Seeing stars in Jerusalem

Will the Western Wall become a new celebrity hangout this year?

will smith western wall (photo credit: AP)
will smith western wall
(photo credit: AP)
Atir Cohen got quite a surprise on his Bar Mitzvah day in Jerusalem - a visit from a Hollywood movie star. There was the young Israeli 13-year-old, celebrating at the Western Wall, when suddenly he heard shouts and saw excited women pushing and peering over the wall that separates worshipping men and women. He knew the excitement wasn't all about him... and indeed, the crowd was stoked over something else - a Hollywood celebrity - the unlikely site of rapper and actor Will Smith accompanied by his also-famous wife, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith. They greeted Atir and posed for a picture with him, then continued on their tour of the Western Wall area for several hours. After learning about its history, praying and following the tradition of putting a note in the Wall, they continued on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Smith, who headlined blockbusters like Independence Day and Men In Black after starring for years in the popular television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, had come quietly for the Passover and Easter season - coincidentally, at the same time as another Hollywood leading man, Scottish actor Ewan Mac-Gregor, was vacationing in Israel with his family. This all came on the heels of a week-long visit by Sharon Stone, who posed, smiled and flirted her way across the country, dropping in for a women's festival, and helpfully offering to kiss anyone if it brought Middle East peace. The celebrities are back - it looks like 2006 could be the year of the famous visitor in Israel. Years ago, it was a phenomenon Israelis took for granted: celebrity sightings in Jerusalem used to be a matter of course, back in earlier decades when the city was regularly packed with tourists on a daily basis. And justifiably so, Israel is a unique and important place, both historically and spiritually with sights unlike any other in the world. The famous, just like anyone else, jumped at an opportunity to experience it. Then came the terrorist violence beginning in 2000. Along with the sudden and drastic drop in Americans visiting Israel, came the disappearance of American and European celebrities. The interest and attachment that foreign tourists had to the holy places was overcome by fear, and Israeli tourism dried up overnight. But now, quietly and gradually, a comeback has gathered momentum. The famous, along with thousands other tourists, have decided that they have waited long enough and the time has come for a visit. The celebs are the visible face of a tourism surge that began in 2004, picked up steam in 2005, and is increasing to an even greater extent in 2006. The statistics are clear: over the past month, 24 percent more tourists arrived in Israel than during the same period a year earlier. In 2004 we saw Madonna and last year brought Richard Gere. And of course, Israel's darling in Hollywood, Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman, didn't just come to Israel for a short visit but studied at Hebrew University for a full semester and shot a movie here stirring up controversy by acting in a love scene at the Western Wall (the new celebrity hangout?). The future looks promising: there are rumors of an upcoming return by Madonna - who has reportedly been real estate shopping in the Galilee, and murmurings that Oprah Winfrey may drop in (she quietly anchored her yacht in Herzliya last year, but didn't venture out for a full-fledged tour of the country.) Our new prime minister has Hollywood connections. Last week, the Israeli press featured the tale of how it was Ehud Olmert who, sitting in the office of mega-producer Arnon Milchan, first suggested that Milchan name the upcoming Julia Roberts-Richard Gere film Pretty Woman. Music fans are happy as popular performers are also returning in droves to Israeli stages after a similar absence. Set for summer concerts are the award-winning hip-hop group Black-Eyed Peas, reggae star Ziggy Marley, rapper 50 Cent, rocker Sting (on a return visit), as well as Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin. Yes, we're talking about show biz celebrities - actors and musicians - not world leaders - but their presence in Israel is nothing to be to be sneezed at. Glamorous and high-profile visitors give incoming tourism to Israel an undeniable invaluable shot in the arm. Pictures of Stone in Tel Aviv or Smith in Jerusalem send an important message to the less glitzy who may be leafing through People magazine, that it's safe to come back to Israel, that Israel has a lot to offer, and maybe they should be next.