Falsely accused of espionage, David Tenenbaum is still seeking closure
My father was a Holocaust survivor, and he used to tell me, ‘David, it can happen again.’ Look what happened to me”
Shabbos is a day of rest, but on this particular Shabbos in February 1997, the sanctity of the Tenenbaum family’s daytime seudah was rudely shattered by a handful of armed FBI agents. The FBI raided the Tenenbaum home in Southfield, Michigan, seeking evidence to back up allegations that David Tenenbaum, a civilian engineer in the US Army, was spying for Israel.
The agents found nothing of the sort but did confiscate his four-year old daughter’s crayon sketches and David’s music books, including his Shlomo Carlebach songbook.
Back then, Tenenbaum had been working thirteen years at the US Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM). His main project was to develop a system to protect US fighting forces from lethal armor-piercing weaponry. David was chosen to go to Israel on a scientists and engineer exchange program to learn more about combat vehicle technology. The Shabbos afternoon raid was the culmination of an ugly five-year witch hunt, incited by anti-Semitic co-workers who twisted Tenenbaum’s official contacts with Israeli experts into accusations of espionage.
Six months after the FBI raid, in September 1997, Tenenbaum was completely exonerated from all of the false accusations, but the damage to his career has been irreversible.
It took more than a decade for the Inspector General (IG) in the Department of Defense to issue a scathing condemnation of the investigation and rule the allegations against Tenenbaum were “both false and initiated with a discriminatory intent.” That was in 2008, and my first report on Tenenbaum’s case became our cover story on August 20 of that year. (Issue # 220, “The Injustice of Discrimination”). More than eleven additional years have now passed, and the Department of Defense refuses to relate to requests from Tenenbaum and his attorneys to compensate him for the false accusations, or to accept culpability for the anti-Semitism that destroyed a promising career.
Five years ago, David decided to put his story in writing. His book, Accused of Treason: The US Army’s Witch Hunt for a Jewish Spy, will be published by Post Hill Press in March, and sold through Amazon.
Interest in his story is peaking. In a recent phone conversation, David told me about an address he gave to a branch of the Zionist Organization of America, held at the Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Both David and the organizers expected between 50 to 100 people. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled 7:30 start, there was a standing-room-only crowd of 500.
“I spoke for over an hour — no one left,” Tenenbaum said. “After the speech, a journalist came up to me and advised, ‘Don’t speak again until you write a book.’ ”
The book documents the unmistakable evidence that the false charges against him were motivated by anti-Semitic colleagues, including one who called Tenenbaum the “little Jewish spy.”
“It’s a story everyone needs to know. I was also told by non-Jews that I have to get the story out to show that we have a government with no accountability or transparency,” Tenenbaum said, adding: “My father was a Holocaust survivor, and he used to tell me, ‘David, it can happen again.’ Look what happened to me.”
Win, Lose, or Draw
Since our initial cover story in 2008, we have reported twice on Tenenbaum’s ongoing legal battles in his efforts to win compensation, both at the US District Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the Defense Department invoked state secrets privilege to block Tenenbaum’s path. But David is not giving up.
“A high-level Pentagon employee once told another media outlet Tenenbaum’s case wasn’t a matter of state secrets — it was a state embarrassment,” Tenenbaum said.. “What they’re saying is that anti-Semitism is a state secret.”
His case is now sitting on the desk of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), whose primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing, which is the category that Tenenbaum falls into.
“I’m considered the poster child of all whistleblowers,” Tenenbaum said.
Fighting the federal government is like pushing a boulder uphill. Tenenbaum says he plows ahead with emunah, knowing well that he doesn’t control the world.
“It’s a nisayon,” he says. “You can choose to let it define you in a good way or you can choose to let it define you in a bad way. You have to grow from it.
“People ask me sometimes, ‘What do you want to see happen to your accusers?’ ” Tenenbaum said. “I’m not looking for revenge. But the story has to be told. I said years ago we have to do something about this, otherwise it will allow anti-Semitism to get worse, and that’s exactly what’s going on now. So this is probably the best time for the book to come out.”
Once it’s published, he would like to go on a speaking tour, utilize his skills and experience as a scientist and engineer, and continue to learn half a day. Being slandered motivated him years ago to begin learning all the relevant halachos.
For more than 13 years, Tenenbaum has been teaching a chaburah at the Young Israel of Oak Park in various seforim including shemiras halashon and the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim. “I called myself a moderator, not a teacher. I learned more from the people in my class than I felt I gave over to them.”
Is he at all concerned that the book could backfire and give the government one more excuse to ignore him?
“I don’t know, I’m not really sure,” Tenenbaum said. “I would like to think it will put pressure on people, but we’re dealing with people who really don’t care about others.
“You and I both work on our middos,” Tenenbaum said. “The proper thing to do is say, ‘I made a mistake — I’ve got to fix it.’ In my case, no one has stepped forward and done that. There’s never been any accountability. They need to be held accountable for their anti-Semitic actions, and I want positive closure to the case.”
What happened to David Tenenbaum took its toll on his entire family. Aside from forcing them to dig out of a deep hole of legal bills from the onerous battle, the case left psychological scars still unhealed.
“You can’t even realize how much it affected us, when I was busy just trying to stay out of jail, and being told there was good chance of being thrown in jail for the rest of my life. One thing I can never be given back is that time I lost with my family. I can never get that time back again. I can’t ever forgive that part of it right now.”
Asked if writing the book was cathartic, David replied: “It definitely helped, but still, until there’s a real conclusion, I can’t actually say that I can move on. What I can say is that it doesn’t rule me like it once did. But nobody’s said, ‘We’re sorry we messed up. How can we fix this?’ ”
David says his daughter, four years old at the time, definitely remembers the raid. The Tenenbaums also had a one-and-a-half-year-old son at home who was too young to understand what had transpired. Since then, the Tenenbaums have had two more children, all raised under the dark shadows of this case.
“I can say honestly my kids have come out good from it,” Tenenbaum said. “I think they’re proud of the way we’ve handled things.”
Imagine going to work every day, not being given any meaningful assignments or challenges, and worse, being treated like a pariah by your bosses and co-workers.
That’s a microcosm of David Tenenbaum’s professional life despite the passage of more than 20 years since he was vindicated.
“Even when the Inspector General came out with his report and said this is anti-Semitism, a couple of days later I was ordered to take a drug test. They told me, ‘Oh, it’s a random thing,’ ” Tenenbaum said.
The anti-Semitic smears continued even after he was exonerated. One person in the Inspector General’s office went so far as to suggest there was a “Jewish conspiracy” backing Tenenbaum. He based this canard on the fact that the senior senator at the time in Tenenbaum’s home state of Michigan, was a Jew — Carl Levin — and so was one of Levin’s top legal staffers. “How come nobody took into account the fact that Senators Claire McCaskill and Gary Peters also wrote letters on my behalf, and neither of them is Jewish?” asks Tenenbaum.
Despite 35 years of government service, Tenenbaum’s career is in irons. He hasn’t received a promotion in well over 20 years and is subjected to a degrading annual job review. “The last three years you couldn’t get rated any lower than I’ve been rated. I try fighting it, but the system doesn’t work that way. They don’t listen to you.”
Trying to fight the stigma of even false charges has been an overwhelming challenge for Tenenbaum.
“I’ve tried to get jobs at other places, and I’ve been pretty open with people about my situation,” Tenenbaum said. “I’d like to be utilized. I have a doctorate and the research and development projects I’ve launched has resulted in technological advancements which are being used in the Middle East to protect American soldiers.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 794)