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Photo: Alon Shafransky
Photo: Alon Shafransky
Advocating for IsraelStanding up against antisemitism

Simply Noa

Noa Tishby is a Hollywood actress, producer, author and pro-Israel activist. Last week she visited Australia as a guest of JNF Australia. In interviews – both privately and live on stage for a cocktail event hosted by JNFuture Victoria in partnership with The AJN – she reflects on her journey.

Main image by Photo: Alon Shafransky

“I know what your purpose in life is.”

It was the statement that halted the conversation between Hollywood actress, producer, author and pro-Israel activist Noa Tishby and her close friend, Sarah Treem.

Tishby and Treem had remained friends since they worked alongside each other as executive producer and writer respectively, on the Emmy-winning American television series In Treatment.

Now, they sat around Treem’s dining table, joined by their young children.

Between mouthfuls of butternut pumpkin, their children pondered a small topic: the meaning of life.

“I know what your purpose in life is,” Tishby’s seven-year-old son Ari offered his mother.

“It’s to tell the story of the Jewish people.”

For Tishby, the trajectory from Hollywood actress to pro-Israel activist almost seemed destined. She laughs at the suggestion, but nods in agreement when we speak last week.

Tishby is visiting Australia as a guest of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), appearing primarily as keynote speaker at annual gala dinners across the country.

And indeed, it has been quite the journey – not just to Australia – but to becoming one of the world’s foremost voices in standing up against antisemitism.

Instagram is her main platform for her advocacy. She has amassed 305,000 followers; with an additional 150,000-odd following on Twitter.

Tishby was born in Tel Aviv to a “very secular” family – “My mother is from a kibbutz; my father is from Jerusalem and is super atheist. He wasn’t even bar mitzvahed.”

“But it was a very, very Zionist family,” she shares.

Tishby’s great-grandfather started the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Her grandfather was the first representative the State of Israel sent to the African continent, and the first ambassador to South Africa, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

And Tishby’s grandmother is one of the founders of Deganya Aleph, the first kibbutz in Israel.

As a child, Tishby was drawn towards creativity. “I always had a lot to say,” she tells. She acted, sang, wrote and modelled, and at eight years old, landed her first television commercial.

Following her service to the Israeli army, Tishby found major success on the nation’s highest-rated prime time drama, Ramat Aviv Gimmel.

“But throughout the years, what became more apparent to me is that I felt like I needed to become famous in order to be heard.”

In the early 2000s, she moved to Los Angeles – and found her perspective on Israel and Judaism challenged. It was the first time she became acutely aware of the extent of the misconceptions surrounding her homeland.

At a party full of actors and producers, “one of the most famous Oscar-winning actresses in the world” approached Tishby. Upon discovering she was Israeli, the actress then asked how her parents must feel that she’s modern … and that she isn’t veiled.

“It’s our job to do this individually, one person at a time, to your friends and colleagues. Open up your Shabbat dinners. Bring in everyone!”

“Here was a smart, well-educated, successful, well intended girl who had no idea. She couldn’t differentiate between Israel and Afghanistan.”

Tishby understood: Israel has a perception problem – and it marked the beginning of many conversations in which she would find herself as the unofficial spokesperson for her country; be that on borders or the difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

“I would talk people’s ears off about Israel, and about the Jewish world and about antisemitism … I became ‘Miss Israel’.”

In response to the flagrant antisemitism and anti-Zionist sentiment that dominated the Twittersphere following the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, Tishby decisively founded the online advocacy and rapid response group, Act for Israel.

“Advocating for Israel and talking about Jewish issues became more interesting and important to me than anything else I’d done.”

It was Tishby’s mother who made the pertinent observation: “This job is in your DNA.”

The comment was both reflective and foreshadowing.

Since then, Tishby addressed the United Nations General Assembly in support of Israel, and in 2021 published her first book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. The book combines well-

researched facts, masterfully interwoven throughout Tishby’s personal story, to tackle popular misrepresentations, and provide critical context.

“And as soon as I got my book deal, what became very clear is that everything led me to this. And all I needed to do was open my mouth. I just needed to speak.”

When facing comments and actions of ignorance, unconscious bias, casual antisemitism or overt hatred, Tishby says that knowing your facts is pivotal.

“It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I have many friends who say, ‘I love Israel … I just don’t know what to say, when challenged.’”

The other piece of advice Tishby issues is to not allow yourself to become reactive.

“I know it’s a hard thing, but it’s very important to not get triggered. A lot of people are misinformed, or yes, antisemitic, but we should be able to have these conversations without getting upset. I believe that if you know your facts, and you’re not getting triggered you can handle all of these questions.”

And if the statistics on antisemitism alone are anything to go by, one should at least be armed with knowledge.

In Australia, the number of antisemitic incidents increased by 42 per cent over the past two years (according to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry). And the results of a survey carried out by the Social Research Centre commissioned by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and the Zionist Federation of Australia showed two thirds of Australian Jewish students have experienced antisemitism during their time at university. 25 per cent of the 563 students surveyed reported feeling singled out or excluded because of matters relating to Israel.

Tishby also points to the situation in the US. The Jewish community forms just 2.4 per cent of the total population, and yet suffers 63 per cent of all religious hate-based crimes.

She calls it a double standard of acceptance.

Noa Tishby (right) interviewed by Rebecca Davis at a JNFuture cocktail event held in Melbourne last week, in partnership with The AJN. Photo: Nina Peer.

“We live in a politically-correct world in which every ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and the choice to be vegan is all good, and rightfully so. But when it comes to Jewish hate, there’s a huge double standard, and this is what I’m here to point out. People think that it’s not a real issue. But for us in the community, firstly, we feel it. Secondly, the stats show that this is a real problem.”

When asked how to respond to the catch-cry “Free Palestine”, particularly popular on social media and university campuses, Tishby retorts, “Yes, free Palestine from Hamas because Palestinians are actually under the thumb of a terrorist organisation, and they are the ones who are preventing [the people’s] freedom and their will.

“Understand from 1922 onwards, how many times Palestinian leadership turned down offers of their own state. Why there is no Palestine is a question that shouldn’t be asked of Israel only – and certainly not of Australian Jews. It should be asked of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians as a national movement need to figure out what they want.”

On Palestinian rights, Tishby declares, “Yes, I am pro-Israeli, but I’m pro-Palestinian too. I couldn’t be more supportive of Palestinian human rights, and they are taking the tough end of the deal regionally and within their leadership.

“As a liberal person, it’s very uncomfortable to look throughout history and realise how many times they’ve rejected any deal. So, it’s either: there’s going to be a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel; or, they’re going to continue to chant – them and Bella Hadid – ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, which, make no mistake, is a cry to ethnically cleanse the Jews from their ancestral land.

“Advocating for Israel and talking about Jewish issues became more interesting and important to me than anything else I’d done.”

“If they’re going to keep chanting that, we’re going to keep having this problem.”

On the dangers of Hadid (American supermodel of Palestinian heritage) and Kanye “Ye” West – massive celebrities with enormous followings (West’s Twitter following alone is more than double the world Jewish population) – who openly espouse antisemitic rhetoric, Tishby concedes the solution is not simple.

“Kanye West is a true example to prove that antisemitism is a mental illness; whereas Bella Hadid is a very powerful spokesperson for the Palestinian people because she seems so authentic … except she fabricates half of what she says about Israel, and her passionate hatred of the Jewish state is questionable.”

It’s a hatred which is multi-faceted: found on the left, right and in radical Islam.

But it’s the left that is most insidious, suggests Tishby.

“It’s easy to identify white supremacy … On the fringe left, it sounds like Israel is an ethnic cleansing state. When you take the word, ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionism’ and you swap it for ‘Jew’, you hear the same antisemitic tropes from 1930s Europe, or the early Middle Ages. ‘The Jews are drinking Christian blood.’

“It’s a new form of blood libel. We have people who are so obsessively anti-Israel. And we as the Jewish community know, this is more than politics.

“We know when something flares up in Israel, and we all start seeing the social media hate, we know, this is not just about a policy. This is deep-rooted. And this new social justice cause called anti-Zionism is nothing but antisemitism 2.0.”

So, are Israel and the Jews just really bad at PR?

The State of Israel doesn’t have enough bandwith to deal with PR, Tishby says, “because they’re too busy dealing with Hamas and every other enemy.”

She says we just have to continue to speak up, and be loud and proud: “Stand strong. Be more rooted in our Jewish identity, and in our history and culture.

“That’s the only way to create Jewish pride.”

The onus is on us too, as individuals, to forge allyship – “outside the Jewish bubble”.

“It’s our job to do this individually, one person at a time, to your friends and colleagues. Open up your Shabbat dinners. Bring in everyone!”

In 2022, Tishby was appointed Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and the Delegitimisation of Israel by former Israeli PM, Yair Lapid. It was a position from which she was later dismissed by current PM Benjamin Netanyahu, following her criticism of the proposed judicial reform.

When Tishby took on the role, she joked with Lapid that she had been set up to fail. With a smile, Lapid responded that he expected her to eradicate all antisemitism in three months.

With her large presence, Tishby has become a beacon for antisemites, but she assures that it doesn’t take a personal toll.

“I don’t take it personally. For some reason, the way I cope with it is to brush it off, and keep moving forward. There is no other way.”

Tishby says we have to stop thinking we’re going to be able to eradicate antisemitism.

“But I would like to make it unfashionable again. And I think that if we can all make people a little bit more aware, a little bit more conscious, and a little bit more loving, then we’ve done our job.

“I’m going to keep fighting.”

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