Respecting Hatikva

July 15, 2011 07:28

In a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic, the right to respectfully refuse must be respected alongside the right of the state to try to inculcate its citizens with patriotism.

3 minute read.

Protester wrapped in Israeli flag [illustrative]

Protester wrapped in Israeli flag 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters)

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has embarked on an eminently laudable mission of teaching our youngsters simple patriotism. By next Independence Day the minister wants all kindergarten-age children in state-run schools – not including the Arab sector or haredim who are overwhelmingly enrolled in private or semi-private schools – to know Hatikva, the national anthem, by heart.

Directives from the Education Ministry have been put in place to make sure this goal is achieved.

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Starting this coming school year, kindergarten teachers will be expected to begin each week with the recitation of Hatikva accompanied by the display of the flag. At least one class a week should be devoted to familiarizing the children with the state’s national symbols. The Education Ministry will monitor the implementation of the directives, which are aimed at “fostering children’s national identity and feeling of belonging throughout the year.”

We believe, along with the education minister, that the state has the right and the obligation to use the public school system to help strengthen its citizens’ national identity. Beginning at an early age, pupils should learn about and respect national symbols such as the flag and the national anthem.

Not everyone agrees, however. Gavriel Solomon, professor emeritus at the University of Haifa and recipient of the 2001 Israel Prize for his work in education, took a particularly extreme position. In an interview on Army Radio Thursday, Solomon compared Sa’ar’s Hatikva initiative to the educational system in fascist Italy during the Second World War.

“It looks like a competition between members of the Likud to see who can push us faster into the arms of fascism,” Solomon told Haaretz.

“We are a Jewish but also a democratic state, and with this balance even the best of intentions sounds chauvinistic.”

Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University, also sharply criticized the initiative.

“They are doing an injustice to the State of Israel and to Jewish identity by starting this only in kindergarten,” Ezrahi said cynically. “They should start in the maternity wards.”

Notwithstanding Solomon’s allusions to fascism and Ezrahi’s caustic cynicism, obliging schoolchildren to recite the national anthem is an accepted practice in many Western countries.

Public schools in many US states begin their day with the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2009, Nova Scotia’s then-education minister Judy Streatch called on all school boards to make daily singing of “O Canada” mandatory. In Australia, students may be required to recite the Australian Oath of Allegiance or a similar declaration.

True, none of these states permits schools to use coercion. For instance, in 1943, the US Supreme Court ruled, in the landmark West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that it was a violation of free speech to force students – in this instance Jehovah’s Witnesses – to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. The court ruled that compelling students to salute the flag, and threatening them with expulsion if they chose not to, was an illegitimate way to foster national unity. The justices nevertheless upheld the right of the state to use the public education system to inculcate youngsters with patriotism, as long is it did not infringe on the individual’s right to refuse to participate.

The same sort of Solomonic approach should be adopted with Sa’ar’s Hatikva initiative. Our students should be expected to know their national anthem by heart and to respect their flag. At the same time it should also be understood that there will be a small minority of parents – post-Zionists, binationalists, anti-Zionist haredim, extremists on the Right disgruntled by Zionist leadership’s territorial compromises, even Jehovah’s Witnesses – who will oppose the idea that their child is obligated to perform the declarative act of reciting Hatikva during the ceremonial unfurling of the flag.

In a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic, the right to respectfully refuse must be respected alongside the right of the state to try to inculcate its citizens with patriotism.

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