The Day He Gave Israel His Heart

The Fellowship  |  November 13, 2019

Zubin Mehta
Zubin Mehta conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre(NCPA) in Mumbai. A series of concerts were held to mark the centenary of Mehli Mehta, Zubin's father.

Earlier this year, we told you of Zubin Mehta, the Indian conductor who directed the Israel Philharmonic for the past half century, and who is now retiring. And now, just as Mehta was a friend of Israel in her time of need, friends like you are her friends. Today, we’d like to share with you this piece from Noah Efron at The Times of Israel, remembering when Mehta arrived, his first job to help soothe a war-torn Holy Land in the wake of the Six-Day War:

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…”

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