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The day Zubin Mehta gave us his heart

How can Israel repay the Indian-born maestro who came to comfort a war-shocked land and stayed for half a century?
Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic for the last time in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (Screenshot via medici.tv)
Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic for the last time in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (Screenshot via medici.tv)

On May 14, 1967, 19 years-to-the-day after Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser Hussein ordered his soldiers into the Sinai to redeploy on Israel’s border. Five days later, on May 19, he demanded that UN peacekeeping troops immediately evacuate the Sinai Peninsula, and three days after that, on May 22, the 4,000 soldiers in the UN force left. On the next day, May 23, President Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran between Sinai and Saudi Arabia, stopping ships coming to or from Israel’s southern port in Eilat, through which 90% of Israel’s oil was shipped. Egypt signed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco (an alliance with Syria was already in force). On May 26, Nasser declared of the war he planned to wage that “the battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” PLO Chair Ahmed Shuqayri announced that Israel would soon be destroyed, adding that “as for the survivors — if there are any — the boats are ready to deport them.”

In Israel, anxiety reigned. IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, convinced that war could not be avoided, sought advice from David Ben-Gurion, now in the fourth year of his retirement, living on Kibbutz Sde Boker. Ben-Gurion warned that war would be a disaster; tens of thousands of Israelis would die. Rabin, unravelling, bid to his house his deputy, Ezer Weizmann, and told him of his plans to resign. Weizmann answered that resignation would produce public panic; it was impossible. Rabin took to bed, and a day passed before he could be coaxed back into uniform. On May 28, PM Levi Eskol spoke to the country about the situation on the radio: Israel still had no television. His purpose was to calm the public, but when he stumbled over the text, many concluded that the danger the country was facing was, in fact, more grave than what was described by the words Eskol couldn’t spit out without halting, trembling and backtracking. By now, worry was everywhere. Opposition parties agreed to join a national unity government. Eshkol appointed Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister. Kids in school were pressed into service filling sandbags. When the Greenwich Time Signal — the beeps marking the start of each hour – sounded on the radio, everyone hushed to hear the news.

The day after Eskol’s botched radio address on May 29, 1967, a telegram arrived for Tzvi Hefter, the manager of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It was sent from Puerto Rico by a 31-year-old wunderkind, Indian conductor Zubin Mehta. It said that Mehta stood ready to cancel all of his performances and other commitments around the world, and to fly to Israel immediately.

Mehta had been coming to Tel Aviv to conduct the Israel Philharmonic most every year since 1961, when he was just 25, and was already the conductor and music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On June 5, the day the war broke out, Mehta set out from Puerto Rico, saying, “In this difficult hour for Israel, my place is among you. All of me stands at your service.”

It was only on June 7 that he arrived, telling journalists at Lod Airport that “It’s been two days that I waited at the Rome Airport for a plane to take me to Israel, and [now] I have come to you to be with you.”

Just as Mehta arrived, paratroopers were seizing the Old City of Jerusalem, sixty kilometers away. Hearing the news, Mehta suggested that the orchestra raise a victory concert in the amphitheater on the newly captured Mount Scopus, playing Beethoven’s Victory Symphony, his fifth symphony, for the soldiers who had just reunified Jerusalem. Hefter phoned Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and arrangements were made.

To allow people to reach the concert, the Egged bus cooperative reinstated the old Number 9 bus line that had not run in twenty years. The great music reviewer Olia Zilberman wrote in Al ha-Mishmar: “It will surely be etched in our memory as one of the great events in the history of Israeli music, this first concert immediately after the end of the battles for Jerusalem.”

The next day, Mehta performed the same program in Tel Aviv. Folks in the audience cried in relief, gratitude and joy.

A month and a half later, on July 21, 1967, Mehta was still here, conducting this time Verdi’s Requiem before thousands in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The music was sublime, now mournful, now repentant, now awe-inspiring. One journalist wrote that “for the first time in its history, Bethlehem saw a vision so spectacular as to have all the signs of an historic event: Israelis and Arabs listening [to music] together, as an expression of solidarity and transcendence in this land that has known wars and hatred.”

A message from the Prime Minister, read in Hebrew by the Syrian-born Moshe Sasson and translated by him into Arabic, said that “the language of music speaks to every person regardless of belief, and unites everyone in the world. The sounds of music bring the blessings of culture from one nation to another, and one may hope that from Bethlehem, waves of music will emanate to the entire world.”

Sasson, who read and translated the Prime Minister’s message, was soon to be chosen by Levi Eshkol as his envoy to the West Bank, and eventually would become Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt.

Bethlehem’s mayor, Ellias Bendak, under whose auspices the concert took place, had for a time in his youth been the editor of a Chrisian Arabic biweekly newspaper called “Sowt Es-Sha’ab,” which, under his leadership, in WWII was an organ of Nazi propaganda in the Middle east. Now, he praised Mehta’s choice of a requiem for this holy spot. This event, he said, shows the ties that bind the different nations, and offers hope for peace.

The journalist added that the concert was delayed by the call to prayer sounding from the Muazin, another ecumenical sound in the Bethlehem evening.

After this, Mehta took the Israel Philharmonic around the world, performing to sold-out crowds. For a time, he brought the Mount Scopus concert to places like Toronto and Philadelphia, where mostly Jewish audiences relived Israel’s heroic, recent history through Beethoven’s century and a half old music. One year after the war, at a 1968 summer concert in Vienna, Mehta broke protocol by whipping the orchestra, spontaneously, to play Ha-Tivkah, as the Austrian crowd stood, some crying.

Thirty years had passed since the Anschluss. Men inducted as teens into the Nazi army, were in 1968 only 50 years old, with families and jobs. They were at the height of their powers. One can only imagine what a man like that thought, watching a 32-year-old from Mumbai, conducting an orchestra that still included many Holocaust survivors, playing the national anthem of a sovereign Jewish state.

It was around then that Mehta was appointed the Musical Advisor of the Israel Philharmonic, and ten years later, in 1977, that he became the Orchestra’s first Music Director. In 1981, he was appointed Music Director for Life.

Life is long, when we’re lucky. This week, though, lifetime appointment notwithstanding, Mehta conducted his final concert with the Israel philharmonic orchestra: Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Mahler’s Symphony number 2. It was the last of more than 3,000 performances, as Mehta has spent one quarter of each of the past 50 years here.

At the intermission of his final show, Mehta said, with a grace that, after 58 years, is now familiar: “From my heart, what this orchestra has given me … not only this one but all the generations before them. I cannot begin to even describe what I have learned with these musicians.”

Of course, no one could repay all that you have given us over decades. But I can say, Zubin Mehta, that today my greatest wish is for us to become fully the people, the culture and the country that you always knew us to be.

About the Author
Noah Efron hosts TLV1's "The Promised Podcast" (http://tlv1.fm/content/full-show/promised-podcast/). On the side, he teaches history & philosophy of science at Bar Ilan University, and has served on the City Council of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. You can lavish him with praise or scorn at noahjefron@gmail.com
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