TEL AVIV, Israel – After a 43-year wait, Paul McCartney performed his first concert in Israel on Thursday, kicking it off with the familiar Beatles' song "Hello, Goodbye" to the joy of tens of thousands of cheering fans.
McCartney billed the concert "Friendship First," saying he is on a mission of peace for Israel and the Palestinians.
Singing "Give Peace a Chance," he stopped and let the audience sing the chorus alone. He told his fans, "Here tonight you sang it, you want it." He dedicated the song to his fellow Beatle, John Lennon, who was killed in New York in 1980.
Fireworks lit the sky as he sang "Live and Let Die."
After it was officially announced last month, the concert set off a wave of excitement throughout the country, where visits by A-list celebrities are still a novelty. Almost all of Tel Aviv's nightclubs canceled live entertainment Thursday evening in deference to the rock legend.
A crowd made up of Israelis of all ages, estimated at 40,000, cheered McCartney as he performed outdoors in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park on a warm late summer night. Some wore T-shirts with the slogan, "I love Paul."
McCartney greeted the crowd with a mixture of English and Hebrew, wishing them "shana tova," happy new year, ahead of next week's Jewish new year holiday. His repertoire included many Beatles hits, as well as songs from his post-Beatles group, Wings. The songs included "Yesterday," "Back in the USSR," "Hey Jude" and "Jet." He added two encores for the cheering crowd.
Nadav Erez, 31, from the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion, danced enthusiastically throughout the concert. "He should have come here long ago, he should have come again and again, he should come again and again and again," Erez said.
McCartney was first scheduled to appear in Israel with the Beatles in 1965. But in one of the country's most widely repeated tales, an Israeli official supposedly called off the concert for fear it would corrupt the nation's youth. Only in recent weeks, it turns out the story may not have been true.
So pervasive is this story that Israel's ambassador in London, Ron Prosor, sent a letter to the surviving members of the band to express regret over the matter.
"Israel missed a chance to learn from the most influential musicians of the decade, and the Beatles missed an opportunity to reach out to one of the most passionate audiences in the world," he wrote. He told them the country would like to make it up to them by inviting them to play during this year's celebrations marking Israel's 60th anniversary. Only two of the four Beatles, McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr, are still alive.
When McCartney announced plans for Thursday's concert, he acknowledged the ancient brouhaha, saying he was finally coming "43 years after being banned by the Israeli government." He promised to give Israelis "the night they have been waiting decades for."
Ahead of the McCartney concert, newspaper columnist Yossi Sarid, son of the Israeli official who allegedly banned the Beatles, went on a campaign to clear his father's name. Sarid claimed his father had nothing to do with the decision, and that it involved a more mundane feud between two Israeli concert promoters.
Sarid, reached ahead of the concert, said had not heard from McCartney's people and had no plans to attend the concert. "The tickets are too expensive," he said.
A small group of Palestinians urged McCartney to call off the show, saying it was supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A radical Muslim preacher in Lebanon also called on McCartney to cancel the show.
During a visit to the biblical town of Bethlehem on Wednesday, McCartney brushed off the criticism.
"I get criticized everywhere I go, but I don't listen to them," McCartney said. "I'm bringing a message of peace, and I think that's what the region needs."
Hundreds of police and private security guards were deployed at the concert. But police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were no concrete threats against the singer, and no extraordinary security precautions were being taken.