Journalist hangs out with soldiers, teenagers and prostitutes in effort to reveal the real Israelis

Donna Rosenthal was a teenager when she decided spur-of-the-moment to visit Israel “because it was cheap.”

The year was 1969, and when she embarked in the port city of Haifa, the El Paso native was in for a shock.

“My life really changed then. I had all these stereotypes. I didn’t realize there are poor Jews and dark-skinned Jews and Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs and Druze and Bedouin all living there.

“I was totally amazed,” said the longtime journalist who graduated from U.C. Berkeley, in a telephone interview from her San Francisco office.

What Rosenthal learned in the following years is that she wasn’t alone. The misconceptions she had about the citizens of Israel are common among many well-educated people, she said.

While Israel is perhaps the most widely covered country in the world, misconceptions still abound, she said.

“On the one hand, people see an Israel where bombs are going off all the time, and it’s this war zone,” she said. “On the other side, people think it’s like a travel poster, where everyone’s dancing the hora on a kibbutz. But most agricultural workers on the kibbutz now are Thai.”

And now, Rosenthal, who was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and for Israel Radio as well as a news producer at Israel Television has written a book to help debunk those myths and stereotypes.

“The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land” is a four-years-in-the-making effort to shed light on those who live in the Jewish state — those who, as Rosenthal puts it in her introduction, “order Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments, believe that waiting in line is for sissies and light up Marlboros under NO SMOKING signs.”

The book has already garnered several positive reviews.

For her research, Rosenthal did not merely sit in people’s living rooms and interview them.

“To really understand a country, you have to go into the classrooms, the discos and the bedrooms,” she said, describing how she began hanging out with her subjects, often for days at a time.

“I went into a Druze girl’s bedroom and she had Brad Pitt posters on the wall, even though she had a scarf on her head and can’t date,” Rosenthal recalled. “In a haredi [fervently religious] house, the father wouldn’t look at me, but I looked in his son’s room, and we surfed the Net together. I also spent a lot of time in a maternity ward, where I saw the future of Jerusalem.”

Spending time with her subjects as they went about their daily lives, as opposed to simply interviewing them and then leaving, gave her deeper insights.

“There was one Arab, in Um El-Fahm, who at first spent the whole time talking about his life in the village, but after four glasses of wine, I got a whole different story. Then, it happened with a soldier that had just come back from the West Bank. I spent four days straight with him, going out, and hanging out, and by the fourth day, I got a whole other story. If you really want to get to someone’s soul, you really have to hang out.”

She explained how she chose the “man on the street” as opposed to the bigwig.

“I like to talk to people who work in the cafeteria at Intel rather than the CEO,” she said. “I interviewed Russian immigrants who wash the floor at an exclusive spa,” rather than its patrons.

She interviewed prostitutes. And soldiers. And read the graffiti on army bases.

And she hung out in development towns like Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Shmona, as opposed to just Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“If you want to understand America, you don’t just go to Beverly Hills and Washington,” she said.

She also made sure she included a mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Because Ashkenazim are those most often seen on television and in the media, most people think they are the majority, when in fact, the numbers are about half and half. Rosenthal herself is both.

Rosenthal deliberately focused on younger people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and she set another rule for herself.

“There are no famous people or politicians; I tried to avoid them. Basically, [those in the book] are people you would never see on ‘Nightline’ or ‘Meet the Press.'”

In doing her research, Rosenthal learned that even Israelis often know nothing about each other. She gave a few examples.

“Most Israelis don’t even know that the most affluent people per capita in Israel are the Arab Christians,” she said. Many never cross paths with those of different faiths, cultures or levels of observance. A secular friend of hers had never met the Orthodox wig designer who lives around the corner from her.

“It’s very rare for a Muslim to have been to the most liberal left-wing Jewish family, and yet they’re living five minutes apart,” she said. “So the book was written to smash stereotypes and tell their own stories.”

Though a seasoned journalist, Rosenthal was writing under difficult circumstances. When she embarked on the project, Israel’s high-tech sector was booming, its economy was in good shape and tourists were coming.

Of course in September 2000, with the start of the second intifada, everything changed, including people’s views.

“I had to rewrite large sections or trash them,” she said. “Writing about Israel is like ‘Alice in Wonderland.'”

And since Israel was her home, too, she was greatly impacted personally. Not only was she living in downtown Jerusalem, in a neighborhood where 11 bombs had gone off within a three-block radius, but a close friend was killed in a bus bombing.

“It would be a lot easier to write a book about Iceland,” she admitted. “I tried to keep myself out of it and was walking on eggshells to keep it balanced.”

But even then, she would encounter problems, she said. An interview with an haredi young man sheds light on his experience, she said, but there are maybe 20 different sects of fervently religious Jews. And while an interview with a young woman of Moroccan descent can be telling, she noted, “there is a hell of a difference between being a poor Moroccan and an educated Moroccan.”

Rosenthal was sure to give fair coverage to Israel’s non-Jewish population as well, specifically its Arab population. So many Jewish Israelis do not trust their Arab neighbors, she said, not realizing they have much more in common than they might think.

“I have a Muslim friend who wears a tight miniskirt,” she said. “People don’t realize [there are secular Muslims who] go to discos a lot, and never go to the mosque.”

And Rosenthal described the strange line Israeli Arabs walk.

“We have much more in common culturally than we would imagine,” she said, commenting that Arabs have learned brusqueness from Israeli Jews. “So many Muslims in high-tech are sent to Jordan or Egypt to do business for Israel because they can negotiate between both worlds. An Israeli Muslim will use this very short Hebrew, like ‘Get me the glass,’ while in Egypt, he’d say, “Would you be kind enough to get me that glass?’ He can bridge both worlds.”

By spending so much time with Israel’s Arab population, Rosenthal learned something fascinating about herself as well.

Rosenthal had long suffered from a rare degenerative disease called keratoconus. Diagnosed with it in 1969, she said her sight has continued to get worse. She never met anyone who had the same condition, and eventually, it got so bad that she had a cornea transplant while working on the book.

“I was in Nazareth with four Arabs, and I mentioned I’m donating part of profits of the book to the Organ Donors Society,” she said, which led to a discussion of her disorder.

“They were all journalists and all Christians, and one woman was the editor of Arab Cosmopolitan,” she said. “They asked me its name, and I said, ‘You’ve never heard of it.’ Three out of four of them had someone in their family with it, and none of them were related.”

Later, she told an Israeli Jewish woman about this coincidence. She, too, had it, in both eyes.

In doing further research, Rosenthal managed to track down an American ophthalmologist who worked for a time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the majority of his patients had the disease.

“It’s prevalent in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and among Jews and Arabs in Israel,” she said, “so it’s definitely genetic.”

Rosenthal underwent a cornea transplant, which was completely successful, and therefore is donating a portion of the proceeds from the book to the Organ Donors Society.

“Jews, Muslims and Palestinians generally do not donate organs. They think it’s against Islam and Judaism. I’d like the money to go to educational materials to be written by an imam in Arabic and in Hebrew by a rabbi explaining that it’s not against either religion.”

Speaking dates

Donna Rosenthal will be making a number of Bay Area appearances in the coming weeks:

• 4 p.m. Sunday, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, (415) 927-0960.

• 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11 as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book Fair, Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 938-7800.

• 12:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17, Stacey’s Bookstore, 581 Market Street, S.F. (415) 421-4687.

• 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, as part of the San Francisco Jewish Book Fair, Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. (415) 346-1720.

• 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, Borders Books, 400 Post St., S.F. (415) 399-1633.

“The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land” by Donna Rosenthal (466 pages, Free Press, $28). Information:

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."