Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the revered Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, issued a
noteworthy message this week: “Two weeks ago, The Forward honored me with a
request to perform their new version of our timeless and beautiful ‘Hatikva,’
the Jewish national anthem. My intention was not to make a political statement
of any kind but to speak to the hearts of people from all faiths and backgrounds
with love.” But then Carlebach had this to say: “To those who have misunderstood
my intentions, I ask you not to dishonor yourselves by comparing my performance
of ‘Hatikva’ to the acts of the worst persecutors of the Jewish
Now, I’ve no idea what sort of responses Carlebach received that
elicited her comment.
To put matters mildly, they must not have been
terribly kind. Whatever one thinks about the project, comparing her performance
to “the acts of the worst persecutors of the Jewish People” is
I’m even willing to take Carlebach at her word that she
intended no political statement by performing this “new” version of “Hatikva”
(it’s on YouTube if you’re interested).
But even if Carlebach had wholly
innocent intentions, she was certainly naïve if she imagined that singing a
revised version of “Hatikva” which effectively de-Judaized Israel’s national
anthem would evoke only expressions of love.
The specific incident that
prompted the latest renewed focus on “Hatikva” was Justice Salim Joubran, the
second Israeli Arab to serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, who, at a ceremony
marking the retirement of Israel’s Chief Justice, stood silently as the anthem
And who can blame him? Why should an Israeli Arab, no matter
how patriotic, sing “As long as Jewish spirit yearns deep in the heart”? (The
Forward’s version, for example, says “an Israeli spirit yearns deep in the
heart.”) Why should he say “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of two millennia,
to be a free people in our land...”? One can readily understand Justice
Joubran’s respectful silence.
In typical American fashion, which cannot
easily abide cognitive dissonance and which believes that every problem has a
readily apparent solution, American Jewish voices leapt to the rescue. Leonard
Fein, to cite but one example, wrote an article to which The Forward gave the
title “Judge’s Silent Protest of Israeli Racism”; to accompany the article, The
Forward selected a photograph of a young boy, probably Arab, holding a gigantic
sign that read “Jaffa says NO to racism.”
Whatever one wants to say about
the “Hatikva issue,” though, the issue isn’t racism. Justice Joubran, after all,
is on the Supreme Court. He had an absolute right not to sing, and even Moshe
Ya’alon (hardly a leftist, to put it mildly) came to his defense. Israeli
society certainly has its racists, and it is far from as tolerant as it needs to
be. But “Hatikva” is the wrong example to pick if one wants to talk about
Israeli racism; for whatever the issue is here, it is not racism.
the issue, then? And why would intelligent people such as those at The Forward
make the mistake of thinking that the issue is racism?
THE PROBLEM stems from
the often unspoken but widely held American Jewish assumption that Israel should
be a Middle Eastern version of the United States of America. If the US does not
mention Christianity in its anthem, the logic goes, then Israel should not
mention Judaism. And if Jewish members of the US Supreme Court live in a country
in which they have no problem singing their anthem, then surely Israel Arab
justices should be accorded the same respect.
But matters are not that
simple. For the United States and Israel have utterly different purposes, as
indicated even by a comparison of their Declarations of Independence.
difference between “Hatikva” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” is just one
reflection of a much deeper issue, which all the histrionics about racism miss
The American Declaration of Independence says that “We hold
these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
God is mentioned, but
Christianity is not.
There is a purpose to the United States: It is to
provide its citizens with the opportunity to realize their “unalienable rights”
to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” without regard to their
religion or ethnic background. And in that, of course, America has been an
Now let’s look at Israel’s Declaration of
Independence. In this document, by contrast, God does not appear (unless you
read “Rock of Israel” at the end to mean God, which some of its signatories
But what does get said? “The Land of Israel was the
birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political
identity was shaped.
Here they first attained statehood, created cultural
values of national and universal significance, and gave to the world the eternal
Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained
faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for
their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political
There is a purpose to the State of Israel, too, and it is
utterly different from America’s.
Israel obviously does not object to
life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but that is not its purpose. Its
reason for being is the restoration of political freedom to the Jews, and the
revitalization of the Jewish People that that freedom has wrought. In that,
Israel has also been an extraordinary success.
The challenge for us is to
honor Israel’s citizens who are not Jews and who are loyal citizens without
pretending that Israel is just a Hebrew-speaking America.
the problem by having two versions of its anthem, one in English and one in
French, with intentional differences to satisfy the populations who would recite
it. Should Israel have a version in Arabic that Israeli Arabs can sing with
Is some other solution possible? Maybe.
today’s “Hatikva” is not the song’s original wording. But changing the anthem
now to accommodate those who cannot feel the power of 2,000 years of Jewish
yearning would be utterly destructive to communicating Israel’s very
Would we also change the flag, which was consciously designed to
look like a tallit? Yes, some Jewish Israelis also want to rid Israel of its
Jewish focus. That’s their right.
And it is our right, indeed our
responsibility, to remind them that Israel is the fulfillment of a 2,000 year
old dream, and a Jewish one at that. It is more than a state with many Jews; it
is a state with a distinctly Jewish purpose. Absent a Jewish purpose, the
horrific cost of keeping this country afloat is simply not worth it. Would our
kids fight to save just another democracy? Would American Jews – liberal or
conservative – become so passionate or even enraged if Israel was not a Jewish
country? Israel’s Jewishness is the only reason that we care about
Justice Joubran raised an important issue, with dignity and in an
utterly responsible way. But recognizing his legitimate discomfort ought to spur
us to sophisticated thinking, not knee-jerk assumptions that we’re racist. Have
even leading American Jews now unthinkingly bought into the UN’s vicious
accusation that Zionism is racism? Surely, the People that gave the world the
Book of Books and one of the world’s greatest intellectual traditions can think
more nimbly than that. Can’t it?
The writer is senior vice president and Koret
Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book Saving Israel
won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. The issues explored in this column are
the subject of his next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest
Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, which will be published this August.