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Zubin Mehta Speaks Out

The maestro slams artistic boycotts and Israel’s Palestinian stance as his Philharmonic visits Carnegie Hall

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Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta in Madrid on Oct. 26, 2009. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last Thursday night, Zubin Mehta was not happy. Carnegie Hall’s Maestro Room was being renovated and had been reduced to the size of a walk-in closet. There were no chairs for guests. The hanger for his garment bag was permanently affixed to the flimsy metal coat rack above the piano. “Did they think I would steal the hanger?” he said, glancing around the room. “It looks like a motel,” he added, the unspoken adjective “cheap” hung limply in the air.

“Shall we begin?”

The conductor was clearly displeased, and not only by his shabby temporary headquarters. He was unhappy about, but not surprised by news that Adalah-NY was staging yet another protest of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on Thursday night. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters were among 50 artists and writers who signed a letter demanding that Carnegie Hall cancel the orchestra’s appearance in response to the Palestinians’ call for a cultural boycott of the Israeli “apartheid state” that is occupying Arab land, building settlements, and repressing Palestinians.

The IPO, Mehta admitted, was less welcome in many parts of the world these days because of such policies. “As long as they keep building settlements the world will be anti-Israeli,” he said.

Is such criticism fair? “Most of it is unfair. Part of it is fair,” he replied. Mehta opposes not only the settlements, but, he said, “the bombardments, by both sides! We’re firing into Gaza! They’re firing into Israel. Why? They’re not bombing the settlements! When is this going to stop?” He added, “We see photos of militants mourning, and the pictures break your heart. And there are millions of such mourners.”

Might the impending Israeli election change such policies? “We already know the results!” Mehta said. “Bibi is not a dictator. But he’ll win like one. Dictators win for sure.” The policies advocated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition partner, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are “isolating Israel from the world.”


Zubin Mehta has strong opinions about politics, music, and his beloved orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, which he has advised since 1969, directed since 1977, and led as “musical director for life” since 1981. He is a public-relations executive’s nightmare—a musician who wears his passions on his sleeve, or in this case, his baton.

Mehta, born in 1936 to a musical Parsi family in Bombay, is not Jewish. Nor does he speak Hebrew, despite having spent at least three months of most years in Israel since 1961, when he first directed the IPO. But he is passionately committed to Israel and his orchestra—and, one must add, irresistibly charming and articulate. He has a deep appreciation of Israel’s complexity and its impact on global culture.

Israel’s more than 7 million people, he says, are more deeply polarized than ever before, but in new ways. “There’s no more left and right,” he says. The traditional political dividing line has all but disappeared in Israel, as it has in America. But now there’s “black and white, religious and non-religious, rich and poor”—so many cleavages.

The orchestra, however, brings people together. Which is why, he argues, trying to isolate Israel by targeting the IPO is both misguided—since the orchestra is a private foundation and not a state agency per se—and counter-productive. Music unifies people.

But not even his orchestra is immune from the pressures generated by Israel’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population—the “half of the country that has eight children per family,” as he referred to them. A source close to the orchestra said that Mehta had to find a replacement cantor to sing in the Thursday concert’s featured composition—the New York premiere of Israeli composer Noam Sheriff’s “Mechaye Hametim,” (“Revival of the Dead”)—after an ultra-Orthodox tenor refused to perform when he learned that women would be singing in the choir on stage. On other occasions, the source said, Mr. Mehta has had to warn at least two other orchestra members who objected on religious grounds to women singing that he would not tolerate such bias.

Mehta has been active in promoting music education for Israeli-Arabs, who now constitute roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population. In cooperation with Bank Leumi and the Arab-Israel Bank, he founded in 2009 a music education program for Israeli Arabs called “Mifneh” (Change). He continues giving free concerts in predominantly Israeli-Arab towns like Acre—though fewer of them today due to financial pressures on the orchestra—and hopes to have at least one Arab-Israeli in his orchestra soon. There are seven or eight Arab-Israeli students in Mifneh who might soon be able to audition for the orchestra, he says. Musicians audition behind a curtain to prevent bias. “No one gets in based on religion, race, or color,” Mehta told me.

Mehta’s modesty about his own success and talent is unusual in conductors, who tend to have an obsessive, dictatorial streak. “Orchestras are not democracies,” said Martin Mayer, a former music critic for Esquire and Opera magazines and the author of a book on the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial. “Conductors are the original maximum leaders.” Mayer called Mehta an “excellent” conductor, though not for everything. “He’s not particularly strong on Beethoven and the orchestral staples of the early 19th century,” he said. “But he’s very good on early 20th-century music—like Schoenberg.” So, Thursday’s concert was playing to his strengths.

Mayer called Mehta “technically highly regarded.” As for the IPO, “it’s always been a good, but not a great orchestra.” It’s difficult, he added, “to have a great orchestra in such a small country. But the Israelis have always put a lot of time and money into it.”

What Israelis value, Mayer added, is Mehta’s loyalty to the orchestra and the state itself. In times of war and crisis, he has often canceled other commitments to perform with the IPO. During the ’67 war, he left a Met tour to catch the last plane to Israel before the Tel Aviv airport closed. And in the 1991 Gulf War, he conducted performances during scud missile attacks. “Israelis remember such things,” Mayer said. Such devotion has earned him the right to criticize the state and orchestra he has adopted. And criticize he does.

“I wish that only three residents of Tel Aviv could see what conditions on the West Bank are like,” Mehta told me. “Living in such proximity, most Israelis have no idea about the adversity on the West Bank.” He goes to Ramallah to look in on the music program sponsored by his friend Daniel Barenboim. “So, I see the conditions. Israel gives the West Bank water twice a week! One way of promoting good would be not to ration water.”

Most Israelis are unaware of these conditions, he added. “They don’t know. But many don’t want to know.”

Yet Israeli culture, said Mehta, has come into its own—despite the IPO’s continued unwillingness to perform Richard Wagner—with new chamber music and folklore groups, ballet companies, and theater groups bringing Israeli culture to the world, and the work of Israeli and Jewish artists into the global mainstream.

Thursday’s concert at Carnegie Hall was a prime example, he said, a “milestone” in which all three pieces were written by composers of Jewish extraction—Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre; Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; and the showcase of the program, “Revival of the Dead,” by Noam Sheriff.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, Sheriff is one of Israel’s best-known, most versatile composers. Commissioned by a wealthy Dutch fashion designer who survived the Holocaust and wanted to pay tribute to the Jews who perished, the symphony has four movements that offer a narrative of Jewish history—Jewish life before the Diaspora until the Holocaust, the genocide itself, the Kaddish and Yizkor, and revival and renaissance in Israel. Sheriff said he wrote the symphony while teaching in Cologne, Germany. His wife, Ella Milch-Sheriff, who is also a composer, described her husband to me as “annoyingly terribly talented.”

Noam Sheriff was thrilled, he told me over breakfast with Ella at Balthazar’s in downtown New York, when Mehta told him that he would perform the piece this year at the Salzburg Music Festival, Europe’s and perhaps the world’s most prestigious musical venue. “Never, in my wildest dreams,” he said, “did I think it would be performed in Salzburg.” Sheriff describes Mehta as “sensitive, intelligent, and modest. There’s no big ego. Working with him is a joy.”

And despite the threats of boycotts and disruptions, Thursday night’s sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall went off without a hitch. Across the street, 60 protesters were clamoring against the presence of the IPO in New York in light of the conditions that Mehta described and complained about.

Would he have joined them if he weren’t conducting? I asked him. “No!” he replied. That’s neither his style nor his way. “I believe in music.”


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i cannot believe how ignorant and misguided alice walker is. oh well…

Scorebear says:

Alice Walker should be protested.

herbcaen says:

Alice Walker is the Goebbels of our time. However, Goebbels was better looking than Alice Walker and more intelligent too

PhillipNagle says:

I am tired of people like Mehta who ignore the vary generous peace offers from Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, and think Israel should do more. The truth is that the arabs will accept nothing short of Israeli surrender. The condition of the arabs of the west bank is due to their leaders intransigence and to the arabs themselves who gave a majority vote to Hamas which has rejected any permanent peace with Israel.

This is lefty stupidity. Alice Walker and company need to re-examine their knee-jerk pandering to propoganda. They should take a page from Helene Aylon’s book and try to bring Arabs and Jews together for peace rather than boycotting and encouraging the boycott of other artists like themselves. It is truly benighted. They are supposed to be creative so where is their solution to the problem??? is Boycott the best they can come up with-pathetic.

julis123 says:

Remind me why anyone cares what a 2nd string conductor feels about the middle east?

I am not understanding the hatred for a man who – for over 40 years – has supported Israel, Israelis, Israeli arts and culture and more. He could have walked away; he didn’t. Instead of beating up on someone who has never abandoned Israel, people might do some listening and paying attention. They may find some wisdom in here.

nathaniel says:

Who ever heard of boycotting artists? These idiots don’t know anything. If they were serious people they would boycott paying taxes to their own fool country for invading Iraq and Iran and now Afghanistan, which still to this day is slaughtering now into the millions. Arabs themselves fund through the American tax process the annihilation of their own people in those areas and elsewhere but yet whine about the existence of Israel. These are all stupid games that miss the point entirely. Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, Edward Said and many others are excellent as they all advocate and have advocated—through music—peace among peoples. You have to be a total zombie not to see them challenging the powers that be and very obviously checking the systems of government, often to their faces and in public for all to see. And it is through the art that this is done, so to boycott it is in essence to boycott the act of standing up to the war machine. Wouldn’t be surprised if these lowdown celebrities were paid off in some ugly way.

For the Jewish people, our homeland and tie to our ancestry is that WHOLE AREA around the Red Sea, over to the Mediterranean Sea, and what stretches into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, not just what has been partitioned off as Israel in the modern day. We do not have access to most of our ancestral homeland EITHER, the same as the Palestinians. Many peoples have their ancestry tied into that whole middle east region, but those multitudes have access to those lands while the Jewish people, who also share the same tie to those same lands, do not. So while we are kept fundamentally from most of our ancestral lands and the world says and does nothing, you want to complain about us? VERY typical. Palestinians need their homeland too. This is a given. We ALL need our connection to where we come from. But most people in the world wouldn’t care less if Jews ceased to exist, so put a sock in your little orchestra and artistic boycotts and boycott the slaughterhouse army that is marching all over Iraq and Afghanistan! YOU, the taxpayer, are responsible for that killing, YOU the voter, YOU the corporate shopper. So go on, get your fancy things while the going is good! A family in Iraq will die for your greed and impotence. SHAME ON YOU!!!! Crawl away from us, little maggots. You say you are interested in peace but upon examining what is involved in bringing it about, find that you would rather avoid it, focussing instead on the periphery and acting outraged. Cowards, the whole lot of you.

    The world is sick of Israeli apartheid, house demolitions based on religion, roads for Jews only and settlements for Jews only as well as laws in israel that give Jews special property rights that non Jews can never have simply because they are not Jewish. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has become intolerable. Only BDS provides people of conscience with a means of showing Israel that apartheid is unacceptable. Until Israel ends its occupation and apartheid policies, BDS must grow.

      nathaniel says:

      In America, to whom much of my criticism is directed, exist “settlements” called reservations, where many of the native population continue to exist, barely able to practice their religions and ways of life without genocidal backlash. The racism against these people is incalculable, and most of their lands—ancestral lands—are under occupation by the United States government. What does the world do? Boycott the USA as they should? No. They do absolutely nothing, as the world did absolutely nothing for the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of cumulative years the Jewish people were themselves exiled from our homelands. “Ending the Jewish occupation” is far too close to “ending the Jewish people.” Where would you have us GO then? To hell, I’m sure.

      If your organization is boycotting anything Israel, including those Jewish people and organizations that are openly against the mistreatment of the Palestinian people and are working tirelessly for peace and equality for all, then you simply follow the long line of hatred that has chased our people around the globe since time immemorial and your message is NOT human rights, it is anti-Jew. So be honest. Most non-Jews want us dead or at least out of mind, so it’s not surprising.

      If you were really against apartheid, you would have been fighting alongside of us for the eons that we were kept from the holy land and would be fighting now for the ability of all, including Jews, to move freely about the ancestral lands. Which we are not able to do, but your message curiously does not reveal that state of current reality. So be honest. Because your message certainly sounds like the one that has resonated for generations upon generations across the globe against our people: “Anywhere but here.”

      Mind you, as I stated above, Palestinian people need to be in their homeland too. But the point of this all is that there are artists stating openly to the governments and powers that be that mistreatment in general needs to stop and here are demonstrations of how people can live together in peace (such as the East-West Divan project of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said). And you want to boycott that and other similar warriors and organizations of our time—for what reason exactly? Because your position sounds the same as what the Israeli government and their ties are doing to the Palestinian people, shunning them out completely. So be honest. At least have the guts to say Jews should not exist or live near my house instead of hiding behind a human rights organization. And if you don’t feel that way, then what is the problem with Jewish-based artistic organizations promoting the way of peace among the people while simultaneously levying harsh and public criticism of the treatment of the Palestinian people?

doneduardo says:

Every time Tablet publishes anything with Judith Miller’s byline, I think I have mistakenly reached The Forward’s website. The questionable editorial decision to publish anything written by a woman who has become the “poster hag” for disgraced journalists, lacking in integrity & honesty disturbs me every time I see her name and pseudo-journalism in Tablet. Having her twist her interview with Zubin Mehta (someone whose reputation for integrity & honesty over the past 50 years as a serious musician) into an opportunity to smear misguided but ultimately not anti-Semitic supporters of humane treatment of residents of the West Bank and Gaza smacks of the Jewish neo-con drivel. The red meat-lite that Ms. Miller and her cabal of fellow right wing ideologues are famous for. At least, this time around, Ms. Miller isn’t trying to sell us Scooter Libby’s & Dick Cheney’s evaluation of Maestro Mehta’s musical talents. But of course, that is what a “real” music or theater critic would do – write about a conductor’s music or performance and not about his political thoughts. I await with baited breath Ms. Miller’s interview with Ted Nugent, when he next plays Carnegie Hall – a musician whose music and politics she can really appreciate.

jaykayDX says:

‘the unspoken adjective “cheap” hung limply in the air.’

Yeah, ’cause if it were spoken, some idiot would have immediately shouted out ‘anti-semite’ at the top of their voice!

jaykayDX says:

So, Zubin Mehta is outed as a Parsi after years of passing himself off as a Jew? Gee, I wonder why he chose to reveal his TRUE religion now? Maybe it’s because there’s a worldwide backlash against Israel and it’s policies? Maybe it’s because artists are fed up of Jewish favoritism and nepotism in Hollywood and the recording industry? Maybe because Americans are FINALLY realizing that a lot of the Wall Street bigwigs who messed up the economy are Jews? Maybe because they don’t want to give aid to Israel in the billions while their own economy is tanking? Maybe because they’ve noticed that a lot of the neo-cons who led the US into war were Jews?

The rats are deserting a sinking ship – The Parsis are the biggest rats of all: They have done a great job convincing India (where most of them live) that they contribute to the economy when in reality they are nothing but parasites (just like most US jews) living off cushy government jobs and the fact that they can get a better education when many of the populance is illiterate! Zubin has read the writing on the wall – pity most of the people posting against his views here haven’t!

    Zubin comes from a well known family of musicians from India. The fact that he is Parsi in ethnicity, and is at least nominally a Zoroastrian has hardly been a secret.

jaykayDX says:

His post is ‘musical director for life’ – doesn’t sound very democratic, doesn’t it? More like a dictatorship! A fine example for the Xenophobic, racist, sham of a democracy called Israel!

jaykayDX says:

‘the “half of the country that has eight children per family,” as he referred to them.’

He’s being generous – the buggers have more than ten kids per family – but they Do make great cannon fodder and target practice for Hezbollah!

jaykayDX says:

‘He continues giving free concerts in predominantly Israeli-Arab towns like Acre…’

Please – haven’t the Arabs suffered enough without your classical European caterwauling musical imperialism masquerading as ‘cultural exchanges’ invading their lives?


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Zubin Mehta Speaks Out

The maestro slams artistic boycotts and Israel’s Palestinian stance as his Philharmonic visits Carnegie Hall