The Israeli star who risked her career to aid refugees

Singer Alma Zohar was warned she would alienate fans if she spoke out for asylum seekers. It didn't stop her

By Jessica Elgot, August 18, 2011
Zohar: under fire for being political

Zohar: under fire for being political

Alma Zohar is Israel's accidental superstar. The singer-songwriter accidentally picked up a guitar, accidentally recorded an album, accidentally topped the charts and swept the Israeli music awards, winning two BRIT award equivalents, and accidentally put the issue of refugees in Israel back on the political agenda. Or at least, that is how she tells it.

"I came to music almost too late. I was a carpenter, I really had nothing to do with music, but then I went through a personal crisis. I had a workshop with my husband. We made very fine handmade furniture but sold none; we got divorced and I found myself with nothing. I didn't listen to my Jewish mother and I hadn't studied. I went back to being a waitress at 26.

"I didn't know what to do. So I decided the best thing would be to follow my childhood dream. I was at that point in my life, to be honest, that if my dream had been to climb Mount Everest, I would have started climbing. But I wanted to be a rock star."

Now 34, Zohar achieved huge sales with her debut album, Speak, in 2008 and similar success with last year's follow-up Thirty-three. This month, she will play her first ever gig abroad, at Limmud Fest.

Born in Jerusalem, she "ran away to the country" aged 18, and now lives in on the coast, north of Tel Aviv. "I'm a country girl at heart," she says. "I can't even park a car."

She spent a few years as a child in London. "I went to Sinai school in Hendon. I hated it. It was a culture shock coming from Israel and getting used to British mentality. I was socially lost."

An avid globetrotter, her songs are inspired by her travels to places like Uganda and Oman, and many draw on Jewish symbolism to raise political issues. In Out of Egypt, Zohar draws a parallel between the biblical story of the exodus and the plight of modern refugees.

We are way behind the rest of the world in how we treat the issue

As an older, politically-inspired artist, Zohar assumed there was no place for her in the mainstream. "I knew some guitar chords from high school and fell into a reggae crowd, dread-locked my hair and started writing. I wasn't very ambitious, but then I met [music producer] Assaf Ayalon. I played him my silly songs and he said: 'Listen, this is going to be huge - we have to make an album'.

"It exploded. But I was not ready for it, I couldn't play or sing live. Suddenly I had chart-topping radio hits."

Zohar says she believes it was this unsophisticated approach which appealed to music fans in Israel. "I wasn't trying to be hip. I was very modest and honest and naïve. People feel that the music industry today is so overproduced, and they say that what I 'm doing isn't part of the business. I made the record by myself with my friends and you can feel it."

From the beginning of her career, Zohar talked about an issue close to her heart, the plight of asylum seekers and refugees in Israel. This despite the fact that she had been cautioned against being political. "The Israeli music scene is really, really small so if you alienate half your listeners, it's the end. Your manager will advise you not to speak about anything even remotely controversial; the vast majority of performers keep away from politics.

"I'm very active with the refugee community - I was even before the album came out. But when I started being interviewed in the press and I mentioned it, I became the voice of the refugees.

"We are way behind the rest of the world, in the way we treat this whole issue. We have had government ministers talking about diseases you can catch from foreigners. And when they say 'foreigners', they don't mean Jews from Britain. If a British minister said this, they would have to resign, but there was nothing like that here.

"We feel we shouldn't aid non-Jews. We think they will infiltrate and marry our daughters. We have imported 250,000 foreign workers. But we have 35,000 asylum seekers, and they cannot find work."

Speaking out about such a controversial issue has not been easy. "Sometimes you get huge popular support for the trendy issues, like the economy, which is what all the protests at the moment are about. Some issues are very controversial, and I have come under a lot of fire. But people can enjoy my music and still not agree with my causes and what I stand for."

The double-edged meanings of her subtle Hebrew lyrics are playing on her mind as she prepares to perform for a non-Israeli audience. "This is my first time singing abroad, and it's intimidating because I'm a lyricist. I want people to hear what I'm singing."

New listeners should not be put off thinking Zohar's songs are exclusively political. "The first album is all broken hearts," she says. "The most successful track is called Ego Trip, about a fling I had with a very famous Israeli singer, when I was a waitress. He took me home and threw me out three days later. The song is about the personal heartbreak - I thought we would be together forever, like every other girl he ever picked up. But it also about the nature of celebrity, and putting someone on a pedestal. I guess all my songs have a wider meaning."

Alma Zohar will be performing at Limmud Fest from August 25-29.

Last updated: 10:43am, August 19 2011