When Naftali Herz Imber wrote his poem Tikvatenu or “Our Hope” following the establishment of the settlement of Petach Tikva in 1878, he did not address his poem to the Arabs. His audience were downtrodden and discriminated against Jews of Eastern Europe. Caught in the dreams of over a millennium, Jews in Europe were finally awakening to a new reality, one where Jews could and were returning to the Land of their origin. Caught with the Zionist bug before there was officially Zionism, (the First Zionist Congress would only come almost twenty years later), Imber immigrated to the Ottoman occupied territories in Eretz Yisrael bringing his poem with him. There it was altered and given a melody. HaTikvah was born.
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
an eye towards Zion turns,
Our Hope is not yet lost,
A Hope, two millennia-long
To be a free nation in our land
Our land of Zion and Jerusalem
The song, with its haunting melody and poignant words, struck a chord with the Jews of Europe, who quickly adopted it to their hearts. Eventually, HaTikvah became the quasi-official song of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and of the Jewish Agency. And when the country of Israel was officially proclaimed, along with adopting of the official flag and symbols of the country, the Hatikvah was sung (but, interestingly, not officially adopted as Israel’s anthem).
HaTikvah, like the name Israel, the flag which suggests a tallit (or Jewish prayer shawl) and the Menorah (candelabrum) as the symbol of the State (reminiscent of the Jewish Temples) are all significant to Jews, not non-Jews. In those days of mid-May, who could have imagined that Israel would have a large non-Jewish minority within her borders. When the state was proclaimed, there was still a possibility, in theory, that partition of the British Mandate would result in two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. With 22 states to call their own, (and one more next to ours) perhaps, we thought, the Arabs would always find a place. Israel, the Jewish State, however, was established for the Jewish people and the ingathering of the Exile: what mattered was what resonated with the Jewish masses in Europe and elsewhere yearning for a home.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, in Is Hatikva a racist song? succeeds in annoying the readers more than causing any real conversation. The question itself is anachronistic, blind to any history or the original intentions of the poem. Certainly “racist,” an overused and misused word these days, has no place and incites only the Israel-hating trolls that would deny the Jews, and only the Jews, a place where to fulfill their national and religious aspirations. Imber was not a “racist.” He was a poet with a Jewish soul addressing an age-old yearning for the end of a dreary exile so the Jewish people could return to their Land. He did not hate the Arabs as a people. He loved his own.
Compare Imber to the “Palestinian National Poet,” Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote to the Jews:
Take your Dead with You
You journey in a Land of passing words
Take your past, if you like, to a flea market
Leave your belongings in an empty pit, and leave
For we have what you have not: a homeland
You journey in a Land of passing words
Like a dust storm
Go where you should choose
But stay not with us, On no circumstances!
It is your time to leave, die where you should choose
But not here , stay not with us
Leave it all, leave our wounds, and leave our land
Leave the Earth, leave the sea, leave it all
No, Imber was not a “racist” and neither is Israel. Israel, with all its faults, is trying to give all her citizens equal rights and opportunities. Gaps exist for certain. In my job of reviewing transportation projects for the Ministry of Transportation, I see not a few projects in Arab towns that are self-evident: they are long overdue and should be automatically approved. And they are. The right-wing government led by nationalistic Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has constantly and tirelessly invested in closing those gaps. Why? Because all citizens deserve the same basic services.
Israel, with its Jewish majority, may find it difficult to be as all-encompassing and be embracing as the minority of Arabs might desire. That is a conversation that might have no conclusion, as Israel will always be the only state where the Jewish people can fulfill their aspirations while the Arabs will always have 22 others where they can go. We can start by talking about expectations, obligations and basic rights. Basic rights all should have but really belonging will come only by fulfilling all obligations. (And that is true for both the Arabs and the Haredim).
Today of all days, on Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers, where many go to ceremonies to pay our respect to those who have fallen so that the Israel, Jewish state can survive for the benefit of each Jew, Muslim Christian, and Druze who lives here, it is important to point out that in many towns and villages there is no plot for soldiers who have fallen in defending the country because in those villages no one serves in the army. That will have to change, and other things as well before true equality can exist.
I believe that one day change will come. Israel, in the 40 years that I have been here, has changed, grown and improved herself. I am biased in believing that with each year gaps will be closed and lives improved for all Israel’s citizens regardless of their religion.
Maybe when that day arrives when all do their obligations and all receive equal rights in all ways, we can renew a dialogue about Israel, her flag, her symbols and her anthem. I would hope that even then, there would be an understanding, by the Arab minority, of the Jewish nature of our country. Perhaps we could even add another stanza to HaTikva. But don’t ask Darwish.