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Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth

Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth

by Noa Tishby

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Overview

A “fascinating and very moving” (Aaron Sorkin, award-winning screenwriter of The West Wing and The Social Network) chronological timeline spanning from Biblical times to today that explores one of the most interesting countries in the world—Israel.

Israel. The small strip of arid land is 5,700 miles away but remains a hot-button issue and a thorny topic of debate. But while everyone seems to have a strong opinion about Israel, how many people actually know the facts?

Here to fill in the information gap is Israeli American Noa Tishby. But “this is not your Bubbie’s history book” (Bill Maher, host of Real Time with Bill Maher). Instead, offering a fresh, 360-degree view, Tishby brings her “passion, humor, and deep intimacy” (Yossi Klein Halevi, New York Times bestselling author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor) to the subject, creating an accessible and dynamic portrait of a tiny country of outsized relevance. Through bite-sized chunks of history and deeply personal stories, Tishby chronicles her homeland’s evolution, beginning in Biblical times and moving forward to cover everything from WWI to Israel’s creation to the disputes dividing the country today. Tackling popular misconceptions with an abundance of facts, Tishby provides critical context around headline-generating controversies and offers a clear, intimate account of the richly cultured country of Israel.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982144937
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 62,865
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Actress, producer, writer, and activist Noa Tishby was born and raised in Tel Aviv. She served two and a half years in the Israeli army before she landed a starring role on the nation’s highest-rated prime time drama Ramat Aviv Gimmel. She became a household name, appearing in numerous TV shows, films, theater productions, and national fashion campaigns, before moving to Los Angeles, where she sold the Israeli TV show In Treatment to HBO, making history as the first Israeli television show to become an American series. She coproduced over 150 episodes, which earned a Peabody Award and twelve Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. A passionate political activist, Tishby founded the nonprofit “Act for Israel,” Israel’s first online advocacy organization, and has become widely known as Israel’s unofficial ambassador.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: A Brief History of Me AND WHY YOU CAN TRUST ME WITH THIS STORY

It takes a second for a person to realize that their life has changed forever. As I was standing there, a nineteen-year-old soldier in the Israeli military, with my back against the wall, nervous and sweaty, it dawned on me that this was it. My life would never be the same.

The evening had actually started out fairly chill. It was my younger sister’s twelfth birthday, and my dad, stepbrother, and I were taking her and her friends ice skating and to get some McDonald’s at the mall. I wasn’t on alert. A mall didn’t sound like something threatening or problematic. It was just my sister’s birthday—and it would change my life.

But before we move forward, let’s take a step back. My name is Noa Tishby, and I was born in Israel. I was raised in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, in a middle-class, politically active family that can trace its lineage through the creation of the state. My grandmother was one of the founders of the first kibbutz (a collective farm; more on this later) in Israel, my great-grandfather was the founder of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and my grandfather was Israel’s first ambassador to West African countries and served as a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations.

Needless to say, this left a strain of intrepid curiosity in my DNA. Growing up, I accompanied my parents to various protests and demonstrations, and we had ministers and ambassadors over for dinner several times a month. Politics was all around me, which is why it was somewhat surprising that I decided to go into the entertainment industry.

I started having the urge to act as a child. Like, a really young child. I used to see kids on TV and I just knew that was what I wanted to do. No one from my family was in the industry, and my mom, being the ninja that she is, neither knew nor cared much about it (a fact that remains true to this day). Supportive yet flummoxed, she said what any normal mom would say: “When you grow up, you can do whatever you want.” So I waited until I was all grown up, a wizened twelve years of age, and started taking myself to places in Tel Aviv where I heard that casting directors roamed the land. I found my first crappy agent, who sent me on the bus to auditions. I didn’t ask my parents; I just did it.

Around the age of thirteen, I started booking national commercials and TV appearances, which, ultimately, led to my parents’ discovery of my extracurricular activities. I enrolled in my first drama class, and it was love at first sight. I got hooked.

I got a drama scholarship from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and spent most of high school participating in school plays and musicals. Upon graduation, I did what (nearly) everyone in the country does: I joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). National service was, and still is, mandatory for most Israelis; and since, at the time, soldiers in the IDF were not allowed to work outside of the service, I put my career on hold. But that didn’t mean I gave up on my dream. Instead of buckling down on my push-ups, I auditioned for the military’s performance corps—the entertainment troops. Funny as it may sound, the troops are extremely selective. Their audition process is the theatrical equivalent of Krav Maga. Seriously. It took several grueling months for the military to decide that instead of putting me into a Nikita-type position, or alternatively, making me serve coffee to a random commander, they could use my singing skills. I was in!

I might not have been the most kick-ass secret agent, but I was a valued member of The IDF Circus Show (don’t ask, but there were no elephants involved). Every day, we drove from one military base to another, and every night we performed sketch comedy and covered hit songs. Basically, a nightly USO tour. The novelty wore off pretty quick, but the view from the back of the bus was priceless. From the Golan Heights to Hebron to the Gaza Strip, I saw how people lived and how the military worked. The army was indeed a true melting pot, and I got to see places and meet people I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise. It was also where I was introduced to the magical method of “threading,” or plucking your eyebrows with just a single thread. It, like the service itself, changed my life forever.

Toward the end of my service, I received a call from my agent about a couple of job prospects. The first was incredible. I was offered the part of Rizzo in a new stage production of Grease, directed by the biggest director in the country and starring the biggest names of that time. Just so we are clear, I was obsessed with Grease. Obsessed. I knew it by heart, I loved the role of Rizzo, and I was beside myself with excitement. The second offer was to audition for a pilot for a new TV show. The casting director was looking for a sixteen-year-old ingenue, and at just over nineteen I made perfect sense.

I went to the audition and waited outside with all the other teenagers. They didn’t give us texts—or, as we call them, “sides”—to memorize in advance; they just handed us a piece of paper on the spot to do a “cold read.” I scanned that text, and man, it was crap. It was the most clichéd phone conversation between a teenage girl and her mom, and it wasn’t to this little brat’s liking. When they called my name, I walked into the room, sat down, and asked the director if I could improvise. He was a bit shocked, but he said yes, so I threw the text on the floor and improvised a call, miming holding a phone to my ear and everything. When I finished, the director looked at the monitor, then looked back at me. “Can you smile for us, please?” I did. He looked at the monitor again, looked back at me, and said: “I have a role for you, but it’s not this one.” I didn’t get the role of the innocent teenage girl. I got the role of the main villain. The main love interest. The main bitch.

With both of these offers on the table, I went to my commander to beg for a break. I told him about the musical and the pilot and asked if, maybe, I could start my career while completing my service like a good soldier girl. He didn’t even pause to think about it. The musical was a no. Performing Grease onstage every night would take me away from performing for the soldiers every night. But that little TV show? Fine. It was only a pilot. He told me to go film it and come back. And so I did. That career move was one of the biggest turning points of my life.

Grease came and went without leaving any lasting impression on anyone. However, that little pilot turned out to be the dictionary definition of an overnight sensation. The show, Ramat Aviv Gimmel—named after one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Tel Aviv—modeled itself after American prime-time soaps of the era, Melrose Place and the like. It took place in a fashion company, and I played the new hotshot designer brought in to revamp the brand, who, naturally, had an affair with the head of the company and subsequently got entangled in a series of delightful catfights with the CEO’s older and superchic evil wife. It was silly, over-the-top, and the Israeli audience devoured it. The show became a massive hit.

Ignorant of this all, I was still in the bubble of active military service. My fellow soldiers ribbed me about playing an older vixen on that TV show, but other than that, it was all business as usual. Until that fateful day at the McDonald’s.

This is how my journey began, back in the nineties, my back against the wall, my father and stepbrother dragging me away from a pile of kids screaming out my character’s name (Daphne, if you’re wondering) and begging for an autograph in those simple pre-selfie days.

By the time I turned twenty-two years old, I was a full-on veteran of the Israeli entertainment industry. I booked the role of Anita in the Habima National Theater’s production of West Side Story (a huge upgrade from Grease!) and put out a number one R&B album in English with my boyfriend (the first time in Israel a local artist sang in English!), all while shooting the number one show in the country. My days started at a 5 a.m. on the set of Ramat Aviv Gimmel and ended around 12 a.m. after my nightly performance of “A Boy Like That.” I didn’t sleep much, and I loved every minute of it. I was even offered a gig hosting the Israeli equivalent of The Tonight Show for the summer, and I considered taking it—until I had a not-so-chance meeting at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

It was a sticky July day when I received an invitation for me and a guest to attend a dinner party hosted by the Israeli mega producer Arnon Milchan. My head spun as I envisioned Arnon seeing me, talking to me, and saying unequivocally, “I will make you the next Julia Roberts.” He did produce Pretty Woman, and that seemed like proof enough that this would be my long-awaited ticket to LA.

I’d actually been dreaming of America since I was a preteen (it wasn’t just a Hollywood thing). My first fantasy of the country came in second grade, when I was stricken by a plague of lice. I mean, a lot of lice. So many lice that my pillow sometimes seemed like it was moving all on its own. No matter what my parents did, we couldn’t get rid of them, and the only clever idea my father came up with was to give me a buzz cut. A BUZZ CUT! At the age of eight it was pretty dramatic, so, yes, you could say I was fully traumatized. I went to school in a hoodie and dreamed of the day I could flaunt my horse mane of a ponytail again. It took me months to get used to my new gender-fluid look (before it was a thing), and in the meantime, I planned my big escape—I would grow my hair and move to a new school in America, where the kids would never know of my lice-ridden past and where I would speak English with a full-on American accent.

It had taken a little over a decade, but my fantasy was finally coming true, and I was ready—American accent and all. I went to Arnon Milchan’s event with my plus one—my dad, naturally—and when we arrived, I positioned our party of two at our own little table. A few minutes passed before Arnon came over to say hello, and just like that, I started speaking to him in English. He picked up the cue and, after a short conversation with me and my dad, invited us to a meeting the following day.

At that meeting, Arnon informed me that, short of handing me roles, he would try to help me out, and that I must move to Los Angeles. He said the following line, which stayed with me for years: “If you make wine, you need to live in France. If you make watches, you need to live in Switzerland. And if you are in show business, you need to live in Los Angeles.”

DING.

I heard him. Loud and clear.

Four months later, I resigned from Ramat Aviv Gimmel, stopped recording my second album, dropped out of hosting The Tonight Show, left the role of Anita to my understudy, left my apartment and my boyfriend of three years, packed two suitcases, and got on a plane to Los Angeles. Clearly, I was a little cray.

Now let me just state what is by now pretty obvious to all of you—I did not end up becoming Gal Gadot. Not even close. My career in the US had some amazing breakthroughs, like signing a six-record deal with a major record label, and some epic fails, like having that label fold when the music industry crumbled at the turn of the millennium. I did work consistently, booked a few roles here and there, and got a lot of fans in the industry, but I also did not book many roles and got frustratingly close to even more of them. I regularly became a strong second choice for major parts, which left me with, well, basically nothing.

I was always an entrepreneurial person, even as a kid. When I was in high school and didn’t get accepted to a teen singing group, I started a competing one on my own. We put on a rock musical about the life of King David that became a cult phenomenon and went on to have a ten-year run. I needed to be creative and involved, and as such, I grew intensely frustrated with the LA waiting game, along with the general expectation that, as a young woman, I should sit prettily and quietly until my number came up, or didn’t. So I started looking for projects to create and produce. I read in an Israeli newspaper about a new Israeli TV show that was making waves in the country. It was called Be Tipul, and it was about a therapist who, for half an hour, simply sat in a room with other actors and had a therapy session. Talking heads. “What a brilliant concept,” I thought. And this was how I found my first format.

A format? you may ask. Let me explain. In television lingo, content is divided into two main fields, scripted and non-scripted. Scripted shows are every drama and sitcom you know, and non-scripted shows are reality shows, game shows, etc. Shows that literally do not have a script. Traditionally, the non-scripted format has been easier to “adapt” to international audiences, which is why pretty much every country on earth has their own version of American Idol. In the scripted world, however, it’s a bit trickier. Scripts need to be translated, rewritten, and culturally adapted to each new territory. A year or so prior I’d had a role on a sitcom for NBC that was based on a British show called Coupling. This is not a brag, but proof that even though scripted adaptations weren’t done much at the time, I knew it could be done. And I knew that Be Tipul could be the first show from Israel to do it.

I organized a meeting with the creator, and I told him straight up that I was going to sell his show to HBO. He seemed puzzled. At the time, this was a completely bonkers idea. Not only had no one ever done this before with an Israeli television show, no one had ever even thought of doing it.

I ended up selling In Treatment to HBO. I coproduced the show with Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson, and we filmed 155 episodes that ran for three seasons, got nominated for twelve Emmy and Golden Globe awards, won a Peabody Award, and got renewed for a fourth season in 2020. This paved the way for Israel to become a TV format powerhouse; and, for a second, Israel became the country that sold the highest number of TV formats to the US, even more than the UK.

From a struggling actress waiting her turn, I became a struggling actress and a producer to be reckoned with. Apparently these two things are not mutually exclusive.

I was opening up major channels of communication between Israel and America, but still a lot of people seemed to not know where, or even what, Israel was exactly. The realization that Israel had a massive PR problem came up as soon as I started coming to the US and speaking to, well, people. I realized that what was common knowledge to me was total news to almost everyone. Just because I knew about Christopher Columbus, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t mean that anyone knew Israel’s history, its background, and the dangers it dealt with on a daily basis. It didn’t mean that anyone knew who Israelis were. I was shocked. I mean, Israel was such a hot button issue for so many people around the world, surely if people have such strong opinions about a country, they’ll be somewhat familiar with at least some basic facts, right? My gosh, was I wrong.

I encountered misinformation in all forms, even from the most well-intentioned and properly educated people. One day, while hanging with my old crew of young actors, writers, and directors, a successful up-and-comer you all know who would go on to win many awards, an Oscar among them, sidled up to me.

“So, you’re from Israel!” she twanged.

“Yes, I am,” I replied.

“Well, I was just wondering, how do your parents feel about you?”

I looked at her, confused. “I’m pretty sure they’re proud of me,” I said. “Why, is there something I should know about?”

She blinked, head cocked to the side, and continued. “I was just wondering how they feel about you being, you know, modern and all, without all the headgear,” she said, making circular hand movements surrounding her face and head, in what can only be explained as the charades description of a hijab.

To set the record straight: while rocking a hair covering can be a choice ranging from tradition to modesty to self-expression, hijabs are mainly worn by Muslim women in the presence of men outside their family. While I love a badass accessory as much as the next woman, my experience with headgear is limited to a sunny day or Burning Man (for more on that, see chapter three).

Stories like this repeated themselves in hundreds of variations for years to come. Over and over, I would find myself telling the story of Israel. Explaining that we are not, in fact, Afghanistan. Explaining how the country came to be, how the borders came to be, drawing hundreds of maps of the region on hundreds of napkins at various dinner parties. I had to explain how freaking modern Israel is and what exactly the difference is between a kibbutz and a settlement (big difference, just so we’re clear).

I realized people didn’t know some basic facts, like that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has been an uninterrupted democracy since its founding in 1948, after the United Nations granted the Jews a state following the horrors of the Holocaust. The Arabs were also granted a state at the time, but they chose to refuse it and start a war. I heard people call Israel a colonialist state, which is absurd, as it is a refugee state that was decolonized from British rule. I heard some people call Israel an apartheid state, which is also absurd when you know that the third largest political party in Israel is an Arab party. I realized some people see the entire problem in the Middle East as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a David-and-Goliath story that pits an army-less people (the Palestinians) against one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world (Israel). It’s easy to cheer for the underdog, but this dynamic is categorically not the case. The conflict is not between the Palestinian and Israeli people but rather between the entire Arab world and Israel. Twenty-one Arab countries, population approximately 423 million, and one Jewish state, population approximately 9 million. In that matchup, who is the David and who is the Goliath? I realized that people were disproportionality fascinated by Israel, that almost everyone had an opinion, but that a lot of people simply didn’t know what they were talking about. I found myself explaining this and more to people, and I became a source of information and clarification on the topic for my community.

However, what followed in the years to come is what qualifies me to write this book. After all, no one wants to read a historical and somewhat political book about one of the most contentious countries on the planet from a random actress-slash-producer, no matter how lovely she may be.

It all came to a head one night in 2010. It was about 11 p.m., and I was sitting in front of my computer, browsing this new and exciting platform called Twitter, when I realized that Israel was trending. In the Turkish language: “Israil.” I knew enough about international relations to understand that this was probably not a good thing. And it wasn’t. The headlines were aggressive: “Israeli military kills nine Turkish peace activists trying to deliver aid to Gaza.” The internet was ablaze with outraged posts and shared posts. Now, remember this was 2010: social media was just starting to take shape. We were still naively participating in what we thought was a fun, authentic, and transparent form of connection and communication, not a virtual monster that would take over our lives and hack our brains (to paraphrase my fellow countryman, the mega-bestseller Yuval Noah Harari). But still, the news didn’t feel right. I’d served in the army, and this just wasn’t something we would do.

I dug around, and—no surprise—the facts were completely at odds with the story that was going viral. The Turkish flotilla comprised six ships and nearly seven hundred passengers. While some were probably well-intentioned activists, at least forty were hard-core Islamists with ties to terrorism who were sailing from Turkey to Gaza with the intent of breaking the blockade on the Gaza Strip that had been imposed by Israel and Egypt (yes, and Egypt). The blockade was the result of terrorist activities by Hamas, which included shooting rockets into Israel and a general desire to wipe the country off the map (as stated in the Hamas charter; we’ll get to that, too). The Israelis first tried to make a deal with the Turks, suggesting the ships anchor in an Israeli port where the goods would be checked and brought into Gaza by land, but the Turks refused. Israel then tried to make the ship stop, and only after being ignored did operatives from Israel’s navy board the vessel. As the commandos descended from a helicopter, they faced “organized and violent resistance,”1 including attacks with iron rods.

When a protestor grabbed a weapon from one of the commandos, the soldiers opened fire. Ten2 Turkish citizens were indeed killed, which was a regrettable loss of life, but it’s critical to note that at least some of these men had come prepared to fight, and a fight they got.

It took a few days for videos of the attack to come out, and they validated Israel’s version of events. But by then, public opinion and the internet-verse had already decided that Israel, just like that, out of the blue one fine morning, killed nine peace activists who were chilling on the deck of The Love Boat.

I found myself glued to my computer screen for the next few days, picking Twitter wars with various trolls and realizing: “Jerusalem, we have a problem.” Israel got bad enough PR in old-school media, but a tsunami of awful was about to hit online, where lies, misinformation, and “facts” become “reality” in a blink. The IDF and the Israeli government were still operating in the stone age, under some form of “We are verifying facts before putting them out there, so please be patient, this could take a few days.” But in this new online world, it was no longer a matter of days; it was a matter of seconds. For the first time, I feared for the future of my country. Israel’s PR problems were about to turn into an existential threat.

It became my personal mission to put myself out there online to try to get to the truth. As I tweeted up a storm and drove myself crazy, a few like-minded people messaged me. We all rallied around the same thought: someone had to take on social media, and since the Israeli government wasn’t paying enough attention at the time, it needed to be us. In 2011, our incredibly self-motivated group formed Act for Israel, the first online advocacy and rapid response organization dedicated to truth spreading and pre-bots troll fighting. It was like heading into the Wild West with an iPhone and a MacBook Pro.

This was when my advocacy became not just this thing I did at dinner parties but a true calling. I started working with pro-Israel organizations around the US, with NGOs, and unofficially with the Israeli government. We created tweets and posts, working to push out positive news and debunk falsehoods when we saw them. Act for Israel also created presentations to explain to people in positions of power, in the Israeli government and in other big organizations, how this new world worked. We leaned on data, like the fact that 87 percent of people under the age of thirty got their news from Facebook. At the time, this sort of thing was a complete and total shock to anyone we met with.

We spread the gospel of this changing online reality, sending bloggers to Israel, collecting data on tweets and posts, and meeting with NGO, government, and Israel Defense Forces officials, such as the IDF spokesman, Brigadier General Yoav (Poli) Mordechai. As I briefed him on this electronic intifada, a second flotilla from Turkey was on its way to Gaza, and we followed it closely as I walked him through our presentation.

Poli later told me that as soon as I walked out of his office, he called in his team and instructed them to completely overhaul how the Israel Defense Forces used social media. Based on our presentation and the meeting I had with him, the IDF fully revamped their online strategy and became active on social media. And regardless of our presentation, that second flotilla ended quickly and quietly and, thankfully, with no life lost.

This is when advocacy and political activism became a major part of my life, my work, and my identity. But it took another viral event for the Israeli public to get behind me. And as usual, it was out of my control.

It was Sunday, November 18, 2012, and I was in bed in Los Angeles, bawling. I had hit a career high, heading a new joint venture between one of Israel’s largest networks, Reshet, and ITV Studios USA while simultaneously producing a new sitcom for CBS that was created by an Israeli writer. That morning, I’d woken up to a scathing email from my otherwise lovely writer. There was a misunderstanding about my role as his producer. When I didn’t do something he was expecting me to do, he got upset, and since he was such a brilliant writer, he sent me a sharp and snappy email that simply tore me to shreds. It basically said I was a shit person and a shit producer and would amount to nothing, and since he was so smart and talented, I fully believed him. That email killed me, and so I planned to spend the rest of the day in bed crying my eyes out.

I was still in bed with my Labrador, Tuli, when my friend Tracy showed up at my doorstep. In the midst of my personal battle, I’d totally forgotten our battle plan for the day. Israel was in the middle of yet another war with Hamas, dramatically named Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel had begun the operation in response to the ongoing attacks by Hamas on Israeli soldiers and civilian towns in the south of the country. Something needed to be done. Using a precision drone, the IDF took out Ahmed al-Jabari, the senior leader of the military wing of Hamas. Since Mr. Jabari was not a puppy trainer, I was okay with that. But there was an international media outcry, and Israel was again portrayed as the big bad wolf.

Tracy and I had planned on going to a demonstration organized by the Israeli American Council, but needless to say, I did not want to go. Puffy-eyed, I told her to go without me. She refused. I moped, she coaxed, and after another handful of tissues, I covered my face in heavy makeup and a huge pair of sunglasses, and we headed out to the Israeli consulate building in Westwood, Los Angeles.

The demonstration was business as usual. A few hundred pro-Israel demonstrators stood on one side of the road, and a few hundred anti-Israel demonstrators stood on the other. (Note that whenever there is an Israeli event or gathering, there is an anti-Israel protest in close vicinity.) I carried a sign that read “Free Gaza from Hamas,” because even though I am pro-Israel, I am also pro-Palestinian, just anti-Hamas, a terrorist organization which aims to annihilate Israel, and which uses international aid money to build attack tunnels instead of schools and hospitals.

People on both sides of the street were passionately expressing their First Amendment rights when one of the organizers recognized me.

“We’re so glad you are here!” he said, running up to us. “Would you like to say something?”

I wasn’t sure. “Like what?”

“I don’t know, whatever you want,” he said, and dragged me to a microphone.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. All I remember is that I took the microphone, stood on a small box, and started speaking from my heart. I said all that I knew to be true. That Israel wanted peace, that Hamas was terrorizing both the Israelis and the Palestinians. I spoke authentically and from my experience.

I went to sleep that night without a second thought, but the following morning, I was woken early by the sounds of incoming calls and text messages. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, so I won’t say that I had a million missed calls, texts, tweets, and likes from everyone I knew and every media and news outlet in Israel, but it sure felt that way. Apparently, while I was sleeping, a producer by the name of Sharon Mor had done what was not that common at the time. She filmed my speech and posted it. And it blew up in Israel.

I’d been a known entity in Israel for a while now, but this was the first time my fellow Israelis saw my advocacy in action. I was suddenly dubbed “The Ambassador” in the Israeli media, and it was only then that I realized I had somehow naturally followed the footsteps of my grandfather Hanan Yavor, the actual ambassador in the family. My grandfather paved the way to Israel’s international relationships with Africa. He was the first Israeli ambassador to Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia (and a nonresident ambassador to Barbados!), and a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. He was a committed, idealistic, and highly respected diplomat. I will get into his extraordinary life in the final chapter of this book, but for now I’ll just say that at that moment I realized, that unbeknownst to me, my DNA had kicked into action. I couldn’t help myself anymore, I had to get involved.

But it wasn’t always like that. When I had just moved to America, I was completely disconnected from anything Israel. Until one sushi dinner that changed everything.

It was a sunny September morning, a few months after I moved to Los Angeles. The phone rang at my boyfriend’s Hollywood Hills house, and my dad was on the line. “Happy holidays!” he cheered. “How are you celebrating tonight?” I sat up, coffee at hand, and frowned. “What holiday is it?” I asked him. “It’s Rosh Hashanah! Happy New Year!” my family hollered at me from the other side of the world. My heart sank. I got off the phone, walked out to the expansive balcony, and stared at the pool and at the Hollywood sign, which was hovering above me, judgingly. I’d been in LA for a few months, finding my footing in a new town, making new friends, and trying to invent a new career for myself, and I had zero idea that the Jewish new year was that night. Since I was raised secular, I didn’t even bother to keep track of any of this. However, hearing my family on the other line, celebrating this thing together, made me want to cry. And the feeling surprised me. I walked up to my boyfriend and told him that it was a holiday and I would like us to do something special.

That night, my Australian boyfriend, another friend, and I ended up in Sushi Katsu-Ya on Ventura Boulevard. As we raised our glasses, my boyfriend turned to me and asked: “So, what is the Jewish new year?” I blanked. I didn’t know what to say. “Oh well” he said, and shrugged. “Happy Rosh Hashanah!” And he downed his sake. I’d never felt lonelier or more disconnected in my life.

I was obviously missing my family—there is no surprise there—but it was more than that. That night in Katsu-Ya, I realized that, in identifying myself as a liberal globalist, I might have skipped the part of identifying myself first. I was shocked that I couldn’t describe what on earth Rosh Hashanah was. I always thought of myself as an Israeli, but what did that even mean if I wasn’t living in Israel or didn’t know what to say to my friends when they asked me a simple question about my background?

That little incident proved to be monumental in my life. It pushed me to explore, for the first time, what it meant to be “an Israeli,” what it meant to be Jewish, and to see it all from an outsider’s perspective that wouldn’t have been possible had I still been living in Israel. Living outside of the country allowed me to re-explore everything I thought I knew, and everything I realized I didn’t know, like what the fuck Rosh Hashanah was and—more importantly—why I should care.

When I was still living in Israel, I prided myself on my secularism. I wanted nothing to do with religion, so I tried to dismiss my Jewishness in its entirety. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

Remember the youth group I was a part of as a teen, and the hit rock musical we performed around the country? We were a bunch of secular kids; we looked like, acted like, dressed like, and listened to the exact same music kids our age did anywhere from London to Los Angeles. Yet the topic of our raunchy, controversial, sexy AF show was—David. The king. From the Old Testament. Yaron Kafkafi, who wrote the brilliant piece, did a deep dive into the story, and he swept us kids along with him. I was a smart-ass seventeen-year-old, prancing around Tel Aviv in a tight miniskirt and a (very) low-cut shirt, carrying a freaking Bible in my bag. And of course I was able to read that Bible in my bag, since it was written in my mother’s tongue. In fact, many of the musical’s lyrics were quotes straight out of the old book, so we performed them in the same place the story happened and in its original language. The show became a cult phenomenon, with hundreds of kids our age and younger knowing every single one of those ancient words by heart. It was the Israeli version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show—and we were all singing the Bible. I was and still am obsessed with the story of David, not as a religious text, but as a modern tale I can learn from today.

And this, I later learned, is a very Jew-y thing to do. To keep the old traditions and adapt them to modern times. An ancient text can be the most modern, and the holiest and most pious is also sometimes the most provocative and gutsy. An ancient story, which was kept for generations, can get a new life and, as such, new relevancy. I carried around that five-thousand-year-old text in my best-of-the-nineties bag without, for a second, thinking there was anything weird about it. It seemed totally normal, until that night at Katsu-Ya.

When I stepped outside of my bubble I embarked on a journey that enabled me to see the beauty of it all. I found the built-in liberalism in Judaism and in Zionism. I learned to admire the highly Jew-y culture of debate and dissent. I found amazing stuff, like how the Jewish holidays are connected to, for example, the moon (I mean, who knew that??), and I saw how it all had shaped me as a person, consciously and subconsciously. I also realized that a super-driven, secular, and slightly flamboyant seventeen-year-old carrying a Bible in her bag was, indeed, a little bit weird. In the most wonderful of ways.

That dinner catapulted me on a journey that got me to this book. I started researching Israel, its history, the history of the conflict, the spiritual aspects of Judaism. I started to analyze Israel more objectively and understand how it’s portrayed around the world. I held Israel accountable for its mistakes and celebrated its accomplishments. And when I was able to articulate for myself the severe misunderstandings about Israel and how fragile she still is, I jumped in to speak up.

I needed to speak up because change can only come after the acknowledgment of reality. How can we aim to make change in the Middle East if we don’t know how we got here? If you don’t know where to start a journey, you can’t get anywhere. This is a very simple concept, actually. Imagine you go online trying to book a flight, but you don’t put in your departure location. It would be somewhat of a challenge to get anywhere. In the same way, if you want to create a future, you have to know where you’re at, otherwise you’ll just keep doing the same thing, over and over again.

If we want to create a new possibility for the future of the Middle East (or anywhere, really), we can’t create it on top of hidden agendas, by political maneuvering, or without knowing at least some of the actual history.

This is why I wanted to write this book. Not because the story has never been told, but because it has never been told this way. To know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from. And that’s what happened that night in Katsu-Ya. I took ownership of where I came from.

This is not a history book per se. It is more of a her-story book. Her story and mine.

So let’s start from the beginning, or at least the beginning of written times as we know them.

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