Presenting... Israel 'lite'

Author Donna Rosenthal has spent three years enlightening the uninformed about ordinary life in Israel - that which is actually flourishing behind the headlines.

rosenthal 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rosenthal 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Donna Rosenthal walks around carrying a large tote bag, filled to the brim with print and video material. It is thus among her most valuable vessels for the purpose of her tour of the US - to talk about The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land, the title of her book and the focus of her message. Whenever she arrives at a TV studio, the first thing Rosenthal does is remove a cassette from her big "bag of tricks" and request of the producer of whatever talk-show she is appearing on to broadcast it during her interview. What viewers are presented with is a new experience where interviews about Israel are concerned. Instead of the usual images of tanks and bombing carnage, they are treated to pictures of a very different nature: an Ethiopian-born Israeli serving as a pilot, for example, or high-tech Israeli industrial plants. Whenever she speaks to a group of American Jews about Israel's Arab population, the first thing Rosenthal does is to dig into her bag and pull out a copy of an Arab-language lifestyle magazine with photos of beautiful, young Arab-Israeli women. Her bag also contains an issue of Forbes in which the Israeli founder of Checkpoint - one of the world's largest computerized security companies - is profiled. Since publishing The Israelis three years ago, Rosenthal has been crossing the country presenting the Israel that lives behind the headlines. What she has discovered time and again, she says, is a great deal of ignorance on the subject. Examples abound. At one Ivy League university, a student was surprised to learn that it was not Israelis who carry out suicide attacks; at a rabbinical school, not one in a class of future rabbis was aware that Muslims and Christians serve in the IDF; in Silicon Valley, a group of students was amazed to hear that Israel has a flourishing hi-tech industry; and everywhere, audiences expressed little or no understanding of Israel's ethnic and racial diversity. "Israel is covered in the American media more than Africa, China and India put together, but people over here know so little about it," Rosenthal told The Jerusalem Post in an interview in Washington last week. "The good news," she adds, "is that there is a hunger to learn more about it." THE ISRAELIS is among thousands of books written about the Jewish state. But it is one of very few dealing with its people, not its plight. "I wrote it as a bible for journalists who are sent to Israel to cover the conflict, but who know so little about Israeli society," Rosenthal says, pointing to reporters and columnists who perform what she calls "parachute journalism," and try to cover the country from the lobby of the King David Hotel. She researched and wrote the book over a five-year period, from 1998-2003, while living in the center of Jerusalem - in earshot, and sometimes in sight, of the many terrorist attacks the city has known. During that time, she made it a point to speak to ordinary Israelis of all stripes, not those from English-speaking countries who are usually interviewed by the international media. Rosenthal herself is a journalist who has reported from dozens of countries for leading American publications. She also worked in Israel, reporting for Israel Radio, Channel One and The Jerusalem Post. Since the book's publication in 2003, its author has became one of the most sought-after lecturers on the circuit, ranking among Publishers Weekly's top 10 Jewish speakers. ROSENTHAL'S LECTURE tours, she says, have made her optimistic. Though general knowledge about Israel is slim, she claims, she has encountered no hostility, even on college campuses considered bastions of anti-Israel rhetoric and activity. In fact, she says, both she and her message have received warm receptions. This she attributes to the fact that the Israel she presents to students is one they don't see on the evening news. "They have no idea, for example, that there are Jews from Arab countries, such as Iraq; they certainly don't know that Baghdad was a center of Jewish life in the early 20th century," she says. "They have no idea about Israeli society, and you can't understand a conflict without understanding the society." One interesting pattern she observed, she says, is that the most knowledgeable audiences are Christians - who know more about Israel than many of the Jews she encounters. "The Jews wrote the Bible, but the Christians read it," she quips. Yet, even Christian crowds Rosenthal spoke to, she says, know a lot about the Holy Land, but not so much about its ordinary people living ordinary lives. Audiences comprised of Israeli expatriates, she says, pose a different kind of problem. For them, the emphasis she places on the issue of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews often arouses debates about inter-ethnic relations. It turns out, says Rosenthal, that even from afar, Israelis consider this is a hot, controversial topic. ONE GLIMPSE Rosenthal got into the stereotypical way in which outsiders view Israel was during the designing of her book-jacket, the first draft of which was a sketch of a haredi man holding a shofar and a Muslim wearing a keffiyeh. It took some persuading on her part, she says, to replace the archaic images with young, Western-looking girls, a teenager chewing bubble gum and a woman soldier. The concept of presenting Israel in this way, she says, is one which has begun to play a major role in Israeli diplomacy and public relations in the last few years. The Foreign Ministry has launched an effort to "repackage" Israel's image in the world as a land of luxurious beaches, great nightlife and of a thriving economy. The final chapter of Rosenthal's book tells the story of Stef Wertheimer, who is now a household name in America thanks to the acquisition of his company, Iscar, by billionaire investor Warren Buffet in his company. "I wanted to end on an optimistic note," she says, not knowing at the time that Wertheimer and his company would become Israel's number one "ambassador" in the business world - a coup for altering the country's face from one torn apart by terrorism to one that is a solid investment.