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This Charming Man

Morrissey loves Israel—and Israel loves him back

Dana Kessler
July 14, 2023
For his encore at Expo Tel Aviv, Morrissey donned a Maccabi T-shirt

Original photo: Amit Slonim

For his encore at Expo Tel Aviv, Morrissey donned a Maccabi T-shirt

Original photo: Amit Slonim

In the United States, the greatest Morrissey fans are the Chicanos. Extensive research has been done on the subject. Beautiful essays have been written about how Morrissey’s outsider stance appeals to Mexican immigrants and how the themes of estrangement and longing in his melancholic ballads remind them of their own music genres such as rancheras. But do you know who loves the former frontman of the Smiths just as much as Mexican Americans? Israelis do. The reasons why Israelis love Morrissey, however, are much more prosaic. Israelis, as anyone knows, are no frayerim—suckers. They love Morrissey because he loves them.

Jokes aside—most of his Israeli fans are loyal to him and appreciate his support for their country, as do the Israeli media and local politicians. Even the press release sent to me and all other music journalists ahead of his two recent Israeli shows, which took place on July 2 at the Zappa Shuni amphitheater in Binyamina and on July 4 at Expo Tel Aviv, happily stated: “After 7 years, one of Israel’s best loved musicians is back in our arms!.” Yes, Morrissey is back in our arms.

It’s no secret this country hasn’t been super popular in the world for quite a while now, so if someone embraces us, we hug him right back—no questions asked. And Morrissey, baruch hashem, loves Israel. The man is no sycophant—he’s not the type to flatter every nation. He calls it like he sees it, and he sees Israel with extremely fond eyes.

In 2017, politician Avigdor Lieberman, who at the time was minister of defense, tweeted: “Impatiently waiting for Morrissey’s new album!” Not to be overly stereotypical, but Soviet-born men like Lieberman, especially those of his generation, usually are not into verbose British indie pop, and generally prefer ’70s hard rock in the vein of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Nazareth. Lieberman’s surprising appreciation for Morrissey, it’s safe to assume, was a strategic one. This tweet was posted a few days before the release of Morrissey’s 11th solo album, Low in High School, which included two songs referencing the very same state that Lieberman was in charge of defending.

The first, “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel”—a strange tango whose title plays homage to the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The second, the album closer “Israel,” is an almost six-minute-long pro-Zionist ballad in which Morrissey declares with great pathos: “In other climes they bitch and whine / Just because you are not like them—Israel, Israel … And they who rain abuse upon you—they are jealous of you as well.” In the same song he claims, “I can’t answer for what armies do—They are not you,” which reads like an explanation to why he doesn’t believe in BDS and cultural boycotts.

Morrissey’s love affair with Israel stretches quite a few years back. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Morrissey has been opposing popular opinions for most of his career, and that’s exactly what he’s doing now, at a time when many European public figures who fancy themselves moral prefer to shun Israel.

Israelis have already become accustomed to the reality that when international artists are booked to play their country, they don’t always come. Often, the artists receive threats, get cold feet, and cancel their shows. Lauryn Hill, Sinéad O’Connor, Elvis Costello, Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne, and Lorde are just some of the artists who have canceled scheduled shows in Israel over the years. But Morrissey never stood his Israeli fans up.

Morrissey at the Zappa Shuni amphitheater in Binyamina, July 2
Morrissey at the Zappa Shuni amphitheater in Binyamina, July 2Ariel Efron

Since he first visited the land of milk and honey 15 years ago, he’s been with us through thick and thin. The Smiths, who disbanded in 1987, never played in the Middle East, but Morrissey has visited the Holy Land four times already, each time playing one or two solo shows. And if it weren’t for COVID ruining everybody’s plans, he wouldn’t have waited seven years after his previous visit to come back.

Morrissey first came to Israel in 2008, adamantly ignoring BDS calls to cancel his performance. He ended the concert with the greeting “God bless Israel,” which could have been interpreted as a polite and friendly reference to the host country in any territory less controversial than this particular one. Saying “God bless Israel” obviously isn’t like saying “God bless Italy” or “God bless New York.”

In his official autobiography, published in 2013, the singer mentioned a strange incident that happened just before his first visit to Zion. Let me rephrase—the incident itself was not strange at all, but the fact that he would mention it in his book is beyond bizarre. “By July 4th we headline at Hyde Park on a Friday of 25,000 strong,” he wrote of a show he did in London in 2008. “The actor Lior Ashkenazi flies over from Israel just to see the concert. Standing next to him backstage, it is difficult for me to shine, for some people are too in-spot to be matched, and Lior is such a person.”

Why on earth would Morrissey mention an Israeli actor in his autobiography? Most people he namechecked in his book are obviously very well known across the Western world, or at least in the U.K. But mentioning an Israeli actor, for no apparent reason and with no apparent context (he doesn’t mention him again), is frankly quite baffling. Especially being the notoriously petty, narcissistic, egocentric, vengeful, misanthropic, resentful, contemptuous and begrudging person that he is. (He’s also extremely witty, of course, and a great lyricist and singer, but that’s beside the point.)

A quick background check on this bizarre mention led me to Israeli screenwriter, producer, and journalist Gal Uchovsky. In a review he wrote about a Morrissey album in local news website Mako a few years ago, he recalled his first meeting with his teen idol: “Our first meeting was in London, about a decade ago. In the early 2000s, Morrissey saw the film Late Wedding and was turned on by Lior Ashkenazi there.” Then Morrissey saw Walk on Water, another film starring Ashkenazi—directed by Eytan Fox and written by Fox’s life partner, Uchovsky. According to Uchovsky, Morrissey only agreed to give him an interview in London if Ashkenazi were present, too. Uchovsky said why not, so the two of them traveled together to London to meet the singer, interview him, and attend the aforementioned Hyde Park concert. As evidenced by Morrissey’s memoir, he was duly impressed by Ashkenazi. There is a cliché about Israeli girls being the most beautiful in the world. Well, apparently some Israeli men aren’t perceived as too shabby either.

Morrissey liked Tel Aviv almost as much as he liked Lior Ashkenazi, and came back to perform here again four years later. During his second visit he even received the key to the city of Tel Aviv from the mayor, Ron Huldai. The British star was quick to point out that even in Manchester, his hometown, he was not treated with such respect. And in an interview for Israel’s Channel 2 news, he gallantly declared: “I’ve become a small face of Tel Aviv which I’ll be very happy to represent with integrity and loyalty,” and added that “there is no point punishing a nation for something a leader of a country does or says.”

His paying audience in Israel—i.e., the people that come to his shows—might not have changed that much over the years, and is still made up mainly of people who accepted Morrissey as their savior growing up as lonely and sensitive teenagers. But the attention he is getting in the Israeli mainstream media is totally unproportional for someone who achieved fame as a teen idol for morose youth.

Morrissey has never been a huge mainstream star anywhere in the world, and his career has been in decline for years now. In recent years, he’s struggled to find a record company to release his albums. In 2020 he was dropped by BMG. He then signed to Capitol records, but they decided to shelve his new album, Bonfire of Teenagers. Disappointed and angry, the singer claimed the album had been “sabotaged” by Capitol, who still own the rights to it. And if that’s not bad enough, he since recorded another album, Without Music the World Dies, and posted online that he is seeking a “record label or private investor” to release it, after severing all ties with Capitol.

Be that as it may, when Morrissey visits our country, it might be on the evening news and there are always articles about it in the mainstream press (I’ve written a few). That’s rare for foreign artists, except for megastars like Michael Jackson or Madonna. But Morrissey is newsworthy because he loves Israel.

And boy does he love Israel. On the same day he received the key to Tel Aviv from the mayor, in July 2012, he draped himself in the Israeli flag on stage in front of 6,000 fans who were absolutely beside themselves by the symbolic gesture. This was perceived as a political statement, even though Morrissey generally likes to wrap himself in local flags when he appears in the world. But this time, people called him a fascist.

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that accusation. In 1992, there was another flag incident. British music magazine NME printed on its cover a photo of Morrissey on stage clutching the Union Jack. The image was considered scandalous at the time and the headline read “Morrissey—flying the flag or flirting with disaster?” Context, of course, is everything, and the fact that Morrissey chose to fly the flag in London’s Finsbury Park to a crowd which included countless skinheads (this was the Madstock Festival which skinheads frequent), as well as his use of images of skinhead girls as a backdrop to the show, were deemed problematic and worrisome.

When the skinhead movement arose as a youth subculture in the late 1960s, it was distinctly anti-racist, but since the late 1970s, when British far-right parties started recruiting disenfranchised youth, many skinheads adopted white power views, and thus the entire image of skinheads was tarnished. So, Morrissey was branded a racist and a nationalist.

Morrissey wears an Israeli flag during a 2012 show
Morrissey wears an Israeli flag during a 2012 showYouTube

After this story ran, commentators suddenly remembered that Morrissey had penned songs with titles like “Bengali in Platforms,” “Asian Rut,” “The National Front Disco,” and “This Is Not Your Country.” Songs are obviously open to interpretation, but it suddenly became very easy to ignore the irony which many of these lyrics include and to interpret them as fascist manifestos. At the same time, others thought that Morrissey was nothing more than a provocateur who happened to develop a little fetish for far-right iconography.

In recent years, Morrissey began to express his support for the now dissolved far-right, anti-Islam party For Britain. For many of his fans, that was a step too far. But in Israel most of his fans remained loyal—at least loyal enough to go to his concerts when he comes to visit. After all, in Israel we take what we can get.

Earlier this month Morrissey visited Israel for the fourth time. I attended his second show this time around, held at Expo Tel Aviv. The audience was as expected: the nostalgic kind, mostly between the ages of 40 and 60. People who listened to the Smiths and Morrissey in high school and all through their army service, and danced to the Smiths in Dark Eighties clubs, along with songs by much darker bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy, and Fad Gadget. Naturally, the audience was elated every time their idol performed a Smiths song or a staple from the early years of his solo career; thankfully he always peppers his shows with a few of those.

Looking around there were lots of men in the audience, many bald ones, many with glasses. No one was sporting a quiff, no turned-up, dark blue Levi’s jeans, no gladioluses in the back pocket. No one can tell they’re Morrissey fans from just looking at them (except on days when they’re wearing their The Queen Is Dead T-shirt), but they love him no less than his stylish tattooed Chicano fans in the U.S.

Music aside, the event felt like a company fun day of any given Israeli high-tech company or startup. And like in the best company fun day, the camaraderie was vividly felt. While Morrissey used to be a spokesman for depressed youth, now he is a nostalgia act. That might be much less photogenic, sexy or cool, but maybe not much less emotionally valid. Most of the audience came to the concert to reconnect with their younger days, which may be why they didn’t seem to mind that Morrissey didn’t even mention the fact that a terrorist attack took place a few hours before, very near to where the concert was held, or the fact that the IDF was in the midst of an attack on Jenin. He finished the show with his usual Israeli gesture. Just before the encore, he changed into a 1978-79 blue-white retro Maccabi Tel Aviv FC T-shirt—which is how I learned that the new Irish head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Robbie Keane, is in fact a relative of Morrissey! And just like Morrissey, Keane too got much flak for signing with an Israeli soccer team.

When I say Israelis love Morrissey, I don’t mean all Israelis. Some of his original left-wing fans who are disappointed in him choose to ignore his opinions and quotes in order to at least be able to enjoy his shows, while others decided they have had enough of him. For them, the fact that he is pro-Israel is precisely his sin. In their eyes, being pro-Israeli automatically means agreeing with the occupation. They loved him when he preached leftist views—anti-Thatcher or anti-monarchy—but nowadays it seems that all that’s left of that is his devotion to animal rights, and that’s just not enough. They feel that if Morrissey comes here, he should at least say something against the occupation.

Ultimately, both Israelis who love Morrissey for loving their country, as well as those disappointed in him, base their opinion on slogans, on what they think he means, without bothering with minute details such as nuances, irony, and context or simply Morrissey’s penchant for provocation and scandal. For years now, Morrissey has been losing fans by the hour. But In Israel, at least, he is still very much loved.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.