It is not that often that the Western Wall is the focus of attention for celebrity magazines. But it was recently when actor David Arquette was in Israel and, upon visiting the Wall, decided to have the barmitzvah that he never had as a youngster, and to have it there.
While the barmitzvah was spontaneous, the growth in celebrity visits to Israel is not. Arquette was invited as the guest of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. And other bodies, governmental and non-governmental, are making a concerted effort to bring in the stars.
This spring, ER doctor Greg Pratt was excited to get into an Israeli fighter plane. The actor who played him, Mekhi Phifer, tweeted from an Air Force base: “We are headed to the military base. It’s about to go down!”
Phifer’s trip, which also included House star Omar Epps and 21 Jump Street’s Holly Peete, was organised by America’s Voices in Israel, which exists specifically to show the country to celebs.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said: “Over the last year, the Tourism Ministry has increased its hosting of celebrities and opinion-formers with the objective of increasing tourism.”
He believes the strategy is winning. “Today, the state of Israel is reaping the benefits of the intensive marketing activity with the all-time record high in incoming tourism.” Israel and its backers also hope the influx will help revive Israel’s battered international image.
Austin Nichols — Julian Baker in One Tree Hill — enthused about his new appreciation for Israel. “When you live in our part of the world, you’re inundated with media that only shows certain things,” he said. Justin Chatwin, a cast member in the American version of Channel 4’s Shameless, joked: “If my family and friends weren’t in California, I’d start a religion and come over here.”
America’s Voices in Israel was re-launched in 2011 after several years in hiatus. “We believe that seeing and experiencing Israel is the best antidote to the efforts of those seeking to delegitimise and demonise Israel,” says the organisation’s chairman, George Rohr.
After the Gaza flotilla last year, several artists, including Elvis Costello and The Pixies cancelled concerts in Israel,.
The list of celebrities whom America’s Voices has brought to Israel since its re-launch reads like the credits of an impressive TV show.
It hosted cast members of House, Lisa Edelstein, Jesse Spencer and Amber Tamblyn, together with the show’s creator, David Shore, and Greg Grunberg, star of TV’s Heroes.
Celeb-watchers in Israel have had a great time clamouring for autographs. And politicians have become star-struck. Asked about the delegations, Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister for public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, went so far as to say that actors’ assessments on Israel are received as “ultimate truth”.
The surprising thing when spending a morning with the visiting stars is the instant feedback. As they tour, they are hooked up to their mobile devices, meaning that their thousands of followers know all about their visit.
As she made her way around the country, Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe O’Brian in 24), tweeted pictures of herself covered in mud at the Dead Sea and a photo of herself excavating in the Western Wall tunnels.
Austin Nichols used his Facebook page to share photographs of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudah market and his “new friends” in Tel Aviv. And fans were busy “liking” their Facebook posts and commenting on their tweets.
This is exactly why the America’s Voices organisation has chosen to work with celebs. Experts believe that the strategy is smart and good value for money.