Donna Rosenthal heads the pack across Shibuya’s famed pedestrian crossing, grinning from ear to ear and arms waving hello. In Tokyo to meet with her agent about a possible Japanese edition of her book “The Israelis,” she’s more than happy to meet up in old territory.
“When first here in 1970, I lived in Shoto 1-chome, in a traditional wood house — long gone, of course — with five other ‘gaijin.’ Before that I was in Shizuoka, where my job was to be blonde. When I wanted to escape to Tokyo, it was Rabbi Tokayer of the synagogue in Hiroo who both came to my rescue and helped me improve my Hebrew. In 1986 he officiated at my marriage.”
Donna, who now lives in California, was born to Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish parents in El Paso, Texas. It was Asian studies at Berkeley that led her to Japan for an initial year. In Shizuoka, the culture shock was extreme and she often cried herself to sleep. “In Tokyo, trying to find a bra that fit was my Longest Day.”
Now an acclaimed author (“writing a book is different to reporting”), she built her reputation as a prizewinning journalist, who while covering 60 countries still found time to tuck a master’s degree in international relations (Middle East) from the London School of Economics under her belt. She has written for the most prestigious publications in America, and also worked extensively in Israel as a reporter, TV news producer and Hebrew University lecturer.
“When I worked as a stringer for Japan Newsweek during the time of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, I was one of the few women members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan,” she recalls. “Sitting at that bar night after night was quite an education.”
So too was her first visit to Israel. “I went in 1969 with many of the usual stereotypes. What I learned blew me away.” Later in her career she reported in Israel for five years and also traveled to remote mountain villages in Ethiopia, introducing Israeli audiences to black Jews praying in grass-hut synagogues to emigrate to Israel.
As Donna explains in the introduction to “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” it was an international news producer at CNN who inspired the book.
“He told me: ‘Our viewers are confused. We have footage of Jews who look like Arabs, Arabs who look like Jews. We have black Jews. Bearded 16th century Jews and sexy girls in tight jeans. Who are these people, anyway?”
So Donna set out to explain, encouraging hundreds of Israelis to tell their stories. Half of them are women — Jewish, Muslim and Christian Israelis. Ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in abnormal times.
A 27-year-old physics student, Ori, describes trying to get through each day: “We just want a sane life.” Having seen relatives or friends killed and wounded, most Israelis have adopted the motto “Life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first.”
Where else in the world is every newborn baby (whether Jew or Arab) issued a gas mask?
As Donna says: “I wrote this book specifically to smash stereotypes. With more foreign journalists in Israel per capita than any other country in the world, this tiny country gets more coverage than China, India and all of Africa combined. Yet still the average person hasn’t a clue who the Israelis are.”
Everywhere she goes she finds the most amazing ignorance. “In the U.S., even a Ph.D. from Stanford University told me that Israelis are suicide bombers. Many people think Israelis ride camels. They haven’t a clue that Israel is a high-tech powerhouse.”
Interviewed on a national radio station in the States, she was asked, “So Donna, what is the final solution for the Jews?” And on hearing that Arab Christians are the most educated and wealthy of all Israelis per capita, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist replied, “Oh I know why: Christians were there first.”
“Did you know,” she says, “that the most common name for an Israeli is Muhammad? That some 25 percent of Israeli children are Muslim? That Muslims and Christians serve in the army? And that only about 120,000 out of the population of 7 million Israelis were born in an English-speaking country? But on CNN and the BBC, most Israelis they interview are native English speakers.”
There’s very little focus on politicians — “My feeling is that all politicians are like diapers, they both should be changed often and for the same reason.”
Part I looks at what it means to become Israeli. Part II covers the various “tribes,” including the latest exodus of Russian Jews and black Jews airlifted out of Africa. Donna’s adopted Ethiopian brother was one of the leaders of Operation Solomon, which brought 14,000 black Jews to Israel in 36 hours — the world’s largest human airlift and the first time in recorded history that Africans were taken out of African en masse without chains to freedom.
“The Israelis” also covers “Widening Fault Lines Between Jews and Jews (Part III)” and “Schizophrenia: Non-Jews in a Jewish State (Part IV).” With pages of notes at the back, plus an extensive bibliography and index, it’s little wonder the book’s pregnancy was long and laborious.
En route to Shanghai to meet Chinese publishers, she believes people are hungry to hear about ordinary people. The book is being used in U.S. and Israeli high schools and universities — from Harvard to the Hebrew University.
It’s popular in Israel, she says, because Israelis are also curious to learn about themselves. Like all human beings, often they don’t know about people living down the street who have a different religion or political or ethnic or economic background.
“Students are one my most important audiences. If there’s to be any hope for Israel and Palestine and all peoples to live in peace, it’s very important to understand our diversity and differences.
“There should be a book about the diversity of ordinary Palestinians,” she adds. “But I don’t have the background to write it.”
With “The Israelis” coming out in translation from Turkey to Spain, she sees herself busy promoting the book for some time to come. Beyond that, she says shrugging, “I can only quote Colette, who looking into the future, talked about ‘the fertile void.’ “