The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is probably the best national anthem in the world. It is a bold statement to make in Israel, as in any other proud nation: after all, everyone likes to think that theirs is the best anthem out there. Americans are staunch believers that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a perfect work of art (especially when performed by the late great Whitney Houston); Britons are positive that “God Save our Queen” is sheer brilliance; Israelis get teary eyed whenever the crescendo of “Ha’tikva” is played, as the words “To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem” ring through their ears. At least I know I do. However, having said that, La Marseillaise still is, probably, the best national anthem in the world.
Obviously, it doesn’t fit everyone. Each people has its own uniqueness, its set of values, its national creed that, when mixed together with the right tune, creates a song that genuinely fits the people and the state. But when we talk of what an anthem needs so as to be truly great, to be more than a just some patriotic lyrics packed full of kitsch and an array of adjectives, mixed with a catchy and romantic tune, we talk of La Marseillaise. For this there are, of course, many reasons. The energy of the music, the exact balance between pomp, circumstance and contemplation where the tune meets the hearts, the sheer bravado of it being sung at the foot of the Eiffel tour on “la Fête Nationale” by tens of thousands of teary-eyed French men and women of every race, religion, gender or political affiliation. But above all else, its in the ever-combative, rebellious lyrics, calling on the people to unite for a truly great cause.
It uses incredibly graphic depictions, to be sure – some quite literally hard to swallow: “can you hear the ferocious soldiers coming to slash the throats of your sons and women”; “let an impure blood drench our fields”; “before us is the bloody flag of tyranny” and so on. Yikes. Yet and still, despite originally being written as a combat anthem – and it clearly shows – it has become a symbol of resistance to oppression, despotism and dictatorship in the name of the most peaceful form of government known to date: Democracy.
So, while I do take issue with some of the lyrics (truthfully is the term “our father land” not at least somewhat obsolete? What about the mothers, guys?) – I can’t help but think of how we take for granted our freedom, our rights, our democracies – those values that the French saw fitting to forever embolden by making this song their anthem, regardless of whether or not the original intent was ever as universal. so much so, that we tend to convince ourselves that these values are immune to harm, and that there is simply no way that anyone – whether from the outside or the inside – could infringe on them, ever. It won’t happen to us, we say. It can’t. We’re way passed the point of going back to anything but a free, open society. The fact that you get to say that this may not be the case is actually the best proof that it is: what closed, un-free state would allow someone to even discuss these things in public?
While that may be true, and I surely could be wrong, I have a strong sense that is not the case. That indeed, our resilience, our faithfulness to this system that has long since become much more than just a form of government, could be tested. It is hard to deny that Israel is facing a wave of revisionist, Right-wing legislation that could indeed change it from the core. Some, of course, claim it is meant to turn it into a better, purer democracy. To enforce “the majority’s will”, if you will. Erdogan said that too, as did Orban. For anyway you look at it, laws that seek to subordinate the court to the Knesset (also subordinated to the government, de facto) thus creating a distortion of the system of checks and balances, laws that wish to enable the Prime Minister and the Minister of Security to declare war without having to consult the cabinet, not to mention the legislature; laws that strive to lower the status of the Arabic language and make Hebrew the only official one; laws that attempt to silence human rights organizations – these are not democratic laws, nor are these laws meant to enforce free speech, freedom of expression or thought. These are all laws that brush freedom aside, exchanging it for a dangerously narrow perception of “demos” and “cratos”: the people are those who support the government, and the only one calling the shots is said government. If you are not a supporter of this government, your voice doesn’t count – nor do you, as an equal, legitimate citizen and member of the Israeli consensus. And if your voice doesn’t count, what does it matter if you get to scream and shout about?
This might be a good time indeed then, to remind ourselves of what makes the French anthem so universally celebrated. It isn’t the blood, sweat and tears it promises, nor is it the Red, White and Blue colors it heralds. It’s the call for resistance to oppression, to the use of force, to tyrannical behavior purported in the name of democracy. it’s freedom and the willingness to act to achieve it rather than watch apathetically as one’s country reverts to narrow-minded, nationalistic, vain and dangerous rule that cares only for the consolidation of its own powers, freedom be damned. The hope of returning to our land, the land of Zion, has been fulfilled – and we shall forever cherish this fact and remember the thousands of years past when it wasn’t so. But as we look onwards, we must also think of the kind of nation we want Zion to play host to.