Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called the decision by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem not to play the national anthem at a graduation ceremony “shameful.”
Prof. Dror Wahrman, dean of the Faculty of Humanities, decided not to play “Hatikva” at the end of the faculty’s graduation ceremony set to take place on Thursday evening, out of consideration for Arab and Muslim students.
“This is the peak of subservience, the opposite of national pride,” Netanyahu said of the decision. “We are proud of our country, our flag, our national anthem, and this only reinforces my decision to pass the nationstate bill that we are advancing in order to anchor in law the national symbols that are so dear to us.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also head of the Council for Higher Education, called Hebrew University President Menahem Ben on Thursday about the controversy. In the conversation, it was clarified that the anthem will be played at every official university ceremony.
Bennett told Ben Sasson that the question of whether to sing “Hatikva” – one of the symbols of the State of Israel – cannot take into consideration hurt feelings since singing it does not constitute any harm.
The education minister also made clear that the Hebrew University is a public institution and that as such it must respect the country that stands behind it. He added that academic freedom does not equal harming the values of the state.
Ben Sasson responded that he would ensure that the national anthem be played at official university ceremonies and that he would look into this specific incident.
Politicians from across the political spectrum expressed outrage over the decision not to play the national anthem.
“In a place where the “Hatikva” is canceled – there is no hope and no spirit,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said in a statement on his Facebook page.
Edelstein called on the university to reverse its decision, citing national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik’s remarks at the 1925 opening ceremony of the university: “We all know and feel, that at this moment Israel lit on Mount Scopus the first candle for the inauguration of its spiritual life.”
Edelstein added, “A little over 90 years later, it seems that the same university is trying to put out this candle.”
MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) said that as a graduate of the university she called on the president to ensure the anthem will be heard at the ceremony.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is also a graduate of the university, said he was “shocked” by the decision to refrain from playing “Hatikva,” and called on the university administration to change this “odd decision.”
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon tweeted that “canceling your identity in order not to hurt others’ feelings is akin to national suicide. I hope the university administration will come to its senses.”
Right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu, which was the first to publicize the omission, issued a statement praising the political echelon for mobilizing to “stop the foolishness at the university.”
“We ask that Education Minister Naftali Bennett be more involved in Israeli academia so that events like this will not continue and become more extreme,” Matan Peleg, the organization’s CEO, said. “A clear directive must be issued requiring academic institutions entitled to public funding to sing the national anthem at every graduation ceremony.”
The Hebrew University issued a statement in response to the backlash and confirmed that the anthem would not be played at Thursday’s ceremony, as it was not a state ceremony.
“The academic ceremony in the Faculty of Humanities has been held in its current form in previous years, and no new decision was made to ‘cancel’ the singing of the national anthem. Hence, there is no justification for the sharp criticism directed at the Hebrew University,” the university said.
It continued that the national anthem is played at every state ceremony held at the university – as Ben Sasson told Bennett.
The school president added that the decision on how to manage the hundreds of academic ceremonies held at the university every year rests with the heads of the academic and administrative units, which for years have held ceremonies in “a variety of ways.”
“The Hebrew University has served as a symbol and expression of excellence, and of Zionism, for more than 90 years since its establishment by the Zionist leaders of the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine,” the statement read.
“The university’s commitment to the State of Israel, as well as its tremendous contribution to the State, the Israeli economy and the city of Jerusalem, is not in any doubt.
“The Hebrew University operates according to the laws and regulations of the State of Israel and its institutions, while ensuring pluralism and respect for all who enter its gates. In the framework of all its activities, the university provides for academic freedom and freedom of expression, and these values are among the cornerstones of the Hebrew University.”
In the coming weeks, the Council for Higher Education is set to release recommendations, following a request from Bennett, with an “ethical code dealing with politicization of Israeli academia.”