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Normal Nation?

Everyday life in the promised land.

Jan 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 17 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The Israelis

Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land

by Donna Rosenthal

Free Press, 466 pp., $28

IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE for someone in the United States who is not deliberately avoiding the newspaper, radio, or television, to live through a week without hearing the word "Israel." Endless op-eds discuss "Israel and the Palestinians," or, worse, "the Middle East peace process." Innumerable analysts dissect Israeli diplomacy and politics. And yet, somehow, despite all this, many Americans hardly know the first thing about the people of Israel.

To be sure, we have a few stray images lurking around: the founding of the nation, the fighter-pilots of the Six Day War, the kibbutzniks (now a community greatly eroded), religious Jews in their side-curls and black hats standing in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But most of us couldn't tell you the first thing about ordinary Israelis. That huge lacuna is amply filled by Donna Rosenthal's "The Israelis." Rosenthal has produced an informative and interesting book about Israel, one of the most fascinating and detailed insights into any country written by a close observer in recent memory.

The greatest challenge to anyone attempting to comprehend the nature of Israeli society is the sheer complexity of Israeli society. Like the United States, Israel is primarily a nation of immigrants. There were certainly Arabs and Jews living within today's Israel before the Zionist immigration to Palestine got under way in the 1880s. But modern Israel is the culmination of wave after wave of new Jewish immigrants from such diverse parts of the world that the country's contemporary demographic composition almost defies analysis. Israel's construction of a vibrant, modern society has had to take place through five wars within five decades, with the problems of acquiring a language not spoken anywhere else on earth, in an area about the size of New Jersey.

Rosenthal's tale begins in a vivid description of what it can be like living in a country where the lives of friends and loved ones can be destroyed without warning by a suicide bombing. Her dispassionate style is more powerful than any angry narrative would be. She writes, for example, of Raffi Berger, who boarded Jerusalem bus number 32A on June 18, 2002, to go to his chemistry lab at Hebrew University. His wife, Orit, an elementary school music teacher, took a later bus that suddenly veered onto an alternate route. Orit knew instantly what had happened. She dialed Raffi's cell phone again and again, with no answer. A trip to the national forensic institute in Tel Aviv confirmed what she already suspected. Raffi had died, along with eighteen other passengers, after Muhammad al-Ghoul, a graduate student at Al-Najah University on the West Bank, detonated himself just after boarding the bus.

Yet the thread of a constant, existential threat to life itself winds through "The Israelis." Whether she is writing about sexuality in the Israeli army, or Russian crime syndicates, or the vast families of Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews, Rosenthal manages to convey a sense of life and death.

Rosenthal focuses initially on what foreigners often notice during any trip to Israel. In the chapters "A People's Army" and "Dating and Mating Israeli-style," she writes about the ubiquitous presence of military uniforms and the apparent casualness with which young men and women conduct their romantic business. But then she moves on to describe the major separate ethnic groups in Israeli society: the Ashkenazim, Jews from Europe, who for much of Israel's history were in the driver's seat of Israel's culture and government; the Mizrahim, Jews from Arab lands, who have often had to struggle for a place at the table; the Russian Jews, more than one million of whom migrated to Israel during the 1990s; and the Ethiopians, black Jews from Africa.

Then she turns to the more foundational divide, between the religious communities on the one hand and the mass of predominantly secular citizens on the other. Rosenthal is particularly good at taking the reader behind the closed doors of the ultra-orthodox. By paying attention to the concerns of all, she illuminates many of the internal social conflicts that preoccupy Israeli politicians.

She is scrupulously fair in describing Muslim households in Umm al-Fahm, the "capital" of the Israeli Islamic Movement, and she records the sense of neglect that is felt by many Israeli Arabs. Rosenthal is also adept at capturing the dilemma of Israel's Arab Christians, a community that feels itself under suspicion from fellow Arabs because it is not Islamic and from ordinary Israelis because it is Arab. Even when going into great detail about the motivations of Arab suicide bombers, Rosenthal maintains the disciplined approach of a mature, seasoned reporter

Rosenthal's politics stay so emphatically out of the way that it is not easy to speculate, on the basis of her book, on how Israeli-Palestinian problems might be resolved. In her epilogue, she makes it clear that, despite all of the obvious problems, many Jews and Arabs work very hard to establish working relationships with each other, and every now and then, in school or in the theater, they establish breakthroughs in mutual respect. But she offers no grandiose prescriptions and she avoids sentimentalism. How Israel will deal with terrorism and yet reach out to Arabs she leaves to others to elaborate. But "The Israelis" demonstrates how much can be accomplished by diligent reporting and a commitment to capture wide variations in experience and viewpoint fairly.

David Aikman is a former bureau chief for Time magazine in Jerusalem, a senior fellow of The Trinity Forum, and the author of a new book about Christianity in China, "Jesus in Beijing."