Comedian Leno heads back to Israel for cheek-pinching fun

Comedian Leno heads back to Israel for cheek-pinching fun

Former late night TV host and ‘huge supporter’ of Jewish state to emcee award show; sets Sara Netanyahu off-limits for one-liners

American comedian Jay Leno reacts during an interview with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, on Wednesday May 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
American comedian Jay Leno reacts during an interview with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, on Wednesday May 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

AP — Jay Leno is making a comeback — in Israel. The late-night legend says he will return to Israel in June to host the award ceremony for the second annual “Genesis Prize.” Leno also hosted the inaugural ceremony last year for what is billed as “the Jewish Nobel Prize.” The $1 million prize is being awarded to Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas in recognition of his “passion” for his Jewish heritage and Israel.

Leno said he was thrilled to be invited back, comparing the warm welcome he received last year to a raucous Italian wedding.

“People seem to be genuinely happy to see you,” he told The Associated Press. “There you kind of get swarmed. People run over, and the grandmas pinch your cheeks. So that was kind of fun.”

He said he felt that people seemed especially appreciative of his decision to visit at a time when entertainers are under pressure to boycott Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. “Israelis are thrilled when you actually show up,” he said.

Leno, who is not Jewish, described himself as a big supporter of Israel, and said he disagreed with critics who portray the country as an aggressor.

“It seems like they (Israel) have the worst PR in the world,” he said. “I don’t understand how Israel is the bad guy here. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The Genesis Prize Foundation said the June 18 ceremony will include a tribute to Douglas, a celebration of the contribution of Jews to Hollywood and Broadway and a segment on diversity and tolerance. Douglas, whose father, actor Kirk Douglas, is Jewish, has said he will donate his prize money to projects that promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community.

“Michael Douglas has chosen to invest the prize award into initiatives which will resonate with Jews like himself — those who come from parents of mixed heritage who wish to be part of the Jewish community,” said Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the foundation.

Leno said he is already gathering material to make fun of Douglas, a longtime acquaintance, as well as the country’s politicians. Hundreds of VIPs, including the prime minister, are expected to attend.

“After 22 years of hearing Jay poke fun of my movies on ‘The Tonight Show,’ it’ll be a nice change to be there when he does it in person,” Douglas said in a statement released by the foundation.

One person who does not have to worry is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. Often portrayed as petty and demanding by Israeli comedians, Mrs. Netanyahu will be off limits, Leno said.

“I tend to use the mafia model,” he said. “You don’t go after the wives and children.”

The Genesis Prize was founded by the prime minister’s office, the Jewish Agency and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes Jewish education for Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. Last year’s recipient was Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York.

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