Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

Twelve tribes, two peoples, one land

You cannot begin to understand Israel and the Palestinians without understanding the diversity of Israeli and Palestinian society and the divisions within each society. A good place to start would be by reading Twelve Tribes, Promise and Peril in the New Israel, the new book by Ethan Michaeli. On four trips to Israel over four years, Michaeli interviewed a broad cross-section of Israelis and Palestinians and allows us to see, through his eyes, the real people who compose each society. Reading Michaeli’s book won’t necessarily give you a better understanding of the political issues we read about every day, but it will remind you that you are reading about real people, different from each other, whose humanity is often obscured by the headlines.

As Renee Ghert-Zand wrote in her review of Twelve Tribes, Michaeli “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.”

When I spoke with Michaeli about Twelve Tribes, he told me that while Americans tend to focus on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, this is not necessarily the most pressing conflict for many Israelis and Palestinians and that tribal conflicts within each group often take precedence for them. His goal in writing this book was not to interview politicians and pundits. Instead, he interviewed people who were good at speaking for themselves, “but not for a living.” The result is slices of Israeli and Palestinian society that most Americans never glimpse.

Twelve Tribes presents the good and the bad about Israeli and Palestinian life in all its complexity. For example, many Americans know of Israel as “the startup nation” because of its thriving tech industry, but Michaeli presents the dark side of Israel’s technology sector and the scandals that have surrounded it. Michaeli believes that we should broaden our news consumption to include sources at the community level and that one way to do that is to follow reliable sources on Twitter, where we can hear directly, unfiltered, from many segments of Israeli and Palestinian society.

He also noted that much of the English-language news that Americans get about Israel is biased toward the right because right-wing Americans have invested much more money in gaining influence in Israel than left-wing Americans. He recommended that left-wing Americans spend more time working with their counterparts in Israeli and Palestinian society (which is why groups like Heart of a Nation are so important).

Many of us have noticed that Americans who emigrate to Israel tend to be right-wing, and because they speak English fluently, their voices resonate loudly back in America with unwarranted credibility because instead of being just another right-wing loudmouth around the Scotch table at kiddush, they write with the imprimatur Israeli authenticity even though they are saying nothing they wouldn’t have said in America. 

In contrast to immigrants from other countries who fled antisemitism or economic collapse, American immigrants leave the prosperity of the U.S. for the relative deprivation of Israel. As one of Michaeli’s interviewees told him, “the American Israelis’ willingness to put up with the inconveniences of daily life in Israel was an indication of their zeal and determination. It was the same reason that so many of them were very right-wing and disproportionately represented among the ranks of the most racist settlers in the Palestinian territories.”

Throughout the book, Michaeli does not capitalize the word “Zionism.” I asked if this was his decision or the publisher’s. He said it was his decision, mainly to make the point that Zionism is not one movement, but a broad multi-faceted political ideology whose supporters differ on many issues. The same is true on many levels of the tribes that Michaeli describes in his book.

Twelve Tribes is not a substitute for the important books that directly address today’s political issues, but it is a valuable complement to those books, and it adds another layer of complexity and humanity to a conflict–or rather, set of conflicts, both internal and external–that is otherwise inexplicable.

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About the Author
Steve Sheffey is active in the national Jewish and pro-Israel political communities. His weekly Pro-Israel Political Update is read by thousands of subscribers across the country and around the world. The views he expresses on this blog are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations he is or has been associated with.
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