The Rock Star’s Guide to Eating, Praying, and Loving in the High Security State of Israel
Why Justin Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, and, yes, Alicia Keys, love to play Tel Aviv—and why Israel loves them back
It was the summer of 2011, and some of Israel’s best-trained security personnel were having a rough time: The perimeter had been breached, and before they knew it, hordes of hostiles were moving quickly, closing in on the target. All seemed lost, but men trained in close-quarter combat in Gaza and Ramallah and southern Lebanon are never without contingency plans. They didn’t disappoint: Before anyone could tell what was going on, an engine roared and a white scooter appeared from somewhere just by the waterline.
It was time to get Justin Bieber away from the paparazzi.
Before the photographers and the shrieking fans could give chase, the scooter whisked away the boy wonder into traffic and toward an undisclosed location. It was an Entebbe-like operation, rich with detail, the kind that makes Israel among the best places in the world for rock stars to visit.
Think of international artists performing in the Jewish state, and a parade of controversies comes to mind, such as the time Roger Waters used his visit as a platform to talk politics, the time Macy Gray came back from her visit and Tweeted that she regretted the whole thing, or the time Elvis Costello canceled his concert to express his solidarity with the Palestinians. And Israel’s concert promoters, a very small clique, hold the same stature as the country’s top diplomats, more accustomed to discussing politics than sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
What they’ve given the country in return is simple but priceless: Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and a host of other luminaries who’ve performed in Tel Aviv recently, leading a renaissance in celebrity visits to Israel unseen since the heady and hopeful days of the 1993 Oslo Accords. For these entertainers, accustomed to the vagaries of touring, Israel is not a sensitive topic to discuss sotto voce, but a haven, a country seemingly engineered to provide itinerant performers with their very particular needs.
Rock stars, of course, never admit to having favorite cities to play in; every town is the greatest place on earth on the night of their concert. But any analysis of the exhausting business of international touring reveals a short but rigid list of demands that make the experience of waking up every morning in a different place possible for those who perform for a living. And security is on top of that list.
This is Israel’s greatest advantage. Elsewhere, the men entrusted with keeping feral fans and fearless paparazzi at arm’s length are hastily trained guards, maybe police. In Israel, they are veterans of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite units. And the service they provide is distinctly different.
“You don’t understand anything about security,” Rani tells me, “or about celebrities.” He doesn’t want his real name used—his business, after all, the business of shielding the rich and the famous, is all about discretion—but he’s in his late 20s and he’s tough and he’s jovial and so he can’t resist a few good-natured jabs. It’s early morning in one of Tel Aviv’s finest hotels, and a VIP—Rani won’t say just who but hints heavily that it’s Israeli President Shimon Peres—is on the premises. Rani isn’t part of the celebrity’s entourage, but of the “outer circle of security,” as he calls it: the hotel guards entrusted with keeping the perimeter free of intruders. And from his perch on the edge of the outer circle, there’s much he’d like to say about what makes Tel Aviv such an ideal town for anyone who, for whatever reason, has to take security seriously.
“All the hotels here, they have their back to the sea,” he said, adjusting his silvery Bolle shades. “That means only one entrance. They come in, they go out, same door. Your job is to stand and guard it.” I say that it doesn’t sound like a particularly difficult job and that you probably don’t need to be a veteran of Golani or the Paratroopers or any of the IDF’s other elite battalions to pull it off. Rani scoffs and tells me all about Bieber and the scooter and Madonna’s dinner, which was swamped by sweaty well-wishers who shouted at their idol, and other stories designed in part to impress me with his proximity to celebrity and in part to prove that orchestrating the steps of very big stars in a very small country is no mean feat. “Tachles,” Rani says, using a Hebrew word meaning, roughly, bottom line, “the thing these people care most about is their security. Everywhere they go, people try to grab them, touch them, kiss them. They need to be protected, and it’s what we in Israel do best.”
To Tair Kesler, an Israeli video blogger and sometime celebrity handler, all this talk of security is beside the point. The reason artists love coming to Israel, she says—an enthusiasm she says she’s witnessed numerous times, with artists ranging from Lady Gaga to the New York band Interpol—isn’t that Israeli professionals know how to protect celebrities from pestering fans, but that Israeli citizens know better than to pester celebrities in the first place.
“I know this sounds very general,” she said, “but they really like our character. They look at us and see something much more sachbaky,” slang for friendly and unassuming. “It’s good here because people just talk to them.” In a nation like Israel, Kesler said, heavily burdened with existential concerns, a famous face is nice to see, but no reason to lose one’s cool. “Here no one is screaming like they do abroad. It’s much calmer here. We see these celebrities as people. We’re less excited than other places; other places care a lot about celebrities, but here we have bigger things to worry about.” This nonchalance, Kesler said, is a major curiosity for stars accustomed to chauffeured limousines and exquisitely catered dinners. Visitors are driven around in jeeps and taken to a succession of decidedly unglamorous spots.
The ‘Color Purple’ author showed more than just naivete in penning an open letter to the pop star. She also showed ignorance.