Jerusalem Report

Politically incorrect Hope

‘Hatikva,’ the national anthem, is embraced by most and shunned by others.

Politically incorrect Hope
Photo by: Asaf Kliger
“Hatikva,” The Hope, begins with a haunting melody and, changing keys from minor to major, vaults up a full octave since hope requires a madcap leap. In the singular at first, it turns inward invoking heart and soul, the words of the Shema prayer, the central statement of the Jewish people. But Jewish prayer requires a quorum, so the anthem then shifts into the plural to express a people’s yearning to be free in their own land. Set in neither past nor future, the anthem transcends time.

“It’s like a prayer to the end of time,” says Astrith Baltsan, a pianist and musicologist who researched the intriguing story of the national anthem for eight years.

The words for Hatikva were written by Naphtali Herz Imber, a penniless poet from Poland in 1878, predating by two decades the founding of the Zionist movement. Of the original nine-verse, 132-word poem, “Tikvateinu” (Our Hope), only five lines survive in the anthem. But those lyrics melded with a moving European melody, adapted by Samuel Cohen in 1888, resounded in pivotal moments in modern Jewish history, long before Hatikva was formally chosen as the national anthem.

With the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, survivors of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp sang Hatikva in cracked, exhausted voices just five days after liberation – an event captured in a BBC recording. On May 14, 1948, it was played when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the Jewish State.

“Nobody chose it but a whole people sang it,” says Dr. Baltsan. “It is the voice of history that elected this anthem.”

But some say that history has moved on and stranded Hatikva as a 19th century anachronism, out of tune with the complex realities of the Middle East.

Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population of 7.8 million, cannot be expected to identify with the 2,000-year-old “yearning of the Jewish soul to be “a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” Some ask how it is possible to leave more than one million citizens without a national anthem. The counter argument goes that Israel is a Jewish state and, if you change the anthem, then why not remove the Jewish Star from the flag, or the menora from the national emblem.

Hatikva has always provoked controversy, whether by religious Jews who objected to the lack of reference to God, or Sephardi Jews who objected to the anthem’s Western orientation.

But the strongest objections are voiced by Israeli Arabs. This came to a head early this year when Salim Joubran, a Christian Maronite and the only Arab Supreme Court judge, stood up to respect the anthem in polite silence but did not sing the words in a state ceremony at the president’s residence in Jerusalem. Outraged right-wing politicians demanded his resignation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his political adviser to Joubran to express support. An editorial in the Haaretz daily suggested: “The time has come for Israel to consider changing the words of its anthem so that all Israelis can identify with them.”

Anthems are not sacrosanct. The Russian anthem was changed in 1956 to remove lyrics that referred to Stalin and again in 2001. The German anthem was changed several times after World War II . In post-apartheid South Africa, each of the five stanzas of the anthem is now sung in a different language, three African and two European. In Japan there is movement to change the anthem, one of the world’s oldest and a remnant of Japan's imperialist past, into something appropriate to a parliamentary democracy. In Canada, where the anthem is sung in both French and English, there was a petition to change the phrase “in all thy sons command” to gender-neutral wording.

Sporting events and national anthems go together like hotdogs and mustard. Salim Toama, a forward for the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team and a former member of the national squad, has chosen not to sing Hatikva each time that he has stood at attention with his teammates before a game.

“If the anthem talks only to the Jewish nation, then others just need to stand and respect it and that’s what I do and that’s what a lot of Arabs do,” says Toama, 32, who is a Christian Arab. “They don’t sing it because they can’t sing it. I learned that you can’t change anything, but if they want to change the anthem so that every citizen can sing it, that would be interesting.”

Lee Korzits, Israel’s World Champion windsurfer, on the other hand, says every time she hears Hatikva at a sporting event, it gives her shivers. “I work so hard, I sacrifice so much, and then when I hear the Hatikva playing it’s the greatest gift for me and for those whom I represent, to stand there and be broadcast on a huge screen. It’s enough to bring me to tears,” she says. “When I’m in a strange country and I hear Hatikva, I feel at home. If the Arabs can’t identify with the anthem, they don’t have to sing it. When I compete abroad, I represent Israel’s Arab citizens as well.”

Not so, says Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, a Member of Knesset for the United Arab List and former president of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

“How can you dare to ask a Palestinian to sing the anthem, which recognizes Israel as a Jewish state established at the expense of Palestinians, who are living as refugees all over the world?” he asks. “Not only do I not identify with the anthem, I feel revulsion towards it. The anthem doesn’t speak to me as an Arab who belongs to the Palestinian people and to the Arab Muslim nation. Every word, comma and dot speaks only to the Jewish public.

Sarsur says that if he did not think it would cause a great deal of trouble, he would not stand at all. “When it is played, I stand as a sign of respect for the others who are standing,” he says.

Interestingly enough, it was only in 2004 that the Knesset passed an amendment to the Flag and Coat of Arms Law to establish Hatikva as the official anthem, more than 126 years after the poem was first written. Even more surprising is the fact that the amendment was introduced by Ayoub Kara, a Druze Likud MK and deputy minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee.

There is a story behind Kara’s move that goes back three generations. In 1882, Kara’s grandfather sold a piece of land for a summer house in Daliyat el-Carmel, a Druze village on the slopes of Mount Carmel, to Sir Lawrence Oliphant, a British MP and member of an esoteric cult who was an ardent advocate of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Accompanying Oliphant was his attractive wife, Alice, and his personal secretary, Naphtali Imber, a frustrated poet, womanizer and occasional drunk who was passionately in love with Alice. It was in the elegant stone house with the vaulted rooms and picture windows, on the terrace overlooking the Carmel hills with a view of the Mediterranean that Imber wrote some of his poems.

“As a child I us ed to play soccer and marbles with the other boys in front of that house,” says Kara, 56. “I didn’t know the history of the house and I saw a sign that someone famous had lived there without knowing where it would lead. For me to present the law to the Knesset was the closing of a circle back to my grandfather.”

Kara is against changing the anthem. “It annoys me that there is a controversy surrounding the anthem,” he says. “This is a Jewish state.”

The house in Daliyat el-Carmel also captured the imagination of Ram Oren, a best-selling Israeli writer who has fictionalized Imber’s story in his new novel Soul Yearns. “Naphtali Herz Imber symbolizes a tragedy, a man whose dream didn’t come true,” says Oren. “He wished to become a well-known poet and started very well as a talented child but he died a penniless drunk in New York. Hatikva was his only success and it was posthumous.”

In 1903, Imber scraped together funds to travel to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, only to be stopped at the door due to his shabby appearance. Despondent, Imber stood outside in the cold until he suddenly heard the sounds of his anthem spilling out into the street. Inside, delegates had burst spontaneously into song to protest Theodore Herzl’s proposal that Uganda become the national home for the Jewish people.

Oren believes the anthem should be changed. “I think it’s anachronistic with its words and approach to music for young people. They deserve something more fascinating and up-to-date.”

Baltsan, who knows the history of Hatikva better than most and presents a popular concert lecture on the subject in Israel and abroad, thinks it should be left alone.

“I don’t see a way to change this anthem without hurting the Jewish heart, so let’s remain with this one. Nobody can expect an anthem to be politically correct,” she says.

“An anthem is born at a particular time and it can’t be good for all times. A national anthem is not a political manifesto and should not be understood as such. Imber was a poet, not a politician.”

Shamira Imber, a former Israel Radio announcer, doesn’t object to changing Hatikva’s words. Her grandfather was Imber’s first cousin and she grew up in Israel with the Imber name at a time when it carried considerable prestige.

Over the years, Shamira Imber has written several politically correct versions to the anthem. “Every time the subject comes up, I work the words in a way that would fit the melody so that Arabs could sing it as well,” she says. She has several versions scribbled on pieces of paper all over her Jerusalem home.

In one of her versions she changes “Jewish soul” to “soul of mankind” and replaces the word “Zion” with the word “shalom”.

“I will be happy if they accept my version,” she says. “It would be nice if it stays in the family.”


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