Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem
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‘Is Hatikva a racist song?’

My daughter says we need a national anthem in Hebrew and Arabic that speaks to all who love this land
Illustrative: Global Hatikvah, December 2015. (YouTube screenshot)
Illustrative: Global Hatikvah, December 2015. (YouTube screenshot)

Israel is getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, and all around blue and white flags flutter from windows and doors, or strewn across awnings or waving proudly from cars and trucks as we merrily cut each other off on the highways.

This is a week of emotional whiplash, where Israel transitions from visiting cemeteries on Memorial Day to BBQ-ing on Independence Day in the blink of an eye – from mourning to celebration — a metaphor for the Jewish people, if ever there was one.

Everyone around here takes it seriously, and my daughter is in choir and they’ve been practicing the national anthem for the ceremony at school:

As long as in the heart within,
The Jewish soul yearns,
And toward the eastern edges, onward,
An eye gazes toward Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope that is 2,000 years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The Land of Zion, Jerusalem.

But on the way home from school, while she was humming our national anthem, she stopped and asked:

“Mama, is ‘Hatikva’ a racist song?”

I stopped mid step.

“Wow, what a great question. Why are you asking?”

“Well, it’s all about the Jewish soul and Jewish yearning for Zion and Jerusalem. ‘Nefesh Yehudi…/Jewish spirit’ ‘Ayin le-Tzion…/looking toward Zion.’ But it ignores all the Arabs. Does that mean it’s racist?”

I took a deep breath.

“Baby, it’s an important question and I’m so proud of you for thinking about these things. I think Hatikva is a beautiful and important song that really expresses our longing for a homeland and our joy and relief to be back after such a long exile. But you’re right — it doesn’t speak at all to Arab longing for the same land, or the fact that they were here when many of us arrived.”

“So is it racist?”

“No, but like many Jewish Israelis living here, it ignores the fact that over 22% of the citizens of this country are not Jewish, and while some identify as Arab-Israeli, many others actually identify as Palestinian — citizens of Israel, yes — but Palestinian.”

“So does that mean I shouldn’t sing it?”

“Do you want to sing it?” I asked her.

“Do YOU sing it?” she asked me.

Ahhhh! Answering a question with another question — another part of being Jewish, just as Jewish as going from mourning to celebration, just as Jewish as how we struggle and defend and yet insistently thrive against all odds.

Yes. I sing it. Always with tears in my eyes, while I remember our struggles, our strife, all the martyrs and all the fighters… and how against all odds, we are here, alive and singing.

“Yes, I sing it…” I told her. “But I also understand that it is a privilege to live in a country where the national anthem reflects your identity — and I remember once when I was at the Belgium ambassador’s house and we sang it, I saw Palestinian citizens of Israel stand silently — respectfully, but silently. And I wondered how it must have felt for them to be there — longtime children of the Land while the rest of us — including about a dozen new immigrants — were singing about Jewish longing while ignoring theirs.”

“Okay,” my daughter said. “I’ll sing it. But I think they should have their own anthem, too, if they want, in Arabic, just like we do. And I also think we should also sit down and write one together that’s in Hebrew and in Arabic and combines all of the things we all dream about, because that would be a good start.”

Yes, that would be a good start.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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