Israel and Palestine How to build a lasting peace
The maestro in the front row watches himself on the screen in front, smiling. He is not holding his conductor's baton, but a neatly wrapped gift package. He is not standing in a concert hall in tails, but sitting in casual clothes at a dusty checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank. Zubin Mehta is waiting for a six-year-old Palestinian girl named Hamsa.
When she appears, he takes the little girl by the hand, gets into the car with her, drives to the Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv, and leads her through the hospital corridors to accompany her to her cancer treatment. Hamsa blows him kisses, displaying gappy teeth when she smiles. "She's so sweet," says Zubin Mehta. "What we're doing here will help ensure that one day there is peace between Arabs and Jews.”
More than a million kilometres every year
What Zubin Mehta is doing – in this video shot six years ago and now here as the star guest in a lounge of Tel Aviv's Charles Bronfman Auditorium – is volunteering for an organisation called "Road to Recovery". In doing so, he supports the work of around 1,000 Israeli volunteers who have made it their mission to bring seriously ill Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to Israeli hospitals day after day. They chauffeur 20,000 patients a year, most of them children, covering more than a million kilometres in the process.
This 'road to recovery' is about healing and hope; it is about saving lives in enemy territory: and above all it is about providing direct help from individual to individual across the enduring Middle East front. The motto is: "For peace and reconciliation – humanity before politics". And Zubin Mehta has made this motto his own. "I don't take sides," he says. "It is the people in the middle who are suffering. Let's put an end to it."
These days, the 86-year-old is back in Israel for the first time after a three-year absence. In the meantime he himself has battled cancer and then there was coronavirus. Yet, here he is again, seamlessly continuing what he has been doing here for more than 60 years: He gives concerts with his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which he first conducted in 1961 and which appointed him music director for life in 1981. And, like his friend and colleague Daniel Barenboim, he intervenes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he considers a "tragedy". "This is a place for two peoples," he says. "They have to learn to live together."
A maestro with a mission
When Zubin Mehta speaks of Israel, he always says "we". The country has become his home – next to India, where he was born, and California, where he lives most of the time. There are countless stories about how he feels connected and responsible for this homeland. In 1967, for example, he flew to Israel with a cargo plane, sitting on an ammunition crate, to conduct in the middle of the Six-Day War. He was also there in 1991 during the Gulf War, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired his Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and the visitors arrived at the concert wearing gas masks.
He is a maestro with a mission and in Israel they love him for it. Not all of them, but those who matter to him. With his own foundation, Zubin Mehta ensures that children from Arab families in the north of Israel receive music lessons. "You can't underestimate the power of music," he says. "Music brings people together; I hope that we musicians can also bring positive change."
A few of Zubin Mehta's musicians from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have taken the maestro at his word, taking on Road to Recovery patient transports in their spare time. Shelly Davis, the clarinettist, is there, and so is Uzi Shalev, the bassoonist.
They are on duty once a week – and you have to be early to catch them. Shelly Davis starts at 5.30 a.m. on a chilly morning in Holon near Tel Aviv, at the same time Uzi Shalev leaves home. The meeting point is a checkpoint near the Palestinian town of Qalqilya.
The chaos is already palpable here at dawn. Thousands of Palestinians who have a work permit for Israel line up daily for the security check. With their jacket collars or hoods turned up, they then stream towards the minibuses that take them to their construction sites in Israel. "The first time I saw them, they all looked like terrorists to me," says Shelly Davis as she steers her Toyota minivan through the crowd. "But all they are doing is going to work, like me."
In a carpark in the shadow of the concrete wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinian patients are already waiting. Eleven-year-old Rahaf Shouhane, who has to go to Tel Hashomer Hospital regularly for check-ups after a bone marrow transplant three years ago, gets into Shelly Davis' car. Uzi Shalev takes on Narjis Bahlak, who has acute leukaemia. The 22-year-old is accompanied by her father Ahmed.
"I never talk politics," says Uzi Shalev as she drives towards the hospital. "But obviously we can't be enemies, if we are sitting in the same car together." Soon Narjis Bahlak has fallen asleep in the back seat, her father talking about his work as a plumber and how grateful he is for this help, for the lift as well as the treatment. "The politicians are the ones who make the big conflicts," he says. "If people were just left alone, they would make peace in five minutes."
Such are the conversations on the Road to Recovery, and an eternal optimist like Zubin Mehta takes pleasure in them. "This work is inspiring," he tells Shelly Davis, Uzi Shalev and the other volunteers who have come to Tel Aviv's Charles Bronfman Auditorium this morning. "If you do good, everything will get better."
Finally, Zubin Mehta wants to know how Hamsa, the little patient he had accompanied on the trip to the hospital, is doing. "She is doing well," says Yuval Roth, the founder of Road to Recovery. "She is now fully recovered."
© Suddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2022