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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.