Life & Culture

Putting Israel’s case to Jagger, Whoopi and co

Outspoken advocate for Israel, Noa Tishby schools the stars on BDS and antiZionism


Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Noa Tishby wears hers around her neck. It’s in the shape of a silver map of Israel, which hangs next to a delicate Magen David. Speaking to her over Zoom from her LA home, I wonder if she picked out the jewellery especially for our interview about her work as an outspoken Israel advocate.

But when she pops up on Instagram only days later to explain to Whoopi Goldberg that the Holocaust was actually about race, there are the necklaces again. They are her uniform, or perhaps, more accurately, her armour.

She has recently written a book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. But the former actress and award-winning producer has been fighting Israel’s PR battle for over a decade, having launched Act for Israel, Israel’s first online advocacy organisation, in 2011.

“People would always say to me that [Israel] was so complicated and ask if there was a book they could read. I knew there was no pop culture version of the story of Israel, so it occurred to me that I should probably write it.”

The result is a lively, chatty, easy read. While not getting bogged down in complex minutiae, it doesn’t scrimp on important detail, managing to cover in 300 pages, the history of Zionism and anti-Zionism, antisemitism, Israeli society and its many contributions to the tech and medical world.

Writing from the perspective of “a liberal, still left-wing realist”, Tishby, 44, also confronts the more contentious issues of settlements, the rights of Arabs in Israel and Palestinian national identity. “You have to address the thorny issues in the state of Israel, just as you need to address thorny issues with every country in the world. That’s a part of what I say about Israel. There’s not a single country that’s perfect. There’s no such thing.”

Not long after arriving in the US over 20 years ago, Tishby realised Israel had “a massive PR problem”, explaining: “There were a lot of misconceptions. People were surprised I was modern. A lot of people thought Israel was constantly at war.”

The image problem peaked in 2010 when a Turkish flotilla carrying several hundred passengers, including Islamists with terrorist ties, tried to break through the Gaza blockade. Israeli soldiers boarded the vessel when it refused to turn back, opening fire only after one of the protestors grabbed a weapon from an Israeli soldier. In the event, nine of the ship’s passengers were killed. Despite the shooting being provoked, as Tishby writes in characteristic sardonic humour: “The internet-verse had already decided that Israel…out of the blue one fine morning, killed nine peace activists who were chilling on the deck of The Love Boat.”

Her anger and frustration at the outpouring of disinformation led Tishby to found Act for Israel. Already a pro in front of the camera from years of acting, she has since become ubiquitous on social media and news channels across the globe, relentlessly and passionately fighting Israel’s corner. “The Left all over the world is abandoning the single consistent democracy in the Middle East, which is mind-boggling and needs to be reverted immediately.”

Unsurprisingly, she frequently finds herself at odds with the “super liberal circles” she mixes in (“I had woke friends before there was a name for it!”) and says that she has seen “the shift from discussing Israel’s policies to questioning: ‘Is Israel an actual state or is it a colonial endeavour that needs to be dismantled?’ I hear this at dinner parties with people that I know.”

Outside the relative safety of a dining room, she has been followed on Twitter by Radio Hamas and is “used to” getting death threats. “It’s not pleasant,” she says, almost nonchalantly, “but it’s part of the work that [Israel activists] do. You really have to maintain an even keel, a thick skin, all the clichés.”

You also have to maintain a good, if not dry, sense of humour, which is partly why the book is so accessible. Within the seriousness of the subject matter are smile-raising comments such as: “This is not … a statement on which nation is better [Jews or Palestinians]….This is just about which one is older. (And since I live in LA, older isn’t necessarily better.)”. Tishby has also added a generous sprinkling of expletives. The title was going to be “WTF is Israel?” until she was advised otherwise.

Today, Tishby is on good form. When my 15-year old son pops into the room, she delights in telling him: “You should read my book. It’s a fun history book with the F-bomb.” (He is now next in the queue.)

Jewish teenagers and young people are her target audience. “If we, as a Jewish community, don’t know how to answer these ‘uncomfortable’ questions and have these ‘uncomfortable’ conversations, we shouldn’t be surprised when the conversation gets taken away from us.”

Nowadays, living across the Atlantic with her young son, she is considered “Israel’s unofficial ambassador”, but growing up in the Tel Aviv suburbs, Tishby had her heart set on acting. Hugely driven, by the age of 19, she had landed a role in the popular drama Ramat Aviv Gimmel, becoming a household name, but as soon as she could, she took herself off to LA with ambitions to crack Hollywood. There, the acting career stalled (“I did not end up becoming Gal Gadot.”), but ever ambitious, Tishby turned to producing and sold the first Israeli TV series, In Treatment (Be Tipul), ever sold to an American TV network, HBO.

Her background in entertainment means she has an impressive clutch of contacts in her phonebook. Writing revealingly about the BDS movement, Tishby recounts phoning “my friend Mick” (as in Jagger) to persuade him to perform in Tel Aviv after he was lobbied by BDS stalwart Roger Waters not to visit Israel. The phone-call worked and the Stones gave a “beyond epic” show.

The book’s USP is that it weaves in the back story of Israel with Tishby’s own. She writes with love and admiration about her grandma Fania, a pioneer of Degania, Israel’s first kibbutz, her great-grandfather Nachum Tishby, who was instrumental in developing industry in the fledgling state and her maternal grandfather, Hanan Yavor, Israel’s first ambassador to newly independent Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. “I didn’t intend to put that much of my family history in, but while writing, I realised that it’s crucial because it’s directly connected to the story of the country.’”

After our Zoom interview, I email to ask if she plans to follow her grandfather into politics. I don’t hear back. Possibly because she has been busy setting the record straight with Goldberg, Amnesty International et al. She has even been touted to replace the former on American TV show The View.

The possibilities for the highly articulate and telegenic Tishby seem endless, but for now, Israel’s arguably most effective PR weapon is focusing on the task at hand. “I feel I have an obligation to do this work. It’s just so much more important than anything else I can do.”

Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth
is published by Simon and Schuster

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