ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 257

Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby have a new book titled 'Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,' which candidly discusses race and antisemitism. (Courtesy)
Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby. (Courtesy)
Interview'What if us marginalized groups fought together?'

Noa Tishby and Emmanuel Acho discuss their candid new book on Black-Jewish relations

The Israeli actress and the former NFL linebacker have both turned to activism. Their collaboration, ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,’ breaks taboos to find common ground

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — Uncomfortable conversations may seem an unlikely way to willingly spend time these days — but former NFL football player and current sports analyst Emmanuel Acho has taken these conversations on as what he calls his “vocation.” His most recent project is a collaboration with Israel’s former antisemitism envoy, actor Noa Tishby.

In their new book, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,” co-authors Acho and Tishby meet the current moment with a book full of candid conversations between friends about Jewish history, antisemitic tropes, Zionism and prejudice in America.

“My initial thought was simple, and it was how often marginalized groups fight in silos. Black people fight for Black people, women fight for women, and Jewish people fight for Jewish people. But what would happen, and how much more powerful could we be, if we collectively fought together?” Acho mused in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.

Acho is quick to note that the idea for the book came about well before the October 7 terror onslaught in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 253 to the Gaza Strip.

In fact, he said, it almost didn’t come about at all due to an online conversation between Acho and Tishby, in which Acho brought Palestinian-American activist Noura Erekat in as a counterpoint without informing Tishby beforehand.

Once the two got back on track with holding their conversations, Acho recounted, October 7 occurred, rendering antisemitism even more of a force in the world and, in his opinion, further necessitating these dialogues.

“I didn’t know if the book was going to come back to life with Noa, but the book literally fell apart, and thankfully Noa saw that there was still such a need for this book, and we just found a way to come back together and write it. And after we got through that, I think we realized we could get through anything,” Acho recalled.

The “uncomfortable conversations” of the book range from explorations of Jewish stereotypes and antisemitic tropes to discussions of Zionism. Acho candidly asks Tishby about stereotypes such as Jewish success in America, about “white-passing” Jews, and other fundamentally taboo topics, while Tishby responds with both knowledge and kindness.

The book is Acho’s newest addition to his previous works “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” and “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy.” Tishby is an actress, advocate, former Israeli antisemitism envoy and the author of “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country On Earth.”

Acho and Tishby spoke over the phone with The Times of Israel this week about the book, troubling discourse today, and the increasingly dystopian-seeming society in which we live. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Police enter an encampment set up by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Times of Israel: There’s an inherent nucleus of optimism here and in these conversations, though they touch on difficult subjects. How do you tap into that optimism, and how would you advise others to do the same?

Emmanuel Acho: Man! That’s actually difficult. I think that the nucleus of optimism has to start with yourself. That’s the only way. If you start looking grandiosely at the world around you, there’s not a ton to be optimistic about.

So you have to be optimistic about the environment you’re creating around you, about the world you’re creating around you. You have to be optimistic about what you are doing in society. And I believe that everyone can impact their home, and that home can impact the neighborhood, and the neighborhood can impact the city, and the city can impact the state, and the state can impact the nation, and the nation can impact the world. But your optimism has to start with yourself. It has to.

So this is for both of you, but I’ll start with Emmanuel. Which of these were the hardest conversations that you had together? Was there anything that you wish you’d discussed more, or maybe conversely, that you wish you’d discussed less?

Acho: (Laughs.) Our hardest conversation would be Zionism — and not because it was inherently difficult, but hardest because I see the concept so large that it’s overwhelming. I think because Noa has so much knowledge of it, she probably has the ability to see it more simply, within her head and within her heart. I don’t have that ability. And so that’s probably the one that was the most difficult, was the concept of Zionism. And also realizing and talking to so many Palestinians, both neutral and more extreme, realizing that that is the crux of the turmoil. At least as an outsider, that’s what I would say is the crux of the tension and the turmoil, to understand just how much weight is on that topic. So that’s what I would say is the hardest.

Noa Tishby: I couldn’t agree more. It was definitely the hardest conversation because Zionism by now has been confiscated and hijacked to mean something that it isn’t. And people who hear the word Zionism and they think it necessitates the genocide of Palestinians. And that is just flat-out not true, and it’s very hard to deprogram somebody.

Illustrative: A protester displays a placard calling for the end of Zionism during a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally in Frankfurt, Germany on October 14, 2023, following the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

It’s hard to take people back to, “Well, you believe that Israel has the right to exist, right? Because nobody likes war. Like, the Jewish people deserve a place to live, right?” And the majority of people would say yes to that, but they’ve been programmed to think that it literally necessitates a genocide. And it is very, very hard to explain to people that it doesn’t, that it really, really doesn’t. Because they say, “Well, you say that, but the Palestinians say otherwise,” and well, it doesn’t matter what they say — it’s not true. So that’s been a very tough conversation to have, but I think it was also a beautiful conversation to have, as all of them were, honestly.

I thought it was very well done and moving how you candidly discussed the lenses of color and how Jewish people can present, whether as people of color or white-passing, and to what extent that impacts people’s interactions with prejudice and hate. Emmanuel, I defer to you and your life experience in asking you, to what extent were you surprised by the way that particular conversation went?

Acho: That was one of my favorite conversations. I’m reminded of a piece in The New York Times in the late 1960s by James Baldwin, and it was titled — and I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t — “Negroes are Antisemitic Because They’re Anti-White.” One of the most fascinating pieces of literature I’ve ever read in my life, one of the most well-constructed and well-written. I think that a lot of the tension in America stems from perceiving Jewish people as white. Because in America, we take all of the nuance of the Middle East, we put it into a blender, and it comes out as a black-and-white issue so that we can digest it. But it’s so much more than that.

And so, as long as we perceive — as long as Black people perceive Jewish people as white, and white people in America — because of slavery, because of Jim Crow, because of civil rights — have been deemed as the oppressor, and have been the oppressor, then you have to put Jewish people in said “oppressor” bucket. And so now, when you’re trying to construct your opinion on if you are pro-Jewish or anti-Jewish, so long as Jewish people are perceived as white, and they are in that white bucket, then it will just convolute your opinion on Jewish people. And so, going back and forth with Noa on that chapter was probably my favorite, because it made so much sense.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat-Minnesota, left, talks during a press conference to call for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza on Capitol Hill, in Washington, October 20, 2023. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

And even though there was tension there — I was like, hey, if Black people had the ability to assimilate into white culture, I’m sure we would, but we didn’t have that luxury. So I think that that’s not talked about enough, the perception of Jewish people as white, and the ability for Jewish people to claim whiteness when it’s convenient, and to deny whiteness when it’s inconvenient. I think that Jewish people have that luxury and that is a very unfair luxury if you don’t also share that luxury, which Black people don’t.

Tishby: I want to put an emphasis on — what Emmanuel just said right now is a simple crucial conversation to have with America that we’re not having. I mean, I have nothing to add other than that. The rules of the game have changed, to look at the world through the prism of oppressor and oppressed, and through the melanin of the skin. And once you judge the world by these parameters, the Jewish people and Jewish community do not fit. And this is one of the causes of severe antisemitism, which looks and sounds like old antisemitism, just re-cached into a different place.

The book did not really go into the ways in which that formulation and template affect discussions about possible remedies for it, via Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), and the role that antisemitism has in DEI contexts.

Tishby: I mean, DEI and ethnic studies need to be completely re-examined and re-imagined in light of what’s happening right now in society. I’m not going to go all the way to “It needs to be abolished,” but it needs to be re-imagined because DEI and ethnic studies curriculum have turned so antisemitic, and again, not by accident, but rather, by design. So antisemitic. And it’s just… these are just lies. I mean, we’re facing the same blood libels that we’ve faced throughout history, just this time rehashed as something slightly different. And it boggles the mind.

Students attend a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rally on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, on April 24, 2024. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

It was also more implicit than explicit in your book that we have been, in a way, teed up for this moment by the binaries of our discussions and debates, whether it’s pro-/anti-Trump, or George Floyd fury of 2020. Those things have schooled us, for better and worse, into viewing things as black and white. George Floyd, we saw a very clear example of systemic racism, injustice and violence on our phones and computers — Emmanuel can speak to this much better than I can — and we had a real reckoning, a reckoning for many white people, about the role that racism has played in their day to day lives and the ways in which we’ve been complicit.

Tishby: Yes, that’s very true — and makes it all the more interesting that that did not happen after October 7. After George Floyd, there was a consensus in society, pretty much other than some fringe elements, that what happened was bad, and is emblematic of an undercurrent of racism. And here comes October 7, in which the violence was being filmed by the perpetrators and the outrage is against the Jews, because they must have done something to deserve it. Not realizing and understanding, in no uncertain terms, that we’re dealing with a jihadi culture that is antithetical to everything and anything that we hold dear. So, again, that’s the systematic antisemitism that humanity’s been having for thousands of years.

Acho: And to piggyback off Noa, that was part of the tension I wrestled with. Because after George Floyd was murdered, there was consensus, right? There was a consensus. Ninety-five percent of people were like, “Hey, that was wrong.” And even those who tried to justify it were still like, “Okay, that was wrong. Yeah, he shouldn’t have been stealing cigarettes or whatever… but okay, that was still pretty wrong.” But after October 7, there was not a consensus, particularly among people who look like me.

Tishby: On the contrary, really. Yeah.

Acho: And so that was so much of my tension, because I’m like, Noa, I hear you. But there are a lot of people who look like me who are saying different things, and I have to lend my ear to them — not listen as far as “digest and agree.” But I have to lend my ear to that because otherwise, I’m just a token Black man, I’m dancing for the man, I’m a “coon,” I’m all of these things. So that was a part of the tension also that existed in trying to create this project.

Tishby: Yes. And it’s very hard to convince people that no, you don’t understand — this is not by accident. You’ve been programmed to think that Israel is a colonialist project. There’s a lot of money behind it, and a lot of effort, for decades, of trying to insert into society that Israel is a colonialist project that needs to be dismantled. It’s not a grassroots movement. It’s very challenging. It’s very, very challenging.

Anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate outside Columbia University in New York City on April 20, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

Emmanuel, uncomfortable conversations are your thing — those are the conversations you purposely have. And I have to say that unfortunately, the comments on some of your social media posts about this book are very hateful. Some of the comments did, as you alluded to earlier, resort to antisemitic tropes themselves, saying you’d been bought off. Others accused you of adopting a Zionist narrative, of being tokenized, and I’d love for you to talk about how you feel when you see those comments, especially in light of the vocation that you’ve taken on yourself, and how you respond.

Acho: (Pausing.) How I feel is… kind of heartbroken. Because my intention is never to elicit any sort of tension between people. My intention is always peace. Then a part of me hates that people are so willing to be ignorant. If you read the book, I’ve done anything but bought into some sort of narrative. The beautiful part of the book is that it’s me asking Noa questions, challenging Noa on things, learning different things, finding agreement in some places, and finding differentiation in other places. So a part of me is also just saddened that people are willing to stay ignorant. Being ignorant is one thing; staying ignorant, that’s the crime. And so, part of me is saddened by it. Because I’m convicted to move how I have to move, though, it doesn’t really derail me from my track, because I know the way in which I’ve been called to move. But yes, it’s heartbreaking and it’s saddening.

Tishby: The thing about ignorance, by the way, is that it’s okay to be ignorant, but if you want to be ignorant and you choose to be ignorant? Just shut up. It’s very simple. No one wants your opinion. Don’t voice, aggressively and intentionally, your ignorant opinion. Sadly, that’s not the world that we live in today.

Demonstrators take over a shopping center during a ‘Strike for Gaza’ protest calling for a permanent ceasfire in the Israel-Hamas conflict on April 15, 2024, in Los Angeles, California. (Robyn BECK / AFP)

I’ll preface this question by saying that obviously, I’m not talking about the shock and horror of October 7 itself, but I wanted to know, Noa, are you ever shocked by what you’re seeing now, in the wake of October 7?

Tishby: No. Not even a little bit. I knew this was coming. We knew this was coming. We tried to warn everybody. We’ve been talking about this. I wrote about this in my first book — “from the river to the sea.” I called a subchapter in my book “This New Hip Social Justice Cause,” and I described anti-Zionism on campus — divestment, the whole thing. So I can’t say that I’m surprised by any of it, by anything. And this was, again, in the making for such a long time. There’s been so much money invested in this happening. So October 8 was activation time. October 8 was the “let’s go” of this movement. So I’m not surprised at all. Sadly.

Emmanuel, does your having had these uncomfortable conversations with Noa make you think differently about these current protests at American colleges and universities than you would have thought about them before?

Acho: It makes me more knowledgeable. I don’t know how I would have thought before, because I don’t have a “before” to think of, but it definitely makes me more knowledgeable. It makes me more empathetic because now I actually understand where so much of the pain is coming from. I understand why people are committed to protesting. I understand the history of the generational trauma. I understand the fear that exists within the hearts and minds of my Jewish brothers and sisters. So it makes me so much more knowledgeable, and I think it’s impossible to be empathetic without knowledge because you don’t have any idea about what you’re being empathetic towards. So because I know Noa so much better now, and I know my Jewish brothers and sisters just by nature of proximity, it allows me to feel more, and care more, and thus that encourages me to do more.

People at demonstrations could use these books. But a lot of what I see, in person and on social media, are demonstrators refusing to engage in these conversations at all.

Tishby: Of course. They don’t want to have the conversations! This is ridiculous. They don’t want to have a conversation, they don’t want to engage. They really don’t. And I think it has to do with the fact that now we see that they’re being coached. They’re saying, “Talk to my media people,” and stuff. They’ve now gotten smart to the fact that when they do talk, they don’t know what they’re talking about. So I feel like they were instructed to not speak with anybody because they sound like idiots. So I have a feeling that’s what this is. I mean, I did some of these conversations myself with some of the demonstrators, and asked them questions, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby have a new book titled ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,’ which candidly discusses race and antisemitism. (Courtesy)

In light of that, the closing question is this. I believe that writing a book is an inherently optimistic act, because you’re writing it and in doing so, assuming people will read it and that it will have an impact. Here we are, in the era of TikTok, countless demonstrations and wildfire antisemitism — how optimistic are you, or can you be, right now?

Tishby: I’m very optimistic. I’m always optimistic. I think that there’s a question of whether the optimism is short-term or long-term. Short term, I’m not optimistic. Short term, I think we have not seen the half of it. Short term, I feel like things are going to get more aggressive. We have elections coming up. But you need to look at what’s happening right now through the prism of 5,000 years of Jewish existence, right? That’s how we need to look at it. Because what happens now, what’s happening now, is not new. It’s happened before. And when you do, when you look at it like that, then you definitely know that we’re going to be fine. We’re going to be totally fine.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew by by Emmanuel Acho, Noa Tishby

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