Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Israel Bans the Beatles

The Beatles in America (Wikipedia)
Attempts to bring the Beatles to Israel in the 1960s walked a long and winding road before the Liverpool lads were turned down by the Israeli committee in charge of hosting artists and performers.

Following vociferous public debates that reached as far as the High Court of Justice and the Knesset, the committee ultimately decided to keep the Beatles out of Israel. The band's music, they said, was of "no artistic value," and there was fear their phalanxes of fans might cause a security problem.

To mark 33 years since John Lennon's assassination in New York on December 8, 1980, we've published a number of documents from the Israel State Archives on this dispute. You can see the originals on our Hebrew blog here.

Why were the Beatles kept out of Israel? You could blame it on teen heartthrob and singer Cliff Richard, for one, whose 1963 appearance here had the committee recalling the madness that had accompanied the visit, as it often did on the Fab Four's itinerary, and worrying about a security risk.

Hundreds of crazed Cliff fans had gone to Ben-Gurion Airport to greet him and some even gathered on the tarmac. They welcomed him with screams and yells and the police were unable to keep order. That wild reception contributed to the fear of public disorder if The Beatles were allowed entry.

This, however, was only one of the reasons that the cultural committee--established in the mid-fifties, and tasked with coordinating bringing performers to Israel and evaluating their artistic level, as well as preventing problems during their performances--opposed The Beatles's visit.

The decision was presided over by then-Education Ministry Director-General Yaakov Schneider, father of future left-wing MK and education minister Yossi Sarid.

"There is some kind of fable that my father prevented The Beatles from entering Israel," Sarid said in an interview on Ynet in 2008. "I tried to look into it and didn't find any evidence to support this. I decided, however, that it's a nice legend, so who am I to destroy it?

"I assume that they told my father, who wasn't a great Beatles expert, that the band members have long hair and take drugs, and will surely corrupt Israeli youth."

The committee included representatives from the Education, Finance, and Interior ministries, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and other government bodies. Deputy Education Ministry Director-General Avner Israeli headed it, and their work revolved mostly around the Israeli promoters, or as they were called, "the impresarios."

In January 1964, Israeli promoters Avraham Bugtier and Ya'acov Ori asked the committee for approval to invite The Beatles to perform here.

The committee turned them down on the grounds that it feared the band would have a bad influence on Israeli youth (Document 1). The two appealed the decision in February. A month later, the committee decided not to allow John, Paul, George and Ringo to perform in the Holy Land because the band's music was of no artistic value and its appearances had led to mass hysteria among the youth where they performed. That decision (Document 3) was based on numerous foreign and local newspaper articles about the group and impressions of the Foreign Ministry's Division for Cultural Relations.

It prompted Baruch Gilon, head of the Israeli promoters association, to write a letter of protest to committee chairman Israeli. He accused the committee of overstepping its authority, arguing it had not been authorized to judge the artistic level of any bands. He asked the committee to retract the ban and allow The Beatles to appear, adding that the committee's authority was limited to matters of values and security (Document 3). In response, the Education Ministry's legal adviser wrote that the committee had explicitly been formed -- based on the original letter outlining its responsibilities -- to "ensure the professional level" of performers appearing in Israel.

In August 1964, committee chairman Israeli wrote to the two promoters that even a Washington official dealing with youth had called for banning the group from performing, based on problems that had occurred at their concerts: rioting, mass hysteria (teenage girls screaming, fainting, and massing in places where the group was scheduled to appear), causing injuries and the need for police intervention. No serious promoter should take the risks that accompanied The Beatles concerts, he argued.

In response to a letter of protest (Document 4) from a teenage girl expressing her disappointment over the committee's ban, the Education Ministry spokesman wrote that in this case it was not a matter of the generation gap between the "square" older people and the youth. It was not an attempt to deny them pleasure, the spokesman wrote, but a real fear of negative phenomena which had accompanied the band's appearances elsewhere.

The Beatles debate made it as far as the High Court of Justice. In April 1965, it ruled that the committee indeed had the authority to ban foreign performers and bands from abroad from performing in Israel.

In February 1966, the Beatles issue even rocked the Knesset. MK Uri Avneri posed a parliamentary question to Deputy Education Minister Aharon Yadlin regarding the committee's reasons for not allowing the Beatles to perform in Israel (Document 5). He explained that the band members, who had also become favorites with members of the British establishment, had even received awards from the Queen.

In his response, Yadlin too noted the band's low artistic level. "From an artistic standpoint, this group of singers has no real value," he said, adding that the mass hysteria that broke out when they appeared would require the call-up of many police. He concluded by noting that Beatles performances in other parts of the world ended in brawls, sending some people to the hospital.

The dispute over The Beatles reflects how the band was perceived by the Israeli establishment. The committee, as a representative body of that establishment, expressed in its decision its fear of foreign influence and the undermining of Israeli youth's values.

In the end, however, the Israeli government saw the error of its ways. At a ceremony at The Beatles Museum in Liverpool in January 2008, Israeli Ambassador to the UK Ron Prosor met with John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird, and presented her with an official letter, YNet reported. The letter read: "There is no doubt that it was a great missed opportunity to prevent people like you, who shaped the minds of the generation, to come to Israel and perform before the young generation in Israel who admired you and continues to admire you."

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