Israelis tend to be extremely touchy about how they are represented in the media. As any journalist with an e-mail address knows, interviewing a "non- representative" Israeli is likely to prompt furious responses from carriers of the mainstream torch. According to this view, the typical Israeli is rather like the average voter for the Kadima party: secular but respectful of tradition; willing to make "painful concessions" for peace but in favour of severe measures against Palestinian resistors; liberal but dedicated to the idea of a mono-ethnic Jewish state.
With portrayals of Israelis confined largely to those who are "typical", books about the country tend to be boring and predictable. Arthur Neslen, a Jewish Londoner and former international editor of Red Pepper magazine, sets out to buck the trend. He travels to the fringes of Israeli society, interviewing rabbis and atheists, the young and old, settlers and anarchists, new immigrants and veteran Israelis, lefties and diehard right-wingers, soldiers and civilians. The result is a fascinating and instructive piece of writing.
Neslen displays integrity as an interviewer and allows his subjects to speak for themselves. He has managed to gain access to some otherwise reluctant interviewees: including Larissa Trimbobler, wife of Yigal Amir, who in 1995 assassinated the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin; and Hanan Porat, a settler leader and (at the time he was interviewed) member of the Knesset's foreign affairs and security committee. Neslen succeeds in getting Porat to admit that Israel holds nuclear weapons: this may seem like common knowledge, but officially Israel still adheres to its policy of vagueness on the matter.
The most interesting interviews, however, are those that are most unexpected. Liad Kantorowich, a Tel Aviv sex worker, provides a fascinating socio-political analysis of the sexual preferences of her clients. A devoted supporter of the notorious Beitar Jerusalem Football Club tells how she secretly reports the racist behaviour of her fellow fans to human rights organisations. Alona Abt, who was the prospective presenter of an Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street, engages Neslen in a bitter-sweet discussion about multicultural Muppets.
Despite the rigour with which Neslen carries out his interviews, his book is highly political. Through his choice of interviewees, he encourages the reader to share his views, which are extremely critical of Zionism. The decision to exclude Palestinian Israelis is particularly contentious. Neslen believes that Palestinians, having only a compromised stake in the identity of a Jewish state, cannot feature in a journey through the Israeli psyche. While this view accords with how the European left views the issue, it constitutes another exclusion and ignores the complexity of Palestinian/Israeli citizenship. Neslen does, however, intend to dedicate his next book to Palestinian citizens of Israel. I am already looking forward to reading it.