Before you go changing Hatikvah

There is something admirable about the effort to make Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, more inclusive of Israel’s minorities. It’s a beautiful gesture on the part of some American Jews to Israel’s Arab population. “The Israel we believe in,” it says, “is your home too.”

But these good intentions reveal remarkable myopia and a worrying disconnect from the Israeli reality. And in their willingness to compromise in the name of Israelis on the narrative of renewed Jewish sovereignty at the heart of Hatikvah, this good-hearted initiative is actually deeply insulting.

First, it won’t work. It is impossible to de-Judaize the words of Hatikvah. Even the noble efforts of Philologos, the Forward’s language columnist, are little more than writing into the text as many double meanings as possible. But it’s hard to understand why the Forward believes Arabs would accept these changes any more than Jews. The updated terms include “an Israeli soul,” “our ancient hope,” and “land of our fathers.” Sure, Arabs might be able to read an Arab or Muslim historical context into such words, if they were written by Arabs for Arabs. But they were not. And this becomes obvious when one tries to imagine an actual Arab reading the text. Why would an Arab feel that an “Israeli soul” is better than a Jewish one? And what “ancient hope” might the Arab be referring to?

It’s a game that does not bring Arabs closer to the story of Israel so much as pretend there’s nothing dividing them.

There is something so wonderfully and classically American-Jewish in the suggestion. Let them read the same text as telling two different stories, suggests the Forward. It works in midrash, in Biblical exegesis, so why not in the politics of national identity?

Because the national difference is real. It is the overriding reality that gives order and meaning to much of what has happened in this land over the past century. Nothing is comprehensible, either in Palestinian or Israeli behavior, if you don’t first grasp the vast importance of national identity to each side. Any effort at advancing coexistence must be premised on the importance of national identity, not on sweeping it under the rug. No Jew would accept the change being suggested, and no Arab would feel embraced by it.

Second, there is nothing wrong or even unique in the Israeli anthem’s ethnic specificity. Most anthems, even in democracies, tell the story of the majority at the expense of the ability of minorities to identify with them.

For example, Greece’s minorities must sing of “the sacred bones” of the “Hellenes” in their anthem. Secular Turks must endure references to “my God-worshipping nation” in Turkey’s anthem, and Christian Turks hear the vow that “No heathen’s hand should ever touch the bosom of my sacred temples.”

Poland’s national anthem commemorates the stubborn clinging to Polishness on the part of Napoleon’s Polish Legion shortly after the 1795 partition that erased the country. It reads: “March, march, Dąbrowski, / From the Italian land to Poland. / Under your command / We shall rejoin the nation.” Can a non-Pole have any sort of allegiance to such an anthem?

Or a non-Dane in Denmark be forced to sing of Viking “armor-suited warriors” “in former times” whose “bones are resting / behind the mound’s menhir,” the ancient Scandinavian stones that guard the ashes of the dead?

National anthems tell stories. Not everyone agrees with those stories. But in a democracy, it is the right of the majority to have its story told too.

Finally, while the new words won’t hide the reality of national division, the attempt itself is a standing critique of a story and a reality that should be celebrated. This country is the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. True, not everyone in this land is part of that story, but that doesn’t mean we should stop telling it.

For some American Jews, the story of the revival of Jewish independence and sovereignty is less immediately important than the impulse to inclusivity, equality and fair-mindedness. In the context of their historical experience, following a century of ever-growing acceptance and legitimacy, these American Jews are right. But Israeli Jews have had a very different experience. Israelis are the descendants of refugees, the remnant of ancient communities decimated over the last century through pogrom, war, repression, poverty, expulsion and genocide. They are the last living remnant of Jewish life in much of the eastern hemisphere – and they owe that survival to the strategy, distilled in Hatikvah, of Jewish sovereignty.

So for Israelis the idea that there is something wrong about the national anthem speaking of “a Jewish soul,” “Zion and Jerusalem” or a “2000-year hope,” is a powerful insult. No single song is more true to the story of the Jews outside the English-speaking world. No song better reflects the unifying ideal that forged a shared national identity out of a messy ingathering of exiles.

Noble-hearted editors of the Forward, be careful not to place too much hope in your refurbished Hatikvah. It will be an impossibly tough sell where it matters most – among Israelis. They have a very different relationship to those words than you do.

And what of Israel’s Arabs? Must they sing about “a Jewish soul,” or failing to do so, face the excoriation of some, shall we say, rabid members of Israel’s Knesset?

I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have a suggestion: Let them be. They can choose to stand silent, making it the duty of myself and other fair-minded Israelis to shut up the provocateurs on our side. Or let them write their own words in their own language about their complicated relationship with the democratic, but also Jewish, state of Israel, and perhaps even set them to Hatikvah’s melody. (This has been suggested before.) That way, when Hatikvah is sung, they can sing their own Arabic lyrics. Few would notice, fewer still would care. But more than anything, let them handle this question themselves, because their relationship to the Jewish nation-state is too complicated and important to be handled by outsiders, even well-meaning ones.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.