Jason Shvili
An Israeli in Canada

Israel Needs a New National Anthem

I read an article today about a visit that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin made to a school in Jerusalem, where he discussed co-existence and equality.  One of the things he told the students at the school was that he respects those amongst Israel’s citizens that do not sing the verse, “Jewish soul”, in the national anthem, “Hatikva” (see: Rivlin to Students: Respect those that do not sing the words, “Jewish Soul” in the anthem).

Israel’s national symbols, including its national anthem, its flag and its coat of arms, have been a point of contention with the country’s non-Jewish citizens who feel excluded from what are essentially Jewish symbols.  President Rivlin gave an example of an Arab friend of his who told him that the national anthem should be changed.  Rivlin replied to him that the national anthem could not be changed because the hope of establishing a Jewish state was, in his words, “our goal for two thousand years.”

I am not a person who likes to change symbols simply to placate minority groups.  This has been happening too much in other countries, including Canada, where I live.  In fact, it is almost always the industrialized democracies that bend over backwards to placate members of minority populations, many of whom come from countries that do almost nothing to accommodate minorities in their own backyard.  For example, in Canada, celebrating Christmas in public schools has all but come to an end because doing so supposedly offends Canadians who are not Christians.  But would you ever see public schools in the Islamic Republic of Iran refrain from  celebrating a Muslim holiday so as not to offend non-Muslims?  I don’t think so.  Hence, I do not agree with changing Israel’s national anthem or any other national symbol to accommodate non-Jewish citizens.  I think I can speak for most Jews both inside and outside of Israel when I say that we only have one country that is truly ours and we aim to keep it that way.  Nevertheless, I think that Israel’s national anthem should be changed for other reasons.

“The Hope” Has Already Been Achieved.  Israel’s National Anthem Should Reflect This

Like Israel’s flag, the country’s national anthem, “Hatikva”, or “The Hope” as it translates into English, predates the State of Israel itself.  It was written in 1878 by a Jewish poet and adopted as the anthem of the Zionist movement in 1897 at the first Zionist Congress.  The anthem itself speaks of the hope of the Jewish people to establish a sovereign homeland in the Biblical Land of Israel, hence the name of the song.  One of the reasons that I believe in replacing Hatikva as Israel’s national anthem is because the hope that it refers to has already been achieved.  Jewish independence has been reestablished for the first time in 2000 years and we Jews are, as Hatikva states, “a free people in our land.”  In other words, the anthem is out of date, and I think that any national anthem of Israel should be one that talks about the State of Israel as it exists today and hopefully for years to come.

“…towards the east an eye looks to Zion.”  An Exclusionary Verse

Another problem that I’ve always had with Hatikva presents itself in one particular verse that I find excludes Jews of non-European descent.  This verse goes, “…towards the east an eye looks to Zion.”  As I understand this verse, it was meant to resonate with Jews of European descent, often referred to as Ashkenazim.  After all, it was an Ashkenazi Jew that wrote the song, and for him and other Jews in Europe, east was the general direction of the Land of Israel, not to mention the fact that the Zionist movement itself started off as an exclusively European Jewish movement under Theodore Herzl.  And even when non-European Jews, sometimes called Mizrahim or Sephardim, began joining the Zionist movement, it was still an overwhelmingly European Jewish movement.  Indeed, there has always been tension in Israel between Ashkenazim and Sephardim/Mizrachim, with the former group historically assuming the role of the ruling class, while the latter group has traditionally been the underclass.

This tension still plays out in Israeli politics today, and in my opinion, Hatikva, though never intended to be emblematic of Ashkenazi dominance, is in fact a hallmark of such dominance.  By having a verse in our anthem that refers exclusively to Jews in Europe looking east towards Zion, we are allowing our anthem to negate those of us Jews who are not of European descent.  My family on my father’s side, for example, is of Georgian descent.  My grandmother herself was born in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, and for those of you who know your geography, the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia can be found northeast of the Land of Israel.  Hence, my ancestors would have looked west to Zion, not east.  Moreover, my family on my grandfather’s side (my father’s father) go back several generations in the Land of Israel, even before the modern Zionist waves of immigration to what would become the State of Israel began.  But does Hatikva give any reference to Jews that were born outside of Europe or who were already in Israel before Zionism began?  Nope, not a word, and this for me is a problem.  Actually, it’s more like an injustice.  Our national anthem must be an anthem for all the children of Israel, not just the ones who happened to find their way to the country from Europe.

What Would a Better Anthem Be?

I believe that a better national anthem for the State of Israel is one that the greatest number of Israelis can identify with and say, “This is what my country is all about.”  One thing that I would hope for is that any future national anthem be a song written by an Israeli.  Perhaps there is already a popular Israeli song that we can designate as our national anthem.  I always liked “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) for example, though I don’t believe that this would be suitable because it is a song about Jerusalem, not Israel as a whole.  But perhaps there is another Israeli song that would be more appropriate.  Heck, maybe we should hold a national contest and have Israeli citizens submit their own ideas.   

About the Author
Jason Shvili was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto and now aspires to make a living as a writer after spending more than a decade running his own business. He is proficient in Hebrew and also has working to advanced knowledge of Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.
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