Step aside, Israel haters Rogers Waters, Penelope Cruz, Russell Brand, Danny Glover, Emma Thompson, Selena Gomez. Ditto Neil Young and Elvis Costello. Take a seat with Dustin Hoffman (who should be ashamed of himself) and Stevie Wonder, who reneged on a planned performance at a benefit for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Have a seat, Michael Bennett and Kenny Stills, who declined to participate in a trip to Israel with fellow football stars because they didn’t want to be seen as “propaganda tools” of the Israeli government.
Let’s compare the celebs who find the only democracy in the Middle East—where all citizens have equal rights and religious liberty—too toxic, with everyone’s favorite redhead, Conan O’Brien. The comedian and talk show host just finished a rollicking five-day tour of Israel, where he fell in love with the sights, the sounds, the people and, oh yes, the food.
This was O’Brien’s first visit to Israel, where he filmed an episode of his TBS show “Conan Without Borders.” The trip was planned in conjunction with the Keshet Media Group and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He visited Jerusalem (including the Western Wall), Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the West Bank, among other locations, and floated in the Dead Sea. He also tried valiantly to learn some Hebrew. Of his trip to Bethlehem, O’Brien quipped, “I hope I can get a room, because Jesus had some trouble.” He posted a picture of himself on Twitter with a shopkeeper commenting, “Visited an Arab market and became an expert at haggling. If haggling means paying full retail and then crying.”
“When most celebrities come to Israel, they have a photo-op or two, give a performance where an occasional ‘shalom!’ is uttered and then are quickly whisked away to go back home,” wrote Noa Amouyal in The Jerusalem Post. “The most interesting aspect of his visit, though, is that he defiantly ignored his critics and treated Israel like it’s an attractive (and normal) tourist destination. And that’s because it is.”
Israelis, said O’Brien, “are fantastic, really funny, nice people,” adding, “all the men are incredibly buff, and the women are beautiful.” He offered his signature flirtatious growl to an Israeli woman who happened to walk by. Israelis enjoyed the visit by posting photos and videos of O’Brien as they encountered him on the streets of Israel, at a tony Thai restaurant and strolling Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on Shabbat.
“I think a lot of people in the world think of this as a very tense place,” he said. “That is not the impression that you get.” The Israeli Ministry of Tourism couldn’t ask for a better endorsement to those who are wary of visiting.
“Israel is a unique place, where every move, every tourist attraction visit is seen as a political statement,” noted Amouyal. “O’Brien enjoyed an immersive experience during his stay here, with a joy that far surpassed most celebrity visits. He must have been warned of the consequences prior to his departure and it seems as if every attack against him has only emboldened him.”
O’Brien spent a day training with the women of the Israeli Defense Forces, after which he reported, “Today I had my butt kicked by the women of the IDF Karkl Battalion.” He also filmed a scene from the “Fauda” (Arabic for chaos) TV series, describing it as one of his favorite shows. At Safed’s Ziv Medical Center, he told the medical team they “deserve a Nobel Peace Prize” for treating Syrians wounded in the civil war currently raging in Syria, just to Israel’s north.
O’Brien also dined at the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he watched Bibi feeding the family dog cucumbers and then tossed a few to the pooch himself. “If you tried to give an American dog a cucumber,” he joked, “it would punch you.”
Despite needing help with the pronunciation, O’Brien offered high praise for shakshuka, the signature Israeli breakfast dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce, advising, “You gotta get yourself some shakshuka, and get it today.” He also became a fan of Israel’s best-selling beer, Gold Star Lager, which is brewed in Netanya.
O’Brien is in good company with those who have supported and/or performed in Israel despite threats and denunciations from the anti-Israel crowd. This praiseworthy group includes the Rolling Stones (who delayed the start of a concert by 45 minutes to allow observant Jews time to arrive after sunset at the end of Shavuot), Howard Stern, Robert Kraft, the late Joan Rivers, Simon Cowell, Scarlett Johansson, Rod Stewart, Paula Abdul, Cyndi Lauper, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Steven Tyler, Radiohead, and Guns N’ Roses.
Conan’s special airs on Sept. 19. Let’s wish him a shana tova!
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