They say that if you really want to get to know a place, speak to the locals.
This is the premise of author Ethan Michaeli’s new book “Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel,” which takes readers beyond the news headlines and into the homes and workplaces of Jews and Arabs living in Israel and the West Bank.
Through interviews with Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life, Michaeli lets people on both sides of the Green Line speak for themselves, rather than have their lives refracted and distorted through mass and social media.
In a recent video conversation with The Times of Israel from his home in Chicago, Michaeli said that he was motivated to write this book to dispel inaccurate histories used for political and propaganda purposes, in particular with regard to the historical Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. He said that he has been especially frustrated by attempts in recent years from new and more varied quarters to delegitimize the Jewish state’s existence in the Holy Land.
“Twelve Tribes” is not the first of its genre. For decades, other US writers with professional or personal ties to Israel have produced works targeted at non-Israelis in general, and their fellow Americans in specific, offering a similarly unfiltered perspective on the complexities of everyday life in the Jewish state.
Michaeli’s book follows in the tradition of former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David K. Shipler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land,” published in 1986, and Donna Rosenthal’s popular 2003 book, “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” among others.
With “Twelve Tribes,” Michaeli fast-forwards to 2021, capturing an updated grassroots snapshot of Israel 73 years after its birth and 54 years into its occupation of the West Bank.
“An update was needed because things have changed in Israel, the United States and the Jewish world. The relationship between America and Israel is not what it once was,” Michaeli said.
He brings readers up to speed on developments in various sectors of Israeli society, but also leaves them disappointed to learn that after so much time, little if any progress has been made toward ending the geopolitical conflict casting a shadow over the daily existences of Israelis and Palestinians.
The author chose to use the biblical 12 tribes as the book’s framework. He illustrates through his interviews that in Israel, tribalism is neither a metaphor nor a vestige of the past; even in the globalized digital age, people living in this ancient land are divided along hardened religious, ethnic, national and familial lines in a way that may be difficult for Americans to fathom.
But the ultimate takeaway emerging from the book’s collection of conversations and vignettes is that the borders between Israel’s tribes are in some ways far more permeable than one might imagine.
“I have documented Israeli tribes of all types challenging one another,
borrowing from one another, and forging unlikely alliances in a dynamic, sometimes violent process with highly unpredictable results,” Michaeli wrote in the epilogue, which he updated just before the book went to print to include the May 2021 war with Hamas in Gaza, and the formation the following month of a new broad coalition government — the first in 12 years not headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the most diverse in Israeli history.
“While it is common for commentators to focus on the points of tension between secular and observant Israelis, or between Mizrahim [Middle Eastern Jews] and Ashkenazim [European Jews], I have also endeavored to point out how porous these borders really are, and how the interactions between tribes can yield results as often sweet as bitter, whether through the unique cuisine emerging from the country or by the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbis attempting to guide their communities through the shifting realities of modern life,” Michaeli writes.
An American son of Israelis who immigrated to the US before he was born, Michaeli has the advantage of approaching his subject as both an insider and an outsider. On one hand, he has close relatives in Israel, has visited the country many times, and speaks Hebrew. On the other, he has lived his entire life in the US.
“I used my American-ness to employ an open neutrality when speaking with people. I could proclaim my ignorance and ask things without a partisan or biased agenda,” Michaeli said.
Michaeli is a former journalist who teaches public policy at the University of Chicago and serves as senior communications adviser for the Goldin Institute, a forum bringing together and supporting grassroots leaders around the world in their efforts to effect change in their communities.
“Twelve Tribes” is the result of four trips Michaeli, 53, took to Israel: August 2014 (arriving toward the end of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza strip); July-August 2017; January-February 2018; and July-August 2018. The book is written as a sort of travelogue in which Michaeli takes his readers along for the ride as he goes from location to location, interview to interview.
With help of his much-older brother Gabi, a real estate attorney who has lived almost his entire life in Israel, and other relatives and friends, Michaeli reached out to people and made his way around the country to conduct interviews. Some of the conversations — such as those with cab drivers or random passersby — were spontaneous.
On one trip, he brought along Goldin Institute colleagues, on another his friend, University of California at Santa Cruz Jewish studies professor Nathaniel Deutsch, and on yet another his young son.
“Almost everyone I approached was very open and relaxed about talking to me. I would say they were courageous,” Michaeli said.
As would be expected, Michaeli covers the full spectrum of Jewish Israeli society, from secular Jews to national-religious Jews to Haredim. He speaks to West Bank settlers, elderly kibbutzniks, Holocaust survivors (including his mother, who returned from the US to live in Israel), and members of the Black Hebrew Israelite community. He introduces readers to Israelis with whom outsiders may not be familiar, such as immigrants from Ethiopia and India, and Mizrahi Jews who hail from various Middle Eastern and North African countries, where they lived for centuries before suffering persecution or expulsion following Israel’s establishment.
“The notion that Jews were not part of Israel or the Middle East for a long time must be dispelled. The majority of Israel’s [Jewish] population is made up of Jews who predate Islam in the region. Mizrahi Jews are dominant in the country’s culture and politics. Americans don’t know this, and this understanding is important for American-Israel relations, and relations between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” Michaeli said.
“Twelve Tribes” also includes a variety of Palestinians, living both in Israel and the West Bank. Among them are a young lawyer working for the Israeli government in Jerusalem, a Bedouin family in the northern town of Tuba-Zangariye, a Bedouin social activist in the Negev, a Palestinian entrepreneur in Ramallah, and an activist in Hebron espousing nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The author’s conversations with all these people illuminate longstanding challenges in Israeli society, and also new ones. These include the arrival of some 28,000 asylum seekers (mainly from Eritrea and Sudan), a high cost of living and skyrocketing real estate prices, and a binary options fraud scandal within the country’s booming tech ecosystem. (Michaeli writes about the latter in a chapter in which he interviews Times of Israel investigative reporter Simona Weinglass, who exposed the scandal.)
Several times in “Twelve Tribes,” Michaeli returns to the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, close to where his mother and brother live. He is drawn to the grave of the Second Shtefanisher Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi named Avrohom Mattisyohu Friedman, who died in 1933 in Romania. His grave there became a pilgrimage site for Jews and Christians alike. Romanian Hasidic communities around the world arranged to have his remains reinterred in Israel in 1968.
Michaeli initially attended a popular hilula (celebratory pilgrimage on the anniversary of death) for the Shtefanisher Rebbe, and then returned several times on his trips to visit the grave.
The author couldn’t quite put a finger on why he was so fascinated by this rabbi and felt compelled to visit his grave multiple times.
“I’m not a [religiously] observant person, but I somehow have a feeling of connection and rootedness to that place,” he said.
Michaeli observed that he was not alone in having a newfound openness to spirituality, even if only intellectually.
“I definitely noticed that the new generations of Israeli Jews are more open to exploring and expressing their religion,” he said, without venturing to suggest how this might affect Israel culturally and politically in the future.
Michaeli said he hopes “Twelve Tribes” will inform and educate Americans of all backgrounds, who he believes have been remiss at taking even a cursory look at Israelis and their lives beyond the news reports.
“Israelis of all sorts need to speak for themselves, and Americans need to listen to their voices,” he said.