When Israel Was Palestine

When Israel Was Palestine

© David Burton 2024


     The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO)is an Israeli symphony orchestra based in Tel Aviv. Its principal concert venue is Heichal HaTarbut. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra by violinist Bronislaw Huberman in 1936, at a time of the dismissal of many Jewish musicians from European orchestras. Its inaugural concert took place in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Its first principal conductor was William Steinberg.
     Many of the original orchestra members were German Jew forced out by the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Jews. During the Second World War, the orchestra performed 140 times before Allied soldiers
     In 1955, the Orchestra played for Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, in appreciation for the assistance the Pope had given to Jewish victims of Nazism during World War Two.
     Particular conductors notable in the history of the orchestra have included Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. Bernstein maintained close ties with the orchestra from 1947, and in 1988, the IPO bestowed on him the title of Laureate Conductor, which he retained until his death in 1990. Mehta became the IPO's Music Advisor in 1969. In 1977, Mehta was appointed the IPO's first Music Director. In 1981, his title was elevated to Music Director for Life.[1]

     Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) was an internationally known master and teacher of the violin renowned for his individualistic interpretations and praised for his tone color, expressiveness and flexibility. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, was founding the Palestine Orchestra, which later became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when the Jewish state won its independence in 1948.
     Huberman was born in Czestochowa in the Russian-ruled Congress Poland. A child prodigy, Huberman played at age ten before Emperor Franz Joseph, who was so impressed that he reportedly gifted the child with a Stradivarius violin.
     Huberman originally viewed his plans for a Palestine symphony orchestra as an uphill climb because he could not imagine that sophisticated and accomplished Jewish musicians would leave their positions with prominent European orchestras for Eretz Yisrael, but that changed in 1933 when, with the rise of the Third Reich, leading Jewish musicians began to lose their positions. Realizing that the creation of an orchestra in Eretz Yisrael could help many Central European Jewish musicians who had been left unemployed by the Nazis, Huberman decided that “one has to build a fist against antisemitism, and a first-class orchestra will be that fist.” He then reimagined what had originally been conceived only as a cultural institution for Eretz Yisrael as an important emergency rescue for victims of Nazism.
     Many prominent musicians joined him and his nascent orchestra and, in this manner, he later became known as “the Oskar Schindler of musicians” and as one of the great unsung heroes of the Holocaust, saving almost 1,000 Jewish lives. Moreover, often overlooked in this regard is that, along with saving lives, he preserved the legacy of a European Jewish musical tradition that otherwise would have been lost.
     With Eretz Yisrael under the British Mandate at the time, European Jews were generally denied admission unless they could clearly demonstrate an ability to support themselves. As a result, even when Huberman succeeded in convincing the great Jewish musicians of Europe to leave their established positions and historic homes for a dubious future in a largely unsettled land, he struggled to procure immigration certificates for them. Moreover, he understood that the musicians would only emigrate if they could take their families with them, rendering it even more difficult to obtain all the necessary immigration certificates.
     In 1936, Huberman resigned from the teaching staff of the Vienna State Academy, and after 42 benefit concerts – that he completed in only two months, from February to April 1936 – he had succeeded in raising capital sufficient to recognize his dream of establishing his orchestra, despite an ever-worsening international economy. A February 9, 1936, article in the New York Times headlined “Orchestra of Exiles” reported:
     “Bronislaw Huberman, the Polish violinist, has reported that the first symphony orchestra in Palestine is to be created. The orchestra will have 65 musicians. It will be formed from outstanding German musicians who have been denied the right to play in their own country, and from other prominent European musicians.
     A violinist named Albert Einstein, assisted him with a 1936 fundraising dinner in New York, and Arturo Toscanini agreed shortly thereafter to cancel his scheduled engagements and to conduct the opening concerts of the Palestine Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. The maestro’s authority and reputation were such that his mere involvement with the nascent orchestra brought it to the world’s attention and immediately gave it international standing. When Einstein learned that Toscanini had agreed to serve as the orchestra’s first conductor, the ecstatic scientist wrote to him:
     “Honored Maestro! I feel the need to express to you how much I admire you and honor you. You are not only the incomparable interpreter of the world’s musical literature, you are as well a man who has shown the greatest dignity in the fight against the Fascist criminals. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the aid you have promised the newly to be formed Palestine Orchestra. The fact that a man such as yourself is living among us compensates for the many disappointments which one continually experiences… With love and high admiration, I greet you…
     On December 26, 1936, the first concert by the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra was led by Toscanini. Time magazine waxed lyrical about the event, attended by 2,500 people, including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir: “As a full Palestine moon rode over Tel Aviv… the Hebrew Sabbath ended and thousands of Jews began to move toward the Levant Fair Grounds. There they packed the Italian Pavilion to hear great Arturo Toscanini lead Palestine’s first civic orchestra through its first performance.”
     The concert, which had originally been scheduled for autumn 1936 but which had to be rescheduled because of the vicious Arab revolt, was broadcast live across the world on the radio, and the orchestra went on to perform with Toscanini in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in December-January 1936-37. The orchestra also performed 140 concerts for the Allied Forces during World War II, including an emotional performance for soldiers of the Jewish Brigade at El Alamein in 1942.[2]

  1. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Wikipedia, Accessed 23 December 2023.
  2. Bronislaw Huberman And The Birth Of The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, Saul Jay Singer, Jewish Press; Pgs 57-59, 3 November 2023.


  4 January 2024 {ARTICLE 606; ISRAEL_83}    
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