When it was announced last February that Zubin Mehta, the musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, would be among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Distinction, it was not certain that he would be able to attend the award ceremonies in June that were held in tandem with the Presidential Facing Tomorrow Conference.

Both the conference and the medal were initiated by President Shimon Peres. As far as the medal is concerned it has become a tradition in many countries for the head of state to give special recognition to individuals, institutions and organizations that have made unique contributions to the country and to humanity in any variety of fields.

When Mehta was unanimously selected by an advisory committee headed by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar with the inclusion of Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, hi-tech entrepreneur Gil Shwed, Profs. Anita Shapira and Suzy Navot, Dr. Muhammed Issawi and Rabbi Tazon Arousi, he was in excellent company. The other honorees were former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Judith Feld Carr, a Canadian-Jewish musician and human rights activist who helped smuggle thousands of Jews out of Syria, the Rashi Foundation, Chabad Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael (Steinsaltz) and attorney Uri Slonim.

The Rashi Foundation promotes education and social welfare especially among youth living in peripheral areas. Steinsaltz, through his translations, made the Talmud more accessible and comprehensible to more people, and Slonim has long been a voluntary negotiator for the return of Israeli prisoners of war, and Israelis taken hostage by hostile forces. In addition, he has played a pivotal role in Variety, the international organization that provides for children who are physically and/or mentally challenged.

Mehta, who Peres noted at a ceremony held at the president’s official residence on Monday, is the first non-Jew to be conferred with the award, received it for his contribution to the world of music in Israel which has made its mark in Israeli culture and has enhanced the image of the State of Israel in the world; and for bridging cultures through music.

Mehta has been successfully practicing musical diplomacy for half a century. What he has done said Peres, is unprecedented.

Speaking in both Hebrew and English to an audience that included members of the diplomatic corps, among them US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, and deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy Vani Rao, members of the Board of Directors and Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, several musicians and singers and the members of the advisory committee who had spontaneously recommended Mehta for the award, Peres said that Mehta had taken the human drama of Israel and had transformed it into a harmonious symphony. Addressing Mehta directly, Peres said: “Zubin, you came here to conduct the orchestra, but you became the conductor of our hearts.”

Peres praised Mehta for elating the spirit and hopes of the people through the “unspoken but powerful language of music.” Together with the IPO Peres underscored, Mehta has represented and promoted Israel “in an unmatched way.”

Even before conferring the award on Mehta, Peres embraced him warmly, so that when it was Mehta’s turn to speak, he said: “To be given a hug by Shimon Peres in this room is already my award.”

The friendship between the two men has flourished for more than 40 years. Mehta confessed to being “a big fan” of the president, saying that there was no greater friend of India in Israel than Peres.

He credited Peres with having read every available book on India to the extent that “he knows more about my country than I do.” He recalled that before the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and India, Peres had named him the unofficial ambassador for India, a position that he had to give up when E.K. Singh, India’s first ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to president Chaim Herzog in 1993.

Looking back at the beginnings of his relationship with Israel, Mehta said that when he had first come as a young man of 25 to conduct the orchestra, he had been educated by some of the finest musicians he had ever encountered.

Although they were in the ranks of the orchestra, as far as their expertise with their specific musical instruments was concerned, they were giants on a world basis he said. Although he was conducting them, they were also conducting him, and he had learned a lot from them.

In the half century in which Mehta has been associated with the IPO, he has taken the orchestra on tour to many parts of the world, including those where “Israel was not the flavor of the month,” but in most cases they had won over their audiences. Mehta who has spent the past three weeks in Israel, is again taking the orchestra on tour.

Today, Tuesday, they are leaving for Vienna and then for New York to play in Carnegie Hall. They are scheduled to perform in Japan, Taiwan and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

It was inconceivable that an event in honor of Mehta would be without music, and thus there were two musical items that evoked resounding applause. One was a musical gem by the IPO Richter String Quartet; and the other was a moving choral offering by the Shani Girls Choir of the Jezreel Valley.

The choir which has performed several times at the President’s Residence comprises Jewish and Arab girls aged 13-18 from central Galilee towns and villages as well as the Jezreel Valley. The Arab girls are both Christian and Muslim. The choir is representative of Mehta’s dream that there should be harmony between Jews and Arabs.

“If you can sing together, you can live together,” he said.

A little over three years ago, Mehta initiated Mifneh (“Change”) which aims to broaden the musical education of Arab youngsters in the North and to bring them together with their Jewish peers to sing and to make music. The initiative operates under the auspices of the Jezreel Valley Center that is the home of the Shani Girls Choir. Mehta spoke enthusiastically about the 150 young Arab musicians in the north of the country, five of whom are currently students at the Buchman-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University. Just as the Shani Choir represents a microcosm of his dream, said Mehta, he is convinced that at least one of the five Arab students at the Music School will one day play in the IPO.

“I know it will happen because the talent is there,” he said.

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