Politically incorrect Hope .
(photo credit: 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
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
“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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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”.
will be happy if they accept my version,” she says. “It would be nice if it
stays in the family.”