Beatlemania grips Israel, four decades late

In 1964, Israeli officials shunned the Beatles, embarrassing the nation. When Sir Paul McCartney takes a Tel Aviv stage Thursday, he'll relieve Israel of 44 years of cultural baggage.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
McCartney Mania: Sir Paul McCartney, who signed autographs in Israel on Wednesday, plays Tel Aviv Thursday.

Clutching a Paul McCartney album outside the Dan Hotel, Daniel Ayaloff peers through a giant window to glimpse visiting rock royalty.

"I was hoping to get a signature, but it would be enough to see him close up," he says, after lifting up a sleeve to reveal a Beatles tattoo. "This is a dream."

As if operating on a four-decade delay, Israel has been seized with Beatlemania, which will culminate Thursday when Sir Paul plays Tel Aviv's Ha Yarkon Park.

The city's other music clubs will close so as not to compete, traffic jams are expected, and websites have reported every detail of Sir Paul's hotel accommodations, down to where his hummus was bought. The Israeli foreign ministry has hailed the concert a diplomatic coup d'état for a nation that has faced cultural boycotts for its conflict with the Palestinians.

"This is a really big deal. I can't think of a comparable cultural event in Israel," says David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, who says Sir Paul culminates a gradual lifting of cultural isolation for Israelis.

During the years of the recent Palestinian uprising, no major musician came to Israel citing security concerns. The gradual return of top acts such as Sting and Roger Waters reassures Israelis they are a part of the global community.

What's more, the show will relieve the Jewish state of four decades of cultural baggage. In 1964, the breakout band from Liverpool was scheduled by their Jewish manager, Brian Epstein, to play a date in the new Middle Eastern state.

But Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, wary of the band's effect on Israeli youth, nixed the gig. (Historians have claimed the rejection was more a result of a turf war between rival promoters.)

The rejection of one of the 20th century's most influential pop acts has embarrassed Israelis since. This year, Israel's ambassador to Britain sent an apology to Sir Paul and implored him to play Tel Aviv for Israel's 60th birthday.

"The decision of McCartney to visit Israel goes beyond the realm of music," wrote Ambassador Ron Prosor in the Maariv newspaper. "It will give us a rare chance to show the world a different face: cultural, serene, and civilian, which isn't linked to politics and conflict."

When the original gig was canceled, Israel was a socialist and parochial place, still trying to fashion a common culture among refugees. "We would do everything in Hebrew," says Tom Segev, an Israeli historian. "This is why the Beatles looked so outrageous and dangerous."

Israeli culture today is post-ideological, where celebrities overshadow politics. That explains the local obsession with everything Sir Paul – from the price of the tickets (about $130) and the broadcast rights to a debate on the Internet about whether this Beatle isn't just another aging rocker who has long since lost his mojo.

"Some people regard this as closing a circle," says Mr. Segev. "It is as if we have grown up. We can enjoy the Beatles now."

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