JPost catches up with 'Catch the Jew!' author on pre-election escapades

In ‘The Lies They Tell,’ Tuvia Tenenbom travels across the United States to get people to tell him the truth.

People watch along a highway in Billings, Montana, to catch a glimpse of then presidential candidate Donald Trump passing by on his way to a rally last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
People watch along a highway in Billings, Montana, to catch a glimpse of then presidential candidate Donald Trump passing by on his way to a rally last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2016, as the presidential campaign was in full swing, Jewish author Tuvia Tenenbom decided to explore the United States like he never had before and took a trip across 28 states. <em>The Lies They Tell </em>chronicles his journey, in which he witnessed life in some of the most remote areas of the country, people’s daily struggles, their beliefs and even expressions of racism and antisemitism.<br /> <br /> With the background of the presidential campaign, it became very clear to him Donald Trump was going to win the presidency.<br /> <br /> Tenenbom – the provocative author of <em>Catch the Jew </em>and <em>I Sleep in Hitler’s Room</em> – answered a few of <em>The Jerusalem Post</em>’s questions last month, just before the release of his latest book.<br /> <br /> <br /> <a href="" target="_blank"><img src="" a="" lt="" alt="" /></a><br /> <br /> <strong>You live in New York and have traveled across the US, to some of the most remote areas. We often hear that “New York isn’t America.” How true is that? </strong><br /> <br /> True and false together. While it’s true to say that “New York isn’t America,” statements such as “New Orleans isn’t America” and “Texas isn’t America” – and so on for each of the 50 states – are equally valid. America is the United States, 50 in total, and Georgia isn’t America and it ain’t California.<br /> <strong><br /> Why the title The Lies They Tell?</strong><br /> <br /> When you first talk to people, they tell you all the “right” things: They feel just perfect, everything’s okay, everybody is equal, diversity is great, and they also tell me that I’m skinny – when in reality I’m obese. But people won’t tell me that, and they won’t tell anybody what they really think unless they feel safe with the other person. This is my main job: to make people feel safe with me so that they share their true feelings and their thoughts. It takes time and effort to gain their trust, but once they feel they are respected, they are willing to tell all that’s in their hearts and minds.<br /> <br /> <strong>One of the main themes of your book is racism. It seems that it is alive and kicking across the States and that people accept it as “just the way things are.” Have people really just given up? </strong><br /> <br /> I wouldn’t phrase it as an acceptance of “just the way things are.” It is simply what they feel at the core of their being: they really, really don’t like the “other.” Americans, including the so-called “liberals” of New York and California, are quite racist deep down. As for your question if they have given up: Why should they give up what they feel? <br /> <br /> <strong>You encountered antisemitism on many occasions during your travels. </strong><strong>As a Jew in America, do you feel differently about your place in this country now? </strong><br />  <br /> Since I also live in Europe, I’m quite familiar with antisemitism for many years, and now that it is coming to America there is a sense of “familiarity” to it. Plainly speaking: There’s not much love in the West for Jews; it’s a European reality that is now coming to the US. It was amazing to see people talking about Jews and Israelis even when I didn’t ask them anything about either Jews or Israelis.<br /> <br /> <strong>There is often this assumption that middle Americans don’t really care about Israel and the Palestinians, or don’t even know to point out Israel on a map. Yet, through your travels, you found that Americans had strong feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Can those two things go together?</strong><br /> <br /> Yes, just like in Europe. They are “pro-Palestine” at the same time that they have no clue where that Palestine is. All they know is this: “Palestine” fights with Jews, and that’s good enough. And this sentiment is becoming prevalent in the younger American generation, also the ones who live in reddest of reddest states. But let me correct you on one issue here: your statement, “middle Americans don’t really care about Israel and the Palestinians, or don’t even know to point out Israel on a map,” is incorrect, since it suggests that this phenomenon is unique to “middle Americans.” No.<br /> <br /> This phenomenon is equally valid to coastal America – e.g. New York and California – and Europeans. They all know precious little about the Middle East yet have no problem walking around and muttering “Free Palestine!” The average educated Berliner knows about “Palestine” as much as I understand Chinese, which I don’t at all...<br /> <br /> <strong>You traveled the country during the beginning of the presidential campaign up until the primaries begun, yet, in your book, it seems that people are uncomfortable and even offended talking politics. How do you explain this taboo?</strong><br /> <br /> The travel took place in 2015 and 2016, through many Democratic and Republican TV debates, and including the beginning of the primaries season. As for the “taboo”: I wouldn’t call it taboo, because it’s not, but “fear.” People are afraid of “controversies,” are afraid to be “attacked” by the “others” and are afraid to share their thoughts. “No politics and no religion,” as many phrased it. Questions such as: Who did you vote for in the last presidential election? often elicited responses such as “I won’t answer this question!” and “How dare you ask me this question!” I met couples who didn’t know what their spouses voted in the last election...<br /> <br /> It took time to develop some form of trust for them to feel comfortable and reply. In the home of the brave, I found out, fear celebrates; in the land of the free, very few are indeed free.<br /> <br /> <strong>You predicted Donald Trump would win this election, or at least that he was a very serious candidate. At what point did you realize this? What made you feel he would win?</strong><br /> <br /> When I realized, by talking to people, that Trump says out loud what the average American, including liberals, think and feel intimately. In short: America was Trumpland long before The Donald became president.<br /> <br /> <strong>You also raise the question of whether or not elected officials actually care about the people who elected them. Do you think President Trump does? </strong><br /> <br /> Unless proven otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that Donald J. Trump is different from any of his predecessors. At this stage of the game it’s hard to conclude what motivates Trump, but he doesn’t strike me as an extremely lovely guy.<br /> <br /> <strong>This America you’ve discovered seems doomed: racism, antisemitism, officials who don’t care, no culture – is there hope? </strong><br /> <br /> I didn’t say that there’s “no culture” in America, of course there is. There’s “culture” everywhere a collection of people live. As for “hope”: Hope springs eternal.<br /> <br /> If I thought that there’s no hope, I wouldn’t allow this book to be published.<br /> <br /> <strong>What is the main or most surprising lesson that you feel you have learned from this experience and that you want people who read the book to take with them?</strong><br /> <br /> It is surprising and astonishing that in our day and time of constant flow of information and news around the clock we know very little about almost anything.<br /> <br /> Too many journalists today write about people and situations from the comfort of their offices and homes, rarely meeting the actual people they write about or visiting the locations the report on, and often enough they just copy what the others write. The resultant articles, sadly, have little to do with reality. For The Lies They Tell I went to the people, talked to them and dined with them, being on the road day and night every day for over six months. The America I found turned out to be dramatically different from the one I knew before.<br /> <br /> <strong>Do you think that your presence in these places, as a foreign tourist playing dumb, has in some way affected the people you met as well?</strong><br /> <br /> I didn’t play “dumb,” I was simply “lovely.”<br /> <br /> I didn’t present myself as a tourist, but as a journalist, and I wasn’t “foreign” but “German.” In short: I introduced myself to them as an accepting, cute, lovely fat German journalist – and it worked. They trusted me.<br /> <br /> Did I affect them? On quite a number occasions, and after the interview was over, people commented that the encounter made them think about the meaning of “freedom,” “liberty” and “America” in ways they had not thought of before.