New Book: The Israelis: Q & A with Donna Rosenthal

Free Press, $28

Israel hosts more foreign journalists, per capita, than any other country in the world. Yet despite all the news coverage, few really understand the people of Israel, according to Donna Rosenthal. Rosenthal spent years as a producer at Israel Television and as a reporter for Israel Radio and the Jerusalem Post before writing her book, “The Israelis” (Free Press, $28). She recently talked with the Dallas Morning News. Here are excerpts.

Q: What led you to write this book about the people of Israel?
A: A producer at CNN told me, “Our viewers are confused. We have footage of Jews who look like Arabs, Arabs who look like Jews. We have black Jews, bearded 16th-century Jews and sexy girls in tight jeans. Who are these people anyway?” I wanted this book to explain. I did it initially as a “bible” for journalists based in Israel and abroad. Israel, with a population of only about 6.8 million people, gets more press coverage than China and India and all of Africa combined. Yet most foreign journalists and their audiences have very little idea who the Israelis are. In the book I had two rules: no politicians, and (all the interviewees) were Israeli citizens. I only have three American-born Israelis in the book. When you watch CNN you get the feeling that all Israelis were born in America, because they speak perfect English. In fact, there are only about 100,000 Israelis who were born in the United States or any English-speaking country. I let Israelis talk in their own words, and let them smash stereotypes.

Q: What are some pervasive stereotypes?
A: People think Israel is entirely Jewish. It’s only 80 percent Jewish. The others are Muslim, Christian and Druze. The fastest growing group is Muslim. In fact, the most common name for an Israeli boy is Muhammed. One educated person from Silicon Valley was sitting next to me on a plane, and I asked him what he knew about Israelis. He said, “They’re all ultra-Orthodox Jews and they’re really poor.” In fact, only about 10 percent are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. The other day Fox News had a story about Israeli-Americans who were going to vote, which showed these guys in black hats and beards. They’re a miniscule percentage of Israelis. So you’ve got these distorted images. One fact that surprises many people is that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population. Over 50 percent of the 1 million former Soviets who have come to Israel in the last few years are not Jewish. To immigrate to Israel, you need only one Jewish grandparent. If your other three grandparents were Christian, and your husband is Christian, you can come – along with your seven children and 11 grandchildren who are all Christian. In parts of Israel you see more and more churches, and shops that sell pork, and families that have Christmas trees.

Q: Is there religious diversity in the Israeli army?
A: When soldiers are inducted into the army, they hold an M-16 in one hand, and they swear on their holy book. Approximately 80 percent swear on the Hebrew Bible. The second most popular holy book is the Quran. This is mostly for Bedouin Muslims who volunteer. The Bedouin are some of the best soldiers in the Israeli army. The second group of Arabic-speaking soldiers are Druze men. The Druze religion is an 11th-century offshoot of Islam. The Druze communities in Israel showed their loyalty to the state by asking the government to draft their men. When they swear in, they use a plain notebook with nothing inside, because the Druze holy book is so secret nobody is allowed to see it unless you’re high up in the religion. The fourth holy book is the Christian Bible.

Q: Having talked with the different religious groups, do you see any signs of hope for the future of Israel?
A: That’s a very American question. Americans always like happy endings to their movies. I wrote a lot of the book in downtown Jerusalem on the Street of the Prophets, which is the epicenter for the suicide bombings. Anyone who tries to be a prophet about what’s going to happen is a fool. It’s a volatile place and anything can happen. But I’d also like to say there is a lot of hope. You’ve got cooperation going on every single day that you never see on TV. You don’t see Haifa University, which is 20 percent Muslim, where there are students living together in the dormitories and going to each other’s weddings. There are high-tech companies in Israel where you’ve got Muslims, Christians and Jews all taking the same aerobics class. In the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, you’ve got Christians, Muslims and Jews all speaking perfect Hebrew, screaming at each other, and physically you can’t tell them apart.

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