Inside the hall of the General Assembly at the United Nations building in New York, it seemed at times that either the messiah had arrived or the world had turned inside-out Bizarro, like in the Superman comics: Rita, one of Israel’s most popular performers, was singing in Farsi and Hebrew; Israelis were dancing in the aisles: diplomats from around the world were clapping and begging for more; Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor was the hero of the day; Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said “shalom” and General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, it turned out, hails from a family of Righteous Gentiles.
- Iranian-born Israeli pop star Rita to sing at UN General Assembly event
- A labor of love, dance and diplomacy
It was, without a doubt, a night to remember, a memory to cherish, an Israeli-made spectacle the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the General Assembly since Ambassador Herzog tore apart that Zionism is Racism resolution in 1975. Only this time, it was the other way around: “Why is this night different than all other nights?” an elated and season conscious Prosor asked me, “Because on this night, contrary to all previous nights, the United Nations is united behind Israel and resides under the wings of Rita.”
The wings that Prosor was referring to come from Haim Bialik’s song “Hachnisini Tahat Knafech” – “Under Your Wing” – a popular Israeli song which was featured in Rita’s “Tunes for Peace” concert performed at UN headquarters Tuesday night. The famous platform underneath the giant olive-colored UN symbol was turned into a rock concert stage, including a smoke machine, strobe lights, and a rocking and raucous 9-piece ensemble that played Persian-Israeli music with light touches of Klezmer to boot.
The auditorium, which for most Israelis and Diaspora Jews has come to be associated with harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric, cold diplomatic isolation, and humiliating political defeats at the hands of the “automatic majority,” suddenly had a warm ambiance and an admiring audience comprised of Iranian expatriates, Israeli diplomats, UN employees, and representatives of 140 UN delegations who begged their Israeli colleagues for invitations to the show and to the experience.
Prosor came upon the idea for the UN concert when he saw Rita perform in New York in Farsi and in Hebrew seven months ago. He lobbied Ban Ki Moon and Jeremic until he secured their agreement, but then had to ward off countless attempts by UN Secretariat workers to scuttle the concert for fear that “it would set a precedent” or that it would upset other delegations. Having removed the last remaining obstacles, Prosor fixed the date for the concert with Rita after sponsorships had been secured from the LA-based Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, and the UJA Federation of NY.
Ban Ki Moon opened the evening with the word “shalom” and described Rita as “a cultural ambassador”. Then came Jeremic, who announced that he would soon be the first sitting President of the General Assembly to visit Israel, during which he will participate in a Yad Vashem ceremony in which members of his grandmother’s family in Belgrade would be recognized as “Righteous Among the Gentiles” for saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Then, Introducing Rita, Prosor said “I always hoped that I would one day be the opening act for Rita at a major venue in New York City. Although, I'll admit, I never expected that it would be in the form of the Three Tenors: "Ban, Prosor, and Jeremic."
“It is our sincere hope that this musical evening will echo from New York to the hearts and minds of people throughout Israel and Iran,” Prosor added, and then asked Rita to “rock the house”, which she did.
The popular Israeli singer gave a ten song rendition that included five songs in Farsi, four in Hebrew and one – “Time for Peace” – in English. She delighted the audience with stories of her childhood in Tehran, about her mother’s love for music, and about her own wish to spread the love far and wide between her birthplace and her homeland. Her strong voice reverberated in the hall which had never seen such a joyous bunch of Israelis, including enthusiastic Rita fans who tried to get the UN diplomats to dance with them near the stage and down the aisles, though that proved a bridge too long for the usually stiff and formal envoys.
There was a lot of hype and gimmick in the evening, for sure, and it is bound to be used and even abused for hasbara purposes – but most of the crowd, it seemed, left the building with genuine smiles on their faces. Everyone sensed that it was a unique evening, with the UN, of all forums, providing such a warm and hospitable venue for such an iconic Israeli singer with such a positive message, no Palestinians or politics included.
Even jaded journalists like the one writing this report were moved, knowing that they had witnessed an event that had never been seen before, at least from an Israeli point of view, and is unlikely to be seen over and over again for a very long time.