It has become what Igor Stravinsky might have called an Israeli Rite of Spring. Year after year, now, an Israeli university announces that it will not sing Hatikva at one or another of its graduation-related programs. (This year, Tel Aviv made the announcement; last year, it was Hebrew University, and a few years earlier, Haifa University). The stated reason, not surprisingly, is that the university’s faculty did not want to make the Arab graduates or their families uncomfortable.
This stated reason, it seems to me and many others, is a pretext, and a dangerous one at that. Israel’s Arabs know well that they live in a Jewish State. And for all the complexity that living as an Arab in an expressly Jewish state invariably entails, nothing about having the national anthem sung at a graduation ceremony of a public university would surprise them. Israel, after all, has had this conversation before. When Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch stepped down from the Supreme Court in 2012, the justices gathered, and at the conclusion of an emotional evening during which Beinisch spoke of her grandparents’ deaths during the Shoah, sang Hatikva.
One of the justices present was Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab. The cameras at the event showed him standing respectfully, but not singing. As is to be expected in Israeli society, some of the political echelon’s hot-headed rightists assailed Joubran, but most Israelis had sympathy for his predicament and admiration for the dignity with which he comported himself. After all, many Israelis wondered, why would an Israeli Arab (a Maronite Christian in Joubran’s case) sing an anthem that begins “As long as in the heart within, a Jewish soul yearns” and then continues, “Our hope is not yet lost, to be a free nation in the land of Zion…” Even other justices, including conservatives, came to Joubran’s defense. “Arab citizens should not be required to sing words that do not speak to their hearts and which do not reflect their roots,” said Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, correctly and sensitively.
Arab students graduating from state-funded universities thus have Joubran’s model to follow, and if they wanted to make a (perfectly legitimate) statement about Israel’s need to attend with greater care to its minorities, they would actually be much better served by standing silently during Hatikva than by joining in the singing of Arik Einstein’s “You and I Will Change the World” (which the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University chose to sing instead of Hatikva) during which they will not be noticed at all.
Not singing Hatikva at a national university’s commencement has its roots in a phenomenon that is older than the state itself. Judah Magnes, who was the first chancellor of Hebrew University and later served as Hebrew University’s president, was one of the leaders of the Brit Shalom movement, a movement which largely opposed the creation of a Jewish state and advocated a bi-national state, instead. But a bi-national state (as the history of the Jews in North Africa would later make clear) was a non-starter. How well would a Jewish minority have fared in such a state? Some mainstream Zionists thought the idea so preposterous that they never believed that Magnes and his colleagues really intended a bi-national state. Rather, said Berl Katznelson, among the intellectual giants of labor Zionism, the idea of a bi-national state was nothing more than a subterfuge. The Brit Shalom crowd, he believed, really sought the creation of an Arab state. Whether or not Katznelson’s assessment was correct, it does indicate how far outside the mainstream was Magnes – which makes even more telling the fact that Magnes served in Hebrew University’s leadership for so many years.
What is perhaps even more astounding than the humanities faculties’ deciding not to sing Hatikva is the relative nonchalance of Israelis who read about the decision. Perhaps Israelis consider academicians irrelevant, an intellectual echo-chamber entirely out of touch with the people. Perhaps. But the nonchalance is dangerous, for it allows the legitimization of the delegitimization of Israel’s foundational idea – the creation of a state that would be specifically dedicated to the flourishing of one people, the Jewish people.
To be sure, to look at Israel through an American, Jeffersonian lens is to see a strange country. But that’s precisely the point. Israel was never intended to be a liberal democracy in the American mold. It’s an ethnic democracy, something entirely different. The first words of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson wrote are “When in the course of human events,” while Israel’s declaration begins “In the land of Israel, the Jewish people was born.” Everything else is commentary.
So yes, it is always going to be challenging to be an Arab in a Jewish state, a fact which presents both the Arabs and the Jews with an obligation to nuanced, creative thinking. To abandon the anthem, though, is to say that we can no longer defend the idea of what this country is. To abandon Hatikva is to purposely forget the yearning for freedom that propelled Zionism, that created this state. To abandon the anthem is not to be inclusive, but to destroy the very idea for which Israel exists. Once that idea is gone, why would anyone with options stay here? When Israel’s institutions of higher education express apparent discomfort with the idea of a Jewish state, which the anthem embodies, what one has is not an echo-chamber, but a threat to the sustainability of a national ethos and the survivability of the country.
“But what can we do?” administrators at the universities ask. The faculty voted, and the senior administration says it has no control over such faculty decisions. Perhaps that’s true (though the argument reveals a conscious blindness to what political scientists call “soft power”). The answer, at least some of us felt, was to create an institution of higher learning that is intellectually open, politically diverse and unabashedly Zionist. When we launched Shalem College five years ago, we were wagering that if Israel’s brightest students gathered to read Homer and Plato, Aristotle and Maimonides, the Federalist Papers and great Zionist thinkers, we could help cultivate a generation of future Israeli leaders who would not take refuge behind tired Zionist slogans, but who could engage in an ongoing discourse about freedom and belonging, particularism tempered by universalism, national pride never at odds with moral sensitivity.
Intellectual openness need not lead to self-abasement. Caring about Arabs need not come at the expense of a commitment to reimagining and rebuilding the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland. This is why, on June 28th, when our students and their families gather for Shalem’s commencement exercises, we will sing Hatikva with pride and embrace all the complexity that it represents.