There are some Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – who argue that we need to select a new national anthem that is not abhorrent to our non-Jewish citizens. After all, our anthem sings to the yearning of the Jew for Zion and our hope of living here in Israel as a free people. So how, they ask, can we expect our Christian and Moslem citizens to stand up and sing this song? How can we call ourselves a democratic country if our national anthem speaks to the Jewish heart alone?
I will respond to these questions and offer a challenge to our Arab citizens at the end of this post, but first I would like to look for a moment at national anthems from several other countries. I contend that they can be problematic in general. It is for every individual country to define its own self-identity and to resolve the conflicts inherent in their national symbols, of which the anthem is only one of them and I am only pointing out where such challenges may lie.
National Anthems That Ignore the Presence of Indigenous Peoples
Did you know that the Australian anthem (no, it is not Waltzing Mathilda, but Advance Australia Fair) once spoke of Australian sons? In consideration of the fact that about half of all Australians are female, they just removed the exclusionary word, sons. In fact, many anthems have evolved over the centuries or decades and attuned themselves to contemporary thinking on gender relations and other issues. But, one thing that seems to be ignored in national anthems is that some nations started as colonies that marginalized their native populations. Look at these lines from the Australian anthem:
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
What do the Aborigines make of this: an imperialist nation (and originally criminals to boot) inviting other foreigners to come share in the boundless plains that were stolen from them?
The Canadian anthem begins with: “O Canada! Our home and native land!” Pardon me, but whose native land are they talking about? The native land that was usurped from the First Nations? How do First Nations peoples feel about O Canada? Has anyone asked them? Has anyone even felt the need to consider how this song might feel for them? There are many other similar examples from Central and South America that glorify having wrested the land (or “inherited” as Peru claims) from the natives.
At least we Jews can lay claim to the fact that the Land of Israel is our ancestral homeland.
Some people think it unfair to ask Arabs in Israel to accept our blatantly Jewish anthem. It is (bad) enough we are a Jewish country, they seem to imply; no need to add insult to injury by vocally and emotionally proclaiming our eons-long Jewish dream to be free in our own land. Where does that leave the Arabs? How can we resolve that tension between being a Jewish country (and trying to be proud of that) and still be democratic and not discriminate against our non-Jewish citizens?
I have a revolutionary response to that question: why not do the democratic thing and ask them? There are more and more voices being raised within the Israeli Moslem and Christian communities declaring recognition of the State of Israel as a Jewish country and even expressing pride in being citizens. The voices of such people as Anett Haskia, Mohammed Zoabi, Yahya Mahamed and others are being raised in support of the Zionist state, leading one to wonder how much the anti-Israel voice truly represents general Arab public opinion. At the same time, Arab Zionists, as they call themselves, do not whitewash the fact that there are problems with discrimination on a personal level, but isn’t that true in every country? We certainly do have a lot to work on, but does that mean we need to bow our heads and cease to proclaim loud and clear that Israel is the Jewish Homeland?
National Anthems with Religious Themes
I grew up in Canada, so a friend asked me how I would feel if the anthem of that country started off with: O Christian Canada, etc etc. I don’t need the word Christian in the anthem to know that Canada is a Christian country. And because I wanted to live in a Jewish country, I moved here. My curiousity aroused, however, I began to explore the anthems of other countries and funnily enough found many that proclaim to be protected by God, for example, the Swiss anthem, that is actually called “Swiss Psalm”, is entirely devoted to praising God:
Thou, O Lord, appeareth in their light.
When the Alps glow bright with splendour,
Pray to God, to Him surrender,
For you feel and understand,
That he dwelleth in this land.
Not all are this extreme, but does anyone wonder how atheist citizens feel singing national anthems that praise the Lord and claim Divine protection?
Some countries’ anthems have clear Christian themes. For example:
From the Dutch “Wilhelmus”:
Pray God that He may ease you.
His gospel be your cure.
Walk in the steps of Jesus
This life will not endure.
While not the official anthem of the USA, the Battle Hymn (Glory, glory, hallelujah!), is sung at Republican and Democratic Party conventions, presidential inaugurations and other official ceremonies. Here is one stanza:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
I have not heard Jews raise issue with any of these national songs. Did anyone think to ask Dutch or American Jewish citizens how they feel about them? How do Moslem citizens feel about these songs? Has anyone heard discussions focused on these? Do these clearly Christian official patriotic songs belie the democratic nature of Holland or of the USA?
Then, of course, there are Moslem countries that are not shy about proclaiming that they are Moslem (or Arab):
The final stanza of the Afghan anthem:
We will follow the one God
We all say, Allah is great,
we all say, Allah is great,
we all say, Allah is great
From the Saudia Arabian anthem
My country, may you always live,
The glory of all Muslims!
Under your flying flag rests the glory of all Arabs.
So why is it that Israel is being singled out? Why is it legitimate to question the right of Jews to sing from their hearts about our longing for Zion and our happiness at being home?
Blood, Sweat and Tears
In many countries, the national anthem is a way to recite national history. For example, the Danish anthem speaks of the Viking past of all Danes – does anyone wonder how that feels to new immigrants? Do they have to adopt a Viking identity? Others speak of overcoming enemies in war, for example:
they’re feeble reeds.
The Austrian eagle
Has already lost its plumes.
The blood of Italy
and the Polish blood
It drank, along with the Cossack,
But it burned its heart.
It was useless that your beloved Indian
Rushed into the fight with ire,
Because, covered with his blood, Lempira,
In the deep night he sank;
And others proclaim the determination to lay down one’s life to protect one’s country. For example:
Let us live crowned in glory…
or let us swear in glory to die!
For the sons of the mighty Bolívar
have sworn, thousands upon thousands of times,
to die rather than see the country’s
majestic banner humiliated.
Then, of course, there are many national anthems that speak only of national pride, such as:
High we exalt thee, realm of the free;
Great is the love we have for thee;
Firmly united ever we stand,
Singing thy praise, O native land.
We raise up our hearts and our voices on high,
The hills and the valleys re-echo our cry;
Blessing and peace be ever thine own,
Land that we love, our Sierra Leone.
The Right For Self-Definition
If every country has the right to select its own anthem and vote the anthem into law as is customary to do, then Israel has that same inalienable right. Jews have the right to sing out about our nationalistic pride without that reflecting badly on our democracy.
In the name of democracy, and consistent with tradition in some other multi-ethnic countries, I would like to offer the following challenge: Can the Arab community in Israel hold a song-writing competition in which candidates for an Israeli Arab anthem would be submitted and voted on? We have two official languages; there is no reason not to have two official anthems. The restriction, of course, would be that the Arab anthem could not be hostile to Jews and Israel. Are the Arabs of Israel ready to meet this challenge or are they still cowed by surrounding Arab countries who persist in dreaming of destroying us?