The origin of Hatikvah and why it’s still relevant

Sung at Bergen-Belsen by liberated survivors in 1945, on the ships leaving the tragedy of Europe, while the nation of Israel became a reality in 1948, and to this very day by Jewish children in schools around the world. How important is the Hatikvah? The answer is extremely. However, Why?

HerzimberNaphtali Imber Herz

The formation of all Jewish history in the past 2 millennia, since the destruction of the Second Temple, has amalgamated into a single simplified historical concept of ‘The Hope’. From the creation of Hovevei Zion in the 1880’s to the desperation of Jews in the post-Second World War era, to the fighting to keep Israel a free homeland, the Hatikvah in its few words and simple melody characterizes one of the absolutes that has preserved Jewish existence — hope.

The man behind the words although did not live a remarkable life, had achieved to portray in a few lines ideas that had remained unsaid by Jews for centuries — incidentally these same very words represented the major feelings that were being developed by the Zionist movement, yet I suspect it also aided in strengthening them.

Naphtali Herz Imber, born in a small corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire, gained his status as a mediocre Talmudic scholar. He spent his time visiting several communities across Eastern Europe, and even went as far as Constantinople. Along his travels he met Jews of all forms and classes, which played an enormous role in influencing his writings- namely his poetry.

Amidst his travels, in 1877, in the town of Jassy, Romania- he jotted down a few lines that had characterized his sentiment, and most likely the sentiments of many of the Jews he had met on his way. The poem, however, which he named Hatikvah remained unknown for years.

Imber managed to find work as a secretary for a Christian Zionist which prompted him to move to Eretz Yisrael in 1882, ultimately fueled by his intense desire to work for the cause which he had dedicated his life to. By 1886, through his connections to the Hovevei Zion movement, his poem was used in conjunction with a Romanian melody by a Jewish Romanian worker to form the current modern rendition of Hatikvah. By 1897, it became the official anthem of the Zionist organization.

He spent the remainder of his life in England working for the Zionist cause, and occasionally translating poetry into Hebrew. In fact, his most reputable translations are those of Omar Khayyam — the 11th century Persian poet, which he continued to work on until his death in the United States in 1909.

Although Imber’s life was not particularly outstanding, he had created such an extraordinary simplification of the need to (re-)create a homeland for the Jewish people that all of the Herzelian doctrines could be summed up with just a few lines. Interestingly, not so different from the function of a haiku — in this case a very political one. Yet, how is all of this still relevant today?

As Israeli politics creates even more divisions with each passing day, and while there seems to be more differences in the make-up of Jews- from the most secular to the ultra orthodox that makes up Israeli society. As Israel struggles to strengthen its ties with the diaspora- all the while still under constant violent threat — the nation still listens to the Hatikvah, and although only made official in 2004, people have been singing Imber’s lines for generations.

The truth is that “The Hope” was by no means more relevant in 1897, or 1948 than it is today. Although Eretz Israel has been founded, and turned from an unmanageable desolate land into a fruitful arable one by the labours of past generations, their hope should be no different from any other Jew both inside and outside the nation today. As Israel continues to be the sole real democratic and multicultural polity in the Middle East, the hope of building Eretz Yisrael is as important now as it was in 1897- in fact it is that much harder in our contemporary.

You might be wondering: So what is this hope?

Simple. The self-evident and most basic right awarded to all- to create a life and home. One of self-determination that had been the requisite of all nations in this world — except for Israel who in the past century has had an extremely difficult time doing so- precisely why it is most pertinent today. The truth remains that the construction of a home never really finishes, especially one as large and complex as Israel.

Hatikvah will always cause emotional responses and even pride, but it should first serve as reminder of how for someone like Imber with a mere hope-an idea, I dare say dream- can convey the feelings of so many people, which was undoubtedly essential to the materialization of Israel. Not so different from how today the populace’s hope is for peace and stability, which will perhaps one day manifest itself.

About the Author
I am a historian that concentrates on many different aspects of material history, but also Jewish history as a whole.
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