.

He also accuses the British of being spineless and passionless, and includes in that British Jews like me, who lack the bravery – alternatively have the basic common sense – to ask our fellow citizens what they really think of us Red Sea pedestrians.

He puts our reluctance to probe our countrymen’s views too deeply down to cowardice and the British disease of politeness – hence the book’s title.

But, again, I’d say it’s unrealistic to ask people to love us, even if it would be nice not to be quite so hated by some.

The fact that Tenenbom went looking for trouble, the same as he did in a similar book on travels in Germany in 2012, makes The Taming of the Jew a tough read and one I liked but didn’t love. I do admire his bravery, however, and his inclination to like the people he meets, some of whom you wouldn’t expect him to, among them a Palestinian hotel owner in Liverpool — and Jeremy Corbyn.

Jonathan Margolis is a Financial Times columnist

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