How one American Jew learned to see Israel in new light

Courtesy of Gabi Michaeli/Harper Collins
Ethan Michaeli is the author of "Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel."

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Weary of the tired narratives about Israel that tend to percolate in the United States, author Ethan Michaeli introduces readers to the complexities – and humanity – of life there in his new book, “Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel.” A deeper understanding won’t fix everything, he says, but it may help uplift the debate.

What most Americans know of Israel centers around cultural conflict. But it’s important to remember that “Israel for thousands of years was a place where everybody lived together – Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Europeans, and many others,” he says. “So it has to be a shared space, both physically and intellectually.”

Why We Wrote This

In the view of many outsiders, Israel is synonymous with conflict. But author Ethan Michaeli found another side of Israeli society as well, a deeply rooted interdependence.

His research into this book helped him to see coexistence as not just a possibility for the future, but as a current reality. “Palestinians, Haredim, and secular Jews are all integral parts of Israel,” he says. “They very much already work and live together and depend on each other, even when they don’t know it.”

He is careful not to minimize the extent of bitterness and conflict, but “with all the vitriol and with all the hyperbole,” he says, “there is a very strong impulse for people to live together.”

Israel is often seen as a place of intractable divisions. But author Ethan Michaeli, the son of Israelis who moved to the United States, grew weary of hearing the same old narratives. So he set out on a journey to paint a more nuanced portrait. In “Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel,” he brings readers along for the ride, introducing them to the complexities – and humanity – of life in modern Israel. A deeper understanding won’t fix everything, he says, but it may help uplift the debate. He spoke recently with the Monitor.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Whenever I see conversation among Americans about Israel, there’s no lack of care, there’s no lack of concern, there’s no lack of interest. But there’s a lack of currency. People are often arguing about things that in Israel are either not problems anymore or are problems that have multiplied twentyfold. So I thought that Israel is a very dynamic, very rapidly changing society, and a grassroots portrait of the country was necessary to really inform the conversation about it. 

Why We Wrote This

In the view of many outsiders, Israel is synonymous with conflict. But author Ethan Michaeli found another side of Israeli society as well, a deeply rooted interdependence.

As you note in the opening chapter, former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke in a 2015 speech of the need for a “shared Israeliness.” What does that mean to you?

When it comes to Israel, lots of people say, “Oh, the perfect Israel would be if X group was no longer here.” On the Israeli right, they wish the Palestinians would just disappear. On the Israeli left, many wish the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, would just vanish one day. That’s not going to happen. Palestinians, Haredim, and secular Jews are all integral parts of Israel. They very much already work and live together and depend on each other, even when they don’t know it. And I think it’s important to proceed with the thought that no one is going anywhere. That’s the principle I think Mr. Rivlin was enunciating. Israel for thousands of years was a place where everybody lived together – Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Europeans, and many others. Not always without tension, of course, not always without conflict, but Israel is important to everyone. So it has to be a shared space, both physically and intellectually. 

Given your Jewish American background, how did you navigate your own bias in Israel?

I used my Hebrew skills to get access to lots of different Israelis, but as an American Jew, I had a kind of neutrality and, they would probably say, an ignorance of many issues. So I could ask questions that were very basic. And I used my journalism skills to really just listen. But you’re right that you always have to look out for your own bias. You always have to think about, am I shading the answers to the questions I am asking? And so what I did there was just to try to keep the conversation going until I was sure that I had gotten something that defied my expectations. That was how I knew that I was on the right path. 

What progress has Israel made?

If you’d asked me six months ago, I probably would have given a different answer. Today, it looks a lot more hopeful. A lot of Americans see the same old right-wing Israel oppressing Palestinians. I’m not discounting those complaints. But there’s a lot going on under the surface that looks very different, interesting, and hopeful to those who want Israel to recognize its diversity and embrace it meaningfully. When a war breaks out, it’s a horrible experience. Nevertheless, it’s a very resilient society. ... The social fabric in Israel feels a lot stronger within and even between communities. With all the vitriol and with all the hyperbole, there is a very strong impulse for people to live together. 

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