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April/May 1999, pages 90-94

Yehudi Lord Menuhin: A Tribute

A Letter from Ali Abunimah To National Public Radio, March 12, 1999


Thank you for Dean Olsher's sensitive, informative and moving tribute to Yehudi Lord Menuhin, who died today in Berlin. While Olsher covered much about Menuhin?s life, I believe that there was an important omission.

One of the most controversial aspects of ?his life beyond music? was his firm, life-long support for Palestinian rights and outspoken criticism of Israel?s denial of them. This was a central theme and it made him a deeply controversial and sometimes reviled figure in Israel and the United States, and is said to be one of the reasons he decided to move to Britain and take citizenship there.

Menuhin?s father had emigrated to Palestine from Russia, in the early days of Zionist settlement. The experience turned him into a lifelong anti-Zionist, and he left Palestine for the United States, where Yehudi was born.

Though Yehudi often criticized Israel in the strongest terms, he did not inherit his father?s view that Israel had no right to exist. Rather, he was committed to peace based on absolute equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and travelled to Israel, even forming close friendships with such figures as former Israeli Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek who did little to advance the cause of equality in which Menuhin so fervently believed.

This specific cause was as important to him as ?human rights,? his espousal of which Olsher mentioned only in general terms. In 1991, when Menuhin received Israel?s prestigious Wolf Prize, for his contributions to music, he condemned Israel?s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza at the Knesset award ceremony, saying, ?This wasteful governing by fear, by contempt for the basic dignities of life, this steady asphyxiation of a dependent people, should be the very last means to be adopted by those who themselves know too well the awful significance, the unforgettable suffering of such an existence. It is unworthy of my great people, the Jews, who have striven to abide by a code of moral rectitude for some 5,000 years, who can create and achieve a society for themselves such as we see around us but can yet deny the sharing of its great qualities and benefits to those dwelling amongst them.? (Jerusalem Post , May 6, 1991)

The uproar this caused in Israel, including calls for the prize to be withdrawn, did not discourage him from speaking out even more strongly in terms that would certainly not be easy for any Israeli to hear. As recently as January 1998, he deplored what he saw as growing extremism in Israel. ?Those who insist on war,? he said ?should remember that those who want Jerusalem for themselves alone were always defeated, because it is a city for eternity . What?s extraordinary is that some things never die completely, even the illness which prevailed yesterday in Nazi Germany and is today progressing in that land [Israel].? (The Guardian, Jan. 23, 1998)

All in all, I would have thought that a report that mentioned Menuhin?s interest in ?yoga, mysticism, alternative medicine, and vegetarianism,? and underlined the importance of his Jewish faith, as well as his involvement in many causes, could not do him full justice without mentioning his difficult relationship to Israel. I have no doubt that tomorrow morning?s Israeli newspapers will not make the same omission.


Ali Abunimah,

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