In “Twelve Tribes,” Michaeli isn’t preoccupied with the political future of Israel and Palestine. In over 400 pages, he barely touches upon it. His interest lies in the lives and backgrounds of the diverse people living in Israel today, their personal stories, struggles and aspirations. During the course of four visits to Israel between 2014 and 2018, he traveled across the country and seems to have interviewed almost everyone he met, drawing on his journalistic skills, his Hebrew fluency and his own family connections — Michaeli was raised in Rochester, N.Y., by Israeli parents, who later returned to Israel.
These illuminating conversations with a wide variety of ordinary people — ultra-Orthodox Jews, Holocaust survivors, aging kibbutzniks, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Arab citizens of Israel, Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank — fill the pages of this richly descriptive book. Michaeli allows his subjects to speak for themselves and largely eschews editorializing. He touches on many of the hot-button issues in Israeli politics, but never weighs in on them. This restraint — so rare when it comes to writing about Israel — is born out of a recognition that when Americans discuss Israel, they are, as he puts it, “talking very often about a country that no longer exists, proposing solutions that have long since been discarded to problems that have as likely multiplied as evaporated altogether.”
Viewed from afar, Israel is often seen in simplistic, even caricatured ways, whether good or bad, its complex history, society and politics reduced to talking points and slogans. It is refreshing, therefore, to read a book about the lives of actual Israelis, which brings their cacophonous voices, rather than the author’s opinions, to the fore. By documenting the dizzying diversity of Israeli society, “Twelve Tribes” demonstrates that the country’s future, and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, will not be determined by politicians and diplomats in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, but by the ability of Israelis and Palestinians, secular and religious Jews, natives and immigrants, to live and work together, however uneasily.