Donna Rosenthal, on the job reporting in Israel
Donna Rosenthal, on the job reporting in Israel

Take it from a foreign correspondent: Israelis are anything but ordinary.

To me, Israel means Israelis. Not the politicians interviewed on CBS or NPR, but ordinary Israelis. A CNN producer (my former journalism student) once asked me: “We have footage of Jews who look like Arabs. Arabs who look like Jews. Black Jews. Bearded 16th-century Jews in black hats. And sexy girls in tight jeans. Who are these people?”

With more international reporters per capita than any other country, Israel captures more media attention than China, India and all of Africa combined, yet few people know much about ordinary Israelis. Over 8.7 million Israelis live crammed into a country about 18 times smaller than California.

During the years I lived in Israel, working as a reporter and researching my book, “The Israelis,” hundreds of Israelis took me beyond inaccurate headlines and misleading sound bites. They smashed stereotypes. They’re an intriguing mix of fervently modern and devoutly traditional Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. All live in colliding worlds. Some order Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments; others pray regularly; some only if their soccer team is losing. Most argue politics passionately and believe only sissies wait in line.

Near my former home on Jerusalem’s Street of the Prophets, ultra-Orthodox Jews on “modesty patrols” check that women are “properly” dressed, while living in the only country that drafts most (Jewish) women. On my street, Israeli women wear army helmets, wigs and veils … and iPhone headphones. Their heroes? Gal Gadot and digital entrepreneurs transforming the ancient land of prophets into the modern land of profits.

Another hero is Lior Raz, star of “Fauda,” the blockbuster TV political-thriller popular with Hebrew and Arabic speakers. Like Raz, son of Algerian and Iraqi immigrants, about half of Israeli Jews are Mizrachis whose families fled Islamic Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African countries. My former neighbors left Baghdad — which was, in 1948, a quarter Jewish and boasted 56 synagogues — Cairo and Casablanca and Tehran. Many have “mixed” marriages — the kind where couscous meets gefilte fish. Today Ashkenazi-Mizrachi marriages are no longer rare.

On my street, Israeli women wear army helmets, wigs and veils … and iPhone headphones.

The most popular Israeli boy’s name is Muhammed. About 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs. A Muslim-Israeli Tel Aviv University law student told me her friends choose names that reflect their politics and ages: Israeli-Muslims, Arab-Israelis, Palestinian-Israelis, Palestinian-citizens-of-Israel, Palestinians-who-live-in Israel, Palestinians-with-Israeli-passports, the stand-tall generation. In Um al-Fahm, Israel’s largest all-Muslim town, a housewife rarely misses prayers — or “Fauda.” Many Israeli-Muslims like my friend Yasser, a Rambam Hospital pediatrician, know better Hebrew and more about Judaism than most American Jews.

Along with Israeli Muslims, ultra-Orthodox Jews are Israel’s fastest-growing group. Most Israeli Jews are non-Orthodox, but over 98 percent of synagogues are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. With a monopoly on marriage, divorce and burials, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate once famously refused to bury a sergeant in a Jewish military cemetery. Why? His mother wasn’t Jewish. In Russia, he was taunted as a “Yid”; in Israel, he was labeled “goy.” Over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel since the 1990s, the equivalent of the U.S. absorbing France’s population. This “brain gain” gave Israel the world’s highest number of physicians, engineers and musicians per capita. Some neighborhoods resemble Moscow on the Mediterranean, with Christmas trees, churches and butchers selling pork.

The most educated and affluent Israelis per capita are Arab Christians. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country with a growing Christian population — just not in Nazareth. Over lunch in Jesus’ boyhood town, two Arab Christian journalists discussed dieting, dating and Christianity with me. They urged me to visit Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, overseen by squabbling clerics from six Christian denominations. There I met a Muslim whose family has kept the church’s keys for centuries because the Christian clerics quarrel ferociously.

Some of Israel’s most devout Jews are Ethiopians. While reporting in Ethiopia for Israel Radio, I met Jews praying in grass hut synagogues. I befriended a boy who’d never seen electricity. Solomon became my “adopted” brother and the Israeli Air Force’s first Ethiopian-Israeli. In 1991, he helped lead a James Bond operation, smuggling 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours, the world’s largest human airlift. Elder Ethiopians are still shocked to see pale Israelis sunbathing in “dental floss” bikinis, children arguing with adults, and Jews who drive on Shabbat. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian-Israeli youth I know are WhatsApp and Pokemon addicts and fans of the 17-year-old “Ethiopian Beyoncé,” who sings hip-hop in Hebrew.

Donna Rosenthal
Donna Rosenthal

Donna Rosenthal, author of “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” was an Israel TV producer, Israel Radio reporter and Hebrew University lecturer. She’s written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic and taught university journalism. A J. board member, she lives in the East Bay.