Let It Be

Instead of apologizing to the Beatles, Prosor should be apologizing to the people of Israel, who were the real victims of the government's ultra-conservative myopia.

When Israel was younger, so much younger than today, it never needed anybody's help in any way. But now those days are gone, we're not so self-assured; now we find we've changed our minds and opened up the doors.

Assuming I haven't just infringed the Lennon/McCartney copyright, I should now explain why I have the chutzpah to bastardize one of the Beatles' most famous songs. Here's the story in precis: Ron Prosor, Israel's new ambassador to the Court of St. James (that's Britain to you and me), has apologized to the Beatles for a government decision in 1965 - the same year that the "Help!" album was released to worldwide acclaim - to prohibit the Fab Four from appearing in the Holy Land. He even met with a surviving half-sister of John Lennon in Liverpool to deliver the apology in person.

In a letter to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as to the families of the late George Harrison and John Lennon, Prosor wrote, in the sort of almost-proper-but-not-quite English that Israel's politicians and diplomats are famed for: "We would like to take this opportunity to rectify a historic missed opportunity which unfortunately took place in 1965 when you were invited to Israel. Unfortunately, the State of Israel cancelled your performance in the country due to lack of budget and because several politicians in the Knesset had believed at the time that your performance might corrupt the minds of the Israeli youth. 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 younger generation in Israel who admired you and continues to admire you."

Prosor went on to invite the two surviving band members to take part in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations later this year. "On our 60th anniversary, we would like to take the opportunity to offer you a second chance to play in Israel," the letter concludes.

The decision to ban the Beatles is poorly documented, and what little is known of the episode is based on speculation, conjecture and second-hand memories. According to the most well-known version, the band was invited to perform in Israel, tickets were printed up and a venue arranged, but the concert was cancelled because of the firm objections of politicians who believed that the Beatles would corrupt Israeli youth.

The person most often blamed for the decision is Yaakov Schneider, who was the director general of the Education Ministry at the time. Schneider's son, Yossi Sarid, has said that he tried to ask his late father about these accusations, but found no evidence to support them. "I decided, however, that it's a nice legend, so who am I to destroy it?" Sarid wrote in his blog on TheMarker Cafe.

One can only assume that Prosor's apology is part of some sort of misguided charm offensive, which the Foreign Ministry mistakenly believes can replace professional advocacy and public relations. Dredging through the annals to apologize for a decision that was odd even by the standards of peculiar behavior set by Israeli governments over the years will do nothing to explain our often controversial and sometimes justified actions, not to mention to counter the propaganda of Israel's enemies. It may help to wow the tabloid press and get Israel a place on the quirky corner on Sky News, but it's not a serious attempt to rehabilitate Israel's tarnished international image.

Even in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War - a war that, possessed of the full facts, no thinking person can accuse Israel of starting - the Foreign Ministry has not seen fit to seriously address the issue of marketing Israel to the international community. Earlier this week, the government was lambasted by the Knesset's State Control Committee for failing to make good on its promise to establish a national information unit in the Prime Minister's Office. When cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel said the government had allocated NIS 4 million for the unit, the committee rightly criticized the government for not having actually opened it.

Contrast Prosor's ridiculous buffoonery with the laudable (but impractical to the point of being surreal) proposal by Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, for Egyptian schoolchildren to learn Hebrew. Now there's an idea: promoting mutual understanding through study of language and culture.

Not only has Prosor unnecessarily made Israel 1965 the object of ridicule (who in their right mind bans the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania?). He has painted Israel 2008 in a most unflattering light: pandering, populist and pathetic.

Perhaps his greatest sin, however, is that his apology is directed at the wrong party. The Beatles didn't suffer by having their invitation to Israel so rudely revoked; they got a free weekend. Instead, Prosor should be apologizing to the people of Israel, who were the real victims of the government's ultra-conservative myopia.

Simon Spungin is an editor at Haaretz.