Judith Davis

What’s in a Song? Reflections on Anthems

Anyone who has seen Casablanca will remember the scene of Nazi officials swaggering into Rick’s Cafe. Everyone falls silent, the band stops and dancers are frozen on the floor. The Germans begin singing Die Wacht am Rhine (“Watch on the Rhine”). In defiance the band strikes up La Marseillaise and one by one, as each person joins the singing, the Nazis are drowned out. Even those of us who aren’t French are moved by the anthem’s exuberance. Yes, we too will “raise the bloody banner” and throw off the tyrants coming to “To slash the throats of…sons and wives!”

No less chilling is the schmaltzy Nazi favorite Deutschlandlied, with its sinister, absurdly oom pah refrain of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” Germany above all else, immediately evoking newsreels of goose- stepping Nazis.
Our own impossible to sing Star Spangled Banner is also a martial tune, written during “the perilous fight” of the War of 1812 about “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” Finlandia, by Jean Sibelius is wordless but no less pugnacious. Written when Finland was dominated by Russia, its beautiful opening phrases menace like a clenched fist shaken in the faces of the oppressors.

Leaving Europe to sample a couple of anthems from South America and Africa, different themes emerge. The Argentinian national anthem celebrates independence from Spain. Chile’s, which was so movingly sung by the rescued miners a few years back, is a paean to the country’s natural beauty. Similarly, the national anthem of Botswana, home of author Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful “lady” detective, Precious Ramotswe, speaks lovingly of the land as a gift from God to be worked together in peace by men as “women close beside them stand…”

On to the Middle East. Is it a surprise that Iran’s anthem speaks of “the true religion” and “O Martyrs! The time of your cries of pain rings in our ears?” The opening line of Syria’s anthem is quite sad in light of its bloody civil war, “Guardians of the homeland, peace be upon you…”Jordan’s anthem is very straightforward: “Long live the King, Long live the King! His position is sublime, His banners waving in glory supreme.”

What, then, of the Palestinian national anthem? In fact, the Arabs themselves were asked that very question in 1926 by the British High Commissioner of Palestine at a meeting attended by both Arabs and Jews. The Arabs present were insulted when the High Commissioner stood for the playing of Hatikvah, the anthem of the Jewish people. “By the way,” the High Commissioner asked them, “have you got a national anthem?” They had not. Without a unified identity, an anthem was moot. The Arabs’ primary allegiances were to their extensive tribes, not the national governments invented for them by Europeans at the end of the First World War.

The transformation of Arabs from many countries in the Middle East to “Palestinians” was a political stroke of genius committed by Yassir Arafat, himself an Egyptian. The word, Palestine, a derivative of Philistine, the hated enemies of the Israelites who had passed out of existence in ancient times, was inflicted upon the Holy Land when it was conquered by Rome. The name endured. It was used by the League of Nations in 1926, when awarding its “Mandate for Palestine” to the Jewish people, and by the United Nations in 1947, in its partition of the land into an Arab and a Jewish state. Arafat appropriated the term, formerly referring to Jews, when he founded the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964.

The PLO anthem speaks of longing for “land and home.” It also refers to “…my fire… the volcano of my revenge” and promises, “I will live as a fida’i, I will remain a fida’i, I will end as a fida’i… ,” a martyr.
And what is the central theme of the Israeli national anthem? Despite millennial struggles against endless aggressors, there is not a word about blood, battle or revenge. The song speaks to the poignant yearning of “nefesh Yehudi”, the Jewish soul, “to be a free people in our own land…Zion and Jerusalem.” This dream, never extinguished through 2000 years of exile, was finally realized when the new state reclaimed the name, “Israel,” in its 1948 Declaration of Independence and later adopted Hatikvah as its national anthem. Hatikvah, means “The Hope.”

About the Author
Dr. Judith Davis is a wife, mother, grandmother and a retired clinical and organizational psychologist, graduate of Hadassah Leadership Academy. Having spent a lifetime studying individuals, groups and other human systems, she is an irreverent observer of details that may be unremarkable to others.