'If you support human rights but not Israel you're an idiot'

Israeli actress Noa Tishby’s ‘Simple Guide’ to Israel shakes up US progressives

Endorsed by both Bill Maher and Ben Shapiro, the book seeks to stop left-leaning people ‘from being used by voices who want to dismantle’ the most ‘misunderstood country on Earth’

  • Noa Tishby in Jaffa, January 2021. (Alon Shafransky)
    Noa Tishby in Jaffa, January 2021. (Alon Shafransky)
  • Israeli actress Noa Tishby speaks at the UN General Assembly, hosting Ambassadors Against BDS, in May 2016. (Courtesy)
    Israeli actress Noa Tishby speaks at the UN General Assembly, hosting Ambassadors Against BDS, in May 2016. (Courtesy)
  • Noa Tishby in Jaffa, January 2021 (Alon Shafransky)
    Noa Tishby in Jaffa, January 2021 (Alon Shafransky)
  • Israeli actress Noa Tishby with the late Israeli president Shimon Peres at a Times of Israel event in New York City in 2015. (Courtesy)
    Israeli actress Noa Tishby with the late Israeli president Shimon Peres at a Times of Israel event in New York City in 2015. (Courtesy)

Shortly after being interviewed recently on popular American TV talk show “The View,” Noa Tishby received a text message from a friend. The message had her seething later that morning during a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel.

In her on-air chat with co-host Meghan McCain, the Israeli-American actor and producer discussed her new book, “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.” Tishby said that given it’s been endorsed by both liberal political commentator Bill Maher and conservative counterpart Ben Shapiro, the book is balanced. She also said anti-Zionism is a politically correct version of antisemitism.

Her friend was having none of it.

“It’s just horrific what he wrote me,” says Tishby, before reading the text message aloud.

“We all have decisions to make in our life,” Tishby reads from her phone. “Ben, Bill and Meghan are three of the most disgustingly Islamophobic people in public view. Noa, you’ve played a deeply important role in my life and I’ll forever be grateful to you, but if you continue saying things like ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism,’ there’ll be no room for people like me in your life. I will continue to stand with people of conscience around the world in demanding full liberation for the Palestinians.”

As she finishes reciting the text, she’s clearly upset.

“And to think this comes from one of my most progressive friends,” says Tishby, 45, who lives in Los Angeles, after spending the first half of her life in Israel. “I’m like, this guy’s Jewish and his family perished in the Holocaust. To say Bill Maher is Islamophobic is absurd. This lack of nuanced conversation on the left is exactly the problem.

“Various voices that want to dismantle Israel are using people like my friend and this lack of facts to push their agenda,” she says.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby holding a copy of her new book, ‘Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth’ at a book event in Los Angeles, April 2021. (Rich Fury)

It’s also symptomatic of what motivated Tishby to write a book that addresses ignorance and prejudice involving Israel. As a successful figure in Hollywood, tackling such a contentious subject in book form was anything but a career imperative. It’s also not a novelty project, as she’s often spoken publicly and written op-eds in defense of Israel over the past 10 years.

“As an Israeli and a Jew, I’ve always been asked to voice my opinion about Israel and it can be complicated,” says Tishby, in her near-impeccable English. “To respond, I’d sometimes find myself looking for a date or particular fact to explain something about Israel. People would ask me if there’s a book they could read and I’d tell them there are all these historical books but they often wanted it in a quicker, more relatable, fun way to read and I couldn’t find that book. So, I thought I should write it.”

Ignorance is not bliss

As Tishby explains in the first chapter, the longer she spent in the US, the more ignorance and misconception about Israel she discovered, including among Jews — usually to its detriment.

After becoming disillusioned with media coverage of her homeland, about which she often tweeted, she founded Act for Israel in 2011. In her book, she describes it as “the first online advocacy and rapid response organization dedicated to truth spreading and pre-bots troll fighting.” A few sentences later, she adds: “This was when my advocacy became not just this thing I did at dinner parties but a true calling.”

In the ensuing years, while pursuing her TV and film career, Tishby worked with pro-Israel organizations and NGOs. In 2014, she co-founded Reality Israel, a series of leadership trips to Israel for working professionals – Jews and non-Jews – from different fields. In her speaking engagements – including at the United Nations in New York in 2016 and 2018 — and online activity, she debunked falsehoods about Israel.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby speaks at the UN General Assembly, hosting Ambassadors Against BDS, in May 2016. (Courtesy)

A natural extension of her advocacy, “Israel: A Simple Guide” also has a strong autobiographical narrative. It effectively integrates her personal and multi-generational family story, sometimes quite candidly, with the history and development of Israel.

“That wasn’t my intention when I began writing the book,” says Tishby, who visits Israel often. “I planned to write a modern explainer about Israel and at first, it was around 90 percent history and 10% personal. But both my agent and publisher pushed me to include more personal stories.”

The book is replete with humor, irreverence, self-deprecation and US vernacular, including the occasional expletive. It’s part of her goal to attract younger readers, giving them a livelier, more relatable alternative to dry history tomes.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby with her son Ari in this photo taken for Laisha magazine. (Yaniv Edri)

“From the outset, my plan was to make the book conversational, fun and easy to read and understand,” says Tishby, the mother of a 5-year-old son to whom she dedicates the book on the opening page. “I set out to write a modern take on Israel, explaining it to the new generation, and to the old generation that want to reacquaint themselves with certain information and have fun in the process. The topic is heavy enough. We can lighten it up a bit.”

Born in Tel Aviv into a politically well-connected family, Tishby is well-known in Israel, dating back to the 1990s when she starred in one of the country’s highest-rated prime time TV dramas, “Ramat Aviv Gimmel,” and recorded a top-selling album of songs in English. For many years, she was ubiquitous, appearing in numerous TV shows, films and theater productions, on magazine covers and as a model on billboards for national ad campaigns.

She then moved to Los Angeles where, in addition to acting in movies and TV shows, she made a name for herself as a producer. Tishby sold the first Israeli TV series — “B’Tipul” — to an American network and co-produced the US version, “In Treatment,” which became a huge hit and helped pave the way for Israeli entertainment content in the US market.

Tishby’s stature in the entertainment industry has helped her book receive the kind of media coverage most other first-time authors can only dream of. Since it came out in early April, she’s done more than 35 American and Israeli TV, newspaper, radio, podcast and webinar interviews, with more in the cards. Articulate, well-informed and passionate about the book’s subject matter, Tishby doesn’t beat around the bush in interviews.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby on an Israeli billboard circa 2010. (Courtesy)

As she never tires of saying: “If you believe in democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and especially if you’re a liberal and a progressive, and you’re not supporting Israel within the context of the Middle East, you’re an idiot.”

‘Simple Guide,’ but not simplistic

Her knack for engaging interlocutors and other promotional efforts are paying off in robust book sales, as her publisher has ordered a second printing to meet demand.

Packed with facts, opinion and attitude, along with seven pages of maps at the start of the book, “Israel: A Simple Guide” isn’t simplistic. Tishby takes the reader on a journey of discovery, both of her family’s story and the country’s rich, conflict-ridden history. A natural raconteur, she covers a lot of ground from biblical times to current-day Israel in a spirited, informative approach.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby with the late Israeli president Shimon Peres at a Times of Israel event in New York City in 2015. (Courtesy)

In the opening pages, she makes it clear the reader’s in for an unconventional history lesson, with little pretense of objectivity but grounded in facts.

The second chapter focuses on Israel’s deep historical roots. Referring to the ancient town of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast having been conquered by Herod the Great, she describes him as: “… a locally born Edomite slash Jewish hustler, who climbed the political ladder faster than an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil.”

On the next page, she adds, “Israel sits on so much freaking history and archaeology, it’s unfathomable. When you dig in Jerusalem, for example, you’re bound to find something old and priceless buried underneath. Which makes renovations a bitch.”

Tishby deftly chronicles Israel’s evolution, providing critical context to its struggles and the successive disputes that have plagued the region, while also telling her family’s story where pertinent.

Israeli actress Noa Tishby’s grandparents Hilda and Hanan Yavor, with Golda Meir in this undated photo. Hanan Yavor was an Israeli diplomat. (Courtesy)

“Reconnecting to my ancestry was the thing that moved me the most in writing the book,” says Tishby, whose Eastern European ancestors moved to pre-state Israel, where they played active roles in the country’s early years. “I felt so honored and thrilled that I was able to bring especially the stories of my grandparents and great-grandparents to the rest of the world.”

While Tishby makes no bones about where her sympathies lie, her portrait of Israel isn’t blemish-free.

Referring to the 1948 War of Independence and certain Israeli actions, Tishby writes: “Were offensive atrocities committed in a defensive war? Yes. Was it right? No. Is this systematic ethnic cleansing? Give me a break. If this was the definition of ethnic cleansing, then every country that has ever gone to war (or been forced into war) would be guilty of it.”

Israeli actress Noa Tishby in the Israel Defense Forces, 1995. (Courtesy)

In recounting a visit to the West Bank city of Hebron during her army service, she writes: “Hebron is a big deal for the Jews. It’s also a big deal for Muslims. And since it’s in a highly disputed location, it’s a shit show.”

Later, she wades into attitudes among Israel’s majority population. “Racism is one of humanity’s least favorable qualities, and lo and behold, it exists even among the Jews themselves,” she writes. “So, yeah, we’re going to touch upon racism within Israeli Jewish society, and for those of you who are about to get offended, go clutch some pearls, will ya?”

In one of her stronger, more polemic chapters, Tishby takes aim at the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “On its website, BDS speaks of Israeli atrocities, murder, apartheid, genocide and systematic ethnic cleansing,” she writes. “The only problem is that it’s a giant pile of crap — misinformation, disinformation, manipulation, elimination of history and flat-out lies. And don’t even get me started on the BDS double standard toward the only consistent democracy in the Middle East (Israel) versus every single other country in the region…

“BDS is a movement where way too often the ones with bad faith prey on the ones with bad knowledge,” she writes.

BDS is a movement where way too often the ones with bad faith prey on the ones with bad knowledge

Predictably, BDS proponents have responded vehemently, demonizing Tishby, her book and Israel online.

“I’m getting a lot of hate from all the pro-Palestinian people, which is ridiculous considering I’m pro-Israeli, I’m a Zionist, and I’m also pro-Palestinian,” says Tishby. “And not only are these things not mutually exclusive, in every document of Zionism, from the originating days, until now, it’s very much clearly said. So to think that you have to be only pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli is a reductive kind of notion, which isn’t surprising but sad.”

Israel actress Noa Tishby on the red carpet at the Screen Actors’ Guild awards in Los Angeles, 2011. The US spin-off ‘In Treatment’ of the Israeli ‘B’Tipul’ was nominated for an award. (Courtesy)

Tishby, who refers to herself in the book in different places as a “leftie,” a “liberal” and a “centrist/leftie,” laments her adversaries don’t seek dialogue but rather vitriol. She wishes they would be open to respectful discussion instead of blocking her out. On multiple occasions, she’s said she would welcome the opportunity to publicly debate harsh critics of Israel, such as Roger Waters.

When Tishby first conceived of the book, she thought she’d require a ghostwriter to have it reach fruition. In the end, she wrote it entirely on her own over a 16-month period, in a clear, unpretentious and energetic voice, consistent with the way she speaks.

For all her other achievements, this endeavor — from the research to the writing and current PR and media blitz — has proven particularly gratifying for Tishby.

“I’ve done a lot of things in the entertainment industry, but this is the most personal and meaningful project in my life so far,” says Tishby, who’s now in discussion with Israeli publishers to release the book in Hebrew. “And since it came out, it’s allowed me to engage in thoughtful discussions with people on a daily basis and to spark a conversation that’s extremely important, not just to Israel but also Western society.”

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