Hunt for a spy in a yarmulke

americanflagPlease trust me that the journalists here at GetReligion understand that newspaper and wire service reporters in this day and age are dealing with new challenges.

For one thing, the day of longer daily news stories has all but vanished. There are subjects that are simply too complex to cover in 1,200 words or thereabouts — not to mention 600-word wire-service reporters.

So we flinch, from time to time, when we criticize a story because it lacked background materials, or additional quotations from a key source, or perhaps an entirely new theme or subject rooted in religion. There are times when a reporter may have seen a religion ghost, yet an editor sliced out that piece of soul or assigned a word length that was simply too short to do justice to the topic.

Trust me, I know — after 20 years writing a short weekly column that has an assigned length that is plus-or-minus 10 words. It can be a form of journalistic torture.

So, from time to time, I find myself reading a really solid news report, one that gets the religion angle in there in a concise, factual way, and I just want to say: “People ought to read this story. Journalists get to do some really interesting things.”

Here is a case in point, the recent Washington Post report that ran with the headline, “Pentagon Finds Religious Bias In Army Probe — Jewish Scientist Was Suspected of Spying.” Reporter Vickie Elmer opens with a very symbolic detail in this story:

It was almost an ordinary Sabbath at David Tenenbaum’s home. He had been to synagogue, and he and his wife, Madeline, had invited friends over for lunch.

Then FBI agents showed up, brandishing a search warrant. They spent hours going through the family’s possessions, looking for evidence of spying by Tenenbaum, a mild-mannered, cheerful father and experienced engineer at an Army installation outside Detroit. Some co-workers and superiors had said he had leaked classified information to the Israeli government.

That’s the news. The hard fact at the heart of the story is this: Tenenbaum spoke Hebrew and knew Jewish and Israeli culture. The very reason the U.S. government want his skills was the very reason he was suspected of being a spy.

Oh, and there is a chance — his lawyers believe — that this probe had a deadly side effect:

The Tenenbaum investigation, which lasted from 1996 to 1998, raises issues beyond allegations of anti-Semitism. At the time of the probe, he was working on a project to provide armored protection to light combat vehicles such as Humvees. The probe disrupted that effort, which could have prevented American casualties from roadside bombs in Iraq, Tenenbaum’s lawyers charge.

blueIsraeliFlagLBut wait, you say, was this really a case that hinged on religious faith, on the fact that this man’s religious traditions and, well, Traditions were truly different from other people in his office? Was he actually singled out for wearing a yarmulke?

Some of the documents suggest just that.

Among the documents, his lawyers discovered references to Tenenbaum as the “little Jewish spy.” …

Tenenbaum was required to take a polygraph test on Feb. 13, 1997. The consent form listed espionage, which chilled him. He says he was not told of his right to have an attorney present, so he went alone. During the test, the examiner accused him of withholding the truth, saying at one point, “I can tell by the look in your eyes that you’re lying.”

The examiner also threatened him, Tenenbaum said. ” ‘I want you to confess,’ he was yelling at me,” he recalled. “I’ve done other Jews before and gotten them to confess, and I’ll get you, too.”

You want to know more, don’t you? You want the other side to testify and explain some of the details in this report. I hope we get to read more. Much more. This is what journalism is about and, yes, the story’s religious details ring true. Tragically true.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    There are times when a reporter may have seen a religion ghost, yet an editor sliced out that piece of soul or assigned a word length that was simply too short to do justice to the topic.

    This is my suspicion, too. These stories are just too small and editors just too narrowly focused sometimes to get the full religious story and uncover those ghosts.

    About this particular story – unfortunately, it’s a proven fact that Israel is spying on America, so these investigations WILL come up again and are not necessarily going to be anti-semitic in nature.

  • Jerry

    The examiner also threatened him, Tenenbaum said. ” ‘I want you to confess,’ he was yelling at me,” he recalled. “I’ve done other Jews before and gotten them to confess, and I’ll get you, too.”

    China is spying on America as is Russia and no doubt even many of our friends. Threatening torture and exhibiting prejudice as in this case is un-American.

  • Stephen A.

    Jerry, was anyone arguing that threatening torture WAS American? Straw man much?

  • Dave

    “I can tell by the look in your eyes that you’re lying.”

    The whole point of the polygraph is that we don’t need to depend on primitive methods like this any more.

  • Harris

    Let’s keep it clear that the story is the US apology, not the assertion of spying (that took place 11 years ago). And just for the record, it’s not like the Detroit area is so goyische. There’s a significant Jewish community in Oak Park, not that distant from the tank plant.

    And of course, as revelations just this April made plain, Israeli intelligence has penetrated the US military before.

  • Dale

    What Harris said, and the Orthodox Jewish community in Oak Park and adjacent Southfield is substantial enough that the state built special pedestrian plazas over the interstate highway so that congregants could walk to services on Saturday. The Warren tank plant is only seven miles away from Oak Park.

    Some of the story struck me as being emotive fluff, such as this:

    From the moment he began work at the post, he knew he was different from many on the staff. While colleagues went to lunch at McDonald’s, he brought in a kosher meal. He wore a yarmulke. He carried a backpack, rather than a briefcase — not an uncommon practice today but highly unusual in the buttoned-down world of TACOM in the 1980s and 1990s.

    I lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in the Detroit area and belonged to a kosher(!) Boy Scout troop. Several of my friends wore yarmulkes to public school. Feeling different is par for the course if you’re an Orthodox Jew in metro Detroit, or in Brooklyn, for that matter; but it’s not as exotic or unexpected as the article suggests. Tenenbaum couldn’t have been surprised that he was different from his co-workers; and likewise his supervisors couldn’t have been completely unfamiliar with Orthodox Jews. In my mind, that makes the supervisors’ behavior even worse.


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