Beatlemania Hits Israel, Four Decades Late

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Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty

Paul McCartney listens to a guide during a visit to the Church of Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on September 24, 2008. McCartney arrived in Israel today ahead of his first-ever concert in the Jewish state.

Beatlemania was a little late getting to the Jewish State, thanks to the cultural conservatism of its founding leaders. Indeed, Thursday's Tel Aviv gig by Sir Paul McCartney marks a long-delayed concert debut in Israel by the former Beatle, who has endeared himself to a new generation of Israeli fans by going ahead with the show despite death threats from a radical Islamic cleric in Lebanon who vowed that "If he values his life, Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there. The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him."

For Israel's graying baby boomers, McCartney's concert is a chance to catch up on the Swinging Sixties, which passed the country by first time around. Flashback to 1965: The austere socialists who had run the State of Israel since its creation in 1948 had banned television; most music was sung in Hebrew (even imported Broadway show tunes); and most of its lyrics were nationalist exhortations to collective endeavor, struggle and sacrifice — amid the ever-present danger of of war with hostile Arab neighbors. Still, teenagers escaped from the folksy drudgery of their local pop scene by dialing up European radio stations to savor tracks off the new Beatles for Sale album and to participate, vicariously, in the first stirrings of a cultural revolution brewing in Europe and the U.S.

When an Israeli promoter announced in 1965 that the Fab Four were coming to town, ecstatic local teenagers took it as an affirmation that they were just as cool as the kids in London and New York who were letting their hair grow. But the concert never happened. Legend has it that a rival promoter, who had been trying to bring clean-cut British pop star Cliff Richard to Israel at the same time, warned the authorities that the mop-haired Beatles would exert a dangerous influence on Israeli youth. Mindful of preserving the moral purity of the next generation, Israel's leaders canceled the show under pressure from conservative members of the Knesset. When a hoard of unused tickets to the ill-fated Beatles' concert was found a few years ago, they become hotly pursued collectors' items for wistful Israelis of a certain age. "Our generation grew up on the Beatles culture, but we didn't feel a part of it," says historian Tom Segev. "We missed out on the '68 revolution. All of our energies were consumed by the Six Day War and the army's occupation of the West Bank."

Segev maintains that today's near-hysteria over the ex-Beatle's concert is a kind of displaced yearning for what almost happened in the euphoric '60s, but didn't. "It's nostalgia for something that never existed in Israel at the time," the historian says.

Now, McCartney will play for an estimated 40,000 people in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park. But with ticket prices ranging from $1,500 for VIP seats to $150 for the bleachers, many Israelis are complaining that this particular trip down memory lane is too pricey.

Israeli newspapers ran interviews with McCartney on their front pages and featured little celebrity nuggets such as Sir Paul requesting that his Royal Suite be fitted out with a specially tuned piano and a plate of Jerusalem humus. McCartney, whose show celebrates Israel's 60th anniversary, brushed off the death threat from Islamic radicals. "I do what I think and I have many friends who support Israel," he told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In another interview, with the Jerusalem Post, McCartney said: "Any high-profile event brings with it some worries." He added: "I think that most people understand that I'm quite apolitical and that my message is a global one and that it is a peaceful one." Or, as McCartney once sang, Let it be.

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