In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to reading about Jews who don’t care much about Israel. That makes the willingness of one non-Jewish man to dedicate so much of his life to Israel’s leading cultural institution extra special. Few people, Jewish or non-Jewish, have done as much to burnish Israel’s international reputation and demonstrate their love for the country as Zubin Mehta.
The 83-year-old Mehta, who is suffering from health problems, will officially resign in October after 50 years as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted his last concerts with the IPO this month with a series of performances of Verdi’s Requiem, and the Mumbai native was appropriately feted as a national hero.
In the classical music world, conductors routinely take posts all over the globe, jetting in and out of venues. Mehta was no exception; in his long career, he held music directorships in Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Munich and Florence.
But his ties with Israel are not just a matter of longevity. His relationship with both the IPO and Jewish state has been a love affair on the part of both the conductor and his Israeli audience.
Mehta was born in India into a musical family, but was encouraged by his mother to study medicine. Instead, he went to Vienna to study music, where his meteoric rise as a star conductor began. By the time he was 26, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had also become a ubiquitous presence on the international music scene, leading orchestras and conducting operas all over the world.
Anyone who has heard and seen Mehta conduct can easily understand his appeal. He is equal parts personal charisma and musical talent. His dynamic, flamboyant style of conducting endeared him to audiences, and his expertise in the romantic repertory for which the IPO is best known made him a natural fit for the orchestra.
He would demonstrate his love for Israel again and again over the years.
The IPO was founded in 1936 as the Palestine Philharmonic; its first players were made up of German Jewish refugees. Legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini led them in their first concert. Mehta first conducted the IPO in 1961 at the age of 25, though Israel’s love affair with him didn’t truly begin until 1967.
In May 1967, the threat of an invasion from surrounding Arab armies hung over the Jewish state, and the possibility of another Holocaust was openly discussed. As most foreigners and many visiting Jews fled, Mehta went to Israel to replace a conductor who canceled his appearance due to the conflict. He caught the last plane from the United States (it was loaded with ammunition) to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport before the fighting closed down flights to the country. He slept in the basement of a concert hall, and then ended up conducting what is now remembered as a victory concert with pianist Daniel Barenboim and cellist Jacqueline Du Pre as a grateful country rejoiced at their miraculous deliverance after six days of fighting.
In 1969, he was named music advisor to the IPO, music director in 1977 and in a unique demonstration of the bond between a man, an institution and a country that was not his own, he was accorded the honor of music director for life in 1981.
Mehta may be a citizen of the world, but he has never made any secret of his love for Israel, which he has always said reminded him of his home in Mumbai. As a member of the minority Parsi sect, his identification with the struggles of the Jews was natural. He has often been quoted as stating that Israelis are like Indians — opinionated and often speaking all at the same time, which he says made him feel at home.
He would demonstrate his love for Israel again and again over the years, not only conducting thousands of performances in the Jewish state, but also on tours on five continents as Israel’s premier arts group served as crucial cultural ambassadors for an embattled and isolated nation.
Just as important was the fact that Mehta was always in Israel whenever there was danger. He conducted concerts for Israel Defense Forces’ troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and took his musicians across the border into Lebanon in 1982, where he led them in a concert attended by both Lebanese and Israelis. He was also there in 1991 during the SCUD attacks launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, conducting morning concerts due to the strict curfews at night as the Jewish state was attacked.
Other memorable moments included his taking the IPO to play at Buchenwald in 1999 and to the Gaza border in 2010 as a protest against Hamas’s kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Mehta is no right-winger and has been known to criticize Israel’s government. He also took some brickbats for trying to coax Israelis into dropping an informal and foolish ban on the music of the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, though he respected the sentiments of those who could not accept it. He’s also a leading advocate of Arab-Jewish coexistence and has chafed at the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to let the IPO play in West Bank cities under its control.
Above all, Mehta has been a one-man anti-BDS campaign. Some artists, including Barenboim, who became a bitter critic of Zionism and will no longer perform in his own country, stay away. But Mehta has treated Israel as his second home when not also serving as a living symbol of it as he went about conducting the IPO abroad.
He will be missed, but his replacement, 30-year-old Israeli Lahav Shani, will continue the philharmonic’s legacy of musical excellence. Nevertheless, Zubin Mehta’s well-earned place in the hearts of the Jewish people remains ever secure, and his loyalty to Israel should never be forgotten.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.