Ever since I was a teenager, inspired by a wise Jewish South African educator named Sam Ernst, I have been fascinated by great people, with Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin topping the list.
I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing Frank Sinatra open the Frank Sinatra Student Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1978, when I did a one-year-program there. “Mr. S adored Israel, and Israel adored him right back,” said Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs. Coincidentally, Ol’ Blue Eyes died on May 14, 1998 – Israel’s 50th anniversary.
Sinatra participated in a secret operation in March 1948 to get arms shipped from New York to the Hagana at the request of Teddy Kollek. While working at Kol Yisrael, I interviewed the legendary mayor in his Jerusalem home, where he told me that story.
Meeting celebrities, world leaders visiting Israel
Over the years, I have met a string of celebrities visiting Israel, from Nelson Mandela to Dr. Ruth. My favorite was Barbra Streisand, who came for Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday bash in 2013. The star-studded gathering held at Binyenei Ha’uma (Jerusalem’s International Convention Center) attracted, among others, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Robert de Niro, and Sharon Stone.
In 1995, I was overwhelmed by the number of world leaders attending Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Jerusalem two days after his assassination. Among the 4,000 VIP guests were Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein, Britain’s John Major, France’s Jacques Chirac, and Germany’s Helmut Kohl.
Another event I attended that attracted a slew of global leaders was the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in 2020, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among the 50 leaders attending were Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky (who cautiously avoided each other), Britain’s Prince Charles, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
VIPs often kick off their visits to Israel at Yad Vashem and Jerusalem’s Old City, where they pray at the Western Wall and other holy sites. I was thrilled to interview Genesis Prize laureate Michael Douglas, who came in 2014 with his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their son, Dylan, in Jerusalem. Like many celebrities, they stayed at the King David Hotel, which has signatures of famous guests on its marble floor.
Long before the selfies of the modern era, VIPs had photo-ops with Israel’s leaders, from Ben-Gurion to Netanyahu. In a blog on nli.org.il titled “A celebrity’s guide to Israel,” National Library content writer Chen Malul zips through a galaxy of entertainment stars visiting the Holy Land, including Kirk Douglas (who was here in 1965 for the filming of Cast a Giant Shadow), Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, and Jane Fonda.
“Our displays of progress didn’t always impress our glittering guests.”Chen Malul
Malul notes that before Israel became the Start-Up Nation, “our displays of progress didn’t always impress our glittering guests.” He cites Kirk Douglas’s critique in his 1994 autobiography of his tour of Jerusalem by Kollek and his colleagues: “They showed me the newly erected soccer field, the biggest supermarket in Jerusalem, and the new zoo. I understand that secular Israelis yearn to recreate an American lifestyle for themselves, and that a supermarket was a step in that direction, but frankly if I wanted to see a spectacular supermarket, I could have stayed in Beverly Hills.”
“My visit to Israel was the greatest experience of my life. I was given a new perspective. My faith is renewed. I see people standing taller and straighter here than in any other country I have visited.”Danny Kaye
In 1956, Danny Kaye caused a sensation when he made his first trip to Israel. He echoed the sentiments of many celebrities when he told reporters before returning home: “My visit to Israel was the greatest experience of my life. I was given a new perspective. My faith is renewed. I see people standing taller and straighter here than in any other country I have visited.”
While we’ve overcome many setbacks and tragedies over the last 75 years, tiny Israel still casts a giant shadow. Am Yisrael Chai!