Life & Culture

Noa's Arc: How Noa Tishby went from actress to Israel activist

The former Israeli government envoy is a fearless defender of the state


It’s not surprising that actress Noa Tishby has become Hollywood’s most outspoken advocate for Israel. Love of the Jewish state is etched deep into her family history.

Her great-grandfather, Nachum Tisch, was the founder of the country’s Ministry of Industry and Trade. Her grandfather, Hanan Yavor, was Israel’s first ambassador in West  Africa and served as a member of the Israeli delegation to the UN.

Her grandmother, Fania Artzi, was one of the founders of Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania in Galilee. Her mother, Yael, was head of the food department at the Israeli Export Centre. Advocating for Israel was something that Noa took for granted: “Being Israeli, being Jewish, having the family that I have. Coming from the background that I came from…”

Tishby is the proud author of a book that attempts to debunk the myths about Israel, and she has been an activist for nearly two decades. In April 2022, the then prime minister Yair Lapid appointed her the first special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimisation of Israel. But this year Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded that role, when Tishby spoke out against his judicial reforms.

Today, she’s philosophical: “I said from the beginning that I have been doing this work without the title and then with the title and now without the title again. So to me, the title was a moment in time in which I was able to represent the state of Israel on the national and international stages. It was a huge privilege and a huge honour but not something that changed my day-to-day activities because I was already doing it and will continue doing it, regardless.

“The fact that Israel didn’t have an antisemitism envoy and doesn’t now is unfortunate.

People like the UK’s Lord John Mann, who I have worked with, have been asking for years, ‘Why does Israel not have an antisemitism envoy?’”

Tishby is speaking to me on Zoom from Degania, and she breaks off to take her phone outside to show how stunning the area is. She says:  “It is kind of beautiful in its own way that we are having this conversation while I’m literally at the sea of Galilee. I spent much of my childhood here and there is a molecular feeling. There’s something very, very primal about growing up here in the most beautiful of ways because you’re only left with what’s important. Does that make sense?” It makes absolute sense looking at the far-off mountains, the glittering water, swaying palms and the white sand of Degania.

“This is where I grew up and how I was raised,” she continues, “and I never thought this is where my life’s going to take me, to defend all this. But once it started, it just couldn’t stop.”

In 2011 she set up Act For Israel, the first Israel-focused online rapid response and online advocacy organisation. She went on to  found Reality Israel, a series of leadership trips to Israel for Jews and non-Jews, bringing thousands of professionals in the arts, sciences, sport, food, tech and finance to the country. She addressed the UN in 2018 discussing the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement as well as Israeli innovations.

She says she’s saddened by the country’s current divisions. “I’m not an extreme person. I always like to compromise. I’m a person that believes in communications.

“I don’t believe in extremism in any way, shape of form. And some fractions of the Israeli government are extreme at the moment. These fractions, sadly, because of the political structure of the Israeli government have oversized power. It’s unfortunate.”

Does she think there could be a civil war in Israel? She’s an optimist: “I believe that we can overcome this. I also see the currents here that are looking for communication, that are looking for a compromise, and that are looking for ways to solve this and to find and re-establish a common denominator.

“Having said that, we are a people with a lot of written and oral history, and it’s not like we haven’t seen this in the past …  again, though one of the most beautiful things about Judaism is the power of debate.

“I think the Israeli spirit is shining through in extraordinary ways. It is shining through in the resistance. It’s shining through in the creativity. And through in the relative peacefulness, even though it became a little bit more raucous recently, of exercising your democratic right.

“We just have to make sure that the radical fractions within Israeli society, which are a very small fraction of the population, don’t take over the country in ways that are threatening the safety and security of the state of Israel.”

She cites the various wars and intifadas over the decades as turning Israel from a “David” to a “Goliath”. “I think that this brought out in people, their built-in antisemitism and suspicion of Jews,” she says. “There is a sense that if you have a subconscious bias around the Jewish people that includes, to some extent, things that are ‘positive’ about the Jewish community, namely that they have all the power, they control x,y and z. It’s not positivity. It’s just antisemitism in disguise, right?

“If you have these preconceived notions, then you will have an opinion about Israel that is dependent and based on feelings and not on facts. It is antisemitic in essence.

“Then, of course, the automatic conclusion that you would come up with is that Israel is the big bad wolf of the Middle East. Why not?”

She believes it’s part of her mission to try to alter that way of thinking.“It is something that I took upon myself to try and I don’t want to say change, but at least to try and make people aware of it so that they have the ability to pause and think, ‘Maybe Israel is not the big bad wolf and maybe the Jewish people do need their own state.’ Then maybe they will be open to the advantages that Israel brings to the world because it’s quite frustrating when you look at the amount of contribution that Israel brings to the world and the amount of hate that it generates.”

Tishby is currently writing another book: “Look, sadly, antisemitism became fashionable again. There is no world in which you can make the oldest hate in the world go away, but my intention is to at least make it less fashionable.”

Her life was not always so political. For many years she was famous in Israel as a model and actress. Tishby starred in one of the country’s longest running soaps, Ramat Aviv Gimmel. Her face adorned billboards across Israel.

When we meet, she is make-up free and looks a good decade younger than her 48 years. She’s wearing a white striped seersucker shirt. Her jewellery is very boho-chic with lots of necklaces, including a star of David, bracelets and bangles and striking gold square earrings.

Her accent is more Los Angeles than Tel Aviv. After Ramat Aviv Gimmel she moved to Los Angeles and soon was starring in series like Nip/Tuck, Big Love and The Affair and films such as The Island.

“I did always have America in my sights as a child,” she says. “It is still a great country with much opportunity.”

She soon set up her own production company, Noa’s Arc. Her ancestors’ pioneering spirit came to the fore when she was the first person ever to sell an Israeli TV format to the US. “I did a British show in America. So, the concept of bringing a format from one country to the next was a concept that I was aware of. I heard about the show Be Tipul in Israel and thought ‘Wow, what a brilliant format.’”

Be Tipul or In Treatment, was about a psychotherapist, and his weekly sessions with patients, as well as those with his own therapist at the end of the week.

“I was looking for content to produce. It was one of those ah-ha moments! I thought ‘I’ll bring it to America.’ I didn’t really know how and it was so unheard of that there wasn’t even anything written into everyone’s contracts about selling international format rights abroad.”

She sold the show to HBO and then went on to produce it with Mark Wahlberg. Starring Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment ran for four seasons, and was nominated for  53 different awards winning two Primetime Emmys and one Golden Globe.

Tishby says she feels honoured to be the first to sell on an Israeli TV series “because it completely transformed the Israeli entertainment industry. Now Israeli TV is considered some of the finest and shows have been sold and formatted all over the world.”

She  believes television drama is one of the few areas that cuts across any negative thoughts or preconceptions people have of Israel.

“The Los Angeles and the American industry’s relationship to Israel became totally different because when you talk to a TV executive about Israel, they don’t think about any of the negative stuff. All they think about is innovation, creativity, ‘what is it, and how much money can I make?’

“Their attitude is ‘What do you have? Do you have anything new for me from Israel?’ That’s huge. By the way, that’s true for all industries that are actually intimately involved with Israel. Whether it’s the tech or finance industry and the diamond industry and other areas like clothes, bridal dresses, food manufacturing. They recognise Israel’s excellence and innovation.”

Tishby and her three sisters grew up between Tel Aviv and  Degania. Her father Daniel was an architect and there was no history of performing in the family. “When I started having the urge to act and sing, my family was like, ‘What? Who are you? What is this?’

“Growing up, I accompanied my parents to protests and demonstrations. We had ministers and ambassadors over for dinner several times a month. Politics was all around me so it was surprising that I decided to go into the entertainment industry.” First she wanted to be painter, “I loved it and still do. But I went to my first drama class when I was about 14 and that was it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

She studied drama at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and sang in shows during her time in the Israeli Defence Forces. She later went on to play Anita in West Side Story at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv.

She divides her time now between Los Angeles and Israel and when we speak, she is on holiday at a resort in Galilee, part of her grandmothers’ kibbutz. She breaks off our conversation often when her seven-year-old son, Ari, comes in wanting his mum’s attention. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment when, like mums everywhere, she produces a bag of sweet treats to keep him occupied. It’s obvious to me that Tishby’s most important role is that of a mum.

“Absolutely!” she says, “It’s like, grab a bucket, fill it up with every cliché of being a mum and just start reading them! There’s nothing like it. It’s the best thing in the world.

“I was never one of these girls that was dreaming about becoming a mum. It was more like I’ll do it, one day. When Ari came though, it was obviously the most life-changing moment, the most rewarding, the most fun, the most challenging, the biggest love. It’s the best. It’s absolutely the best.”

She and Ari’s father, fund manager Ross Hinkle are no longer together but the couple are united in their parenting of Ari. “I speak Hebrew to Ari all the time whether we are here or in LA Ross and both agree it’s important for him to have a second language.”

Ari has dual American and Israeli nationality. “Is he more Israeli than American? Maybe he’s like me, 100 per cent  Israeli and 100 per cent American,” Tishby says.

“He’s obviously very young, he’s going to be eight in November. It’s hard to tell. But I can definitely say that his Jewish and Israeli identity is very strong.

“But so is his American identity. I think the good thing about being Jewish in America in 2023 is that it’s still, and notwithstanding the rise of antisemitism and everything that is happening right now, very easy to be Jewish in America. These identities live very well and harmoniously. I was able to mesh them pretty well. But we’ll see. Time will tell.”

Tishby was brought up secular. She’s taking a different approach with Ari. “I’m definitely bringing him up to be more connected to the culture and the faith than I was.  Because I was raised in Israel, it’s different. It goes without saying that you are Jewish, and you understand the culture and your sense of faith. There are so many beautiful things about Judaism that I would like him to learn. He definitely is a little Zionist.”

She is the centre of the family celebrations at the High Holy Days and this Rosh Hashanah she will be hosting around 40 family and friends. She does all the cooking. “I do it always at Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I have in recent years had my nephew’s girlfriend to help as well. Did I tell you I have ten nephews and nieces?” she asks with a laugh.

“But the cooking is a huge part of the fun of the holiday for me. It’s a delight and I usually take the day before off as well and just spend two days in the kitchen and it’s a part of the party to me and I am hoping Ari grows up with the smells and the excitement of the preparation.

“The whole concept of preparing it all is something that is very important. Ari loves my chicken soup which is my mum’s chicken soup. He loves my banana cake which is my sisters’ banana cake recipe. It’s all about family and continuity.”

‘Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth’ by Noa Tishby is published by Free Press

Photographer - Alon Shafransky
Make up - Galit Verthaim
Hair - Kobi Kalderon

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