The venerable Jewish newspaper, the Forward, is pushing for a new Israeli national anthem. Since February, when Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran, an Israeli Arab, stood respectfully but silently during the playing of the national anthem, the newspaper has been stirring the issue. For Israel’s 64th birthday, the paper unveiled a new version of the old national hymn, sung by Neshama Carlebach, who then performed it at the Jerusalem Post conference in New York. I never liked editorial Judaism and I dislike editorial Zionism. Hatikvah has its own integrity and should not change. But, coming from a tradition wherein the short prayer service has grown and grown and grown, I endorse adding a new stanza.
Those of us who love singing Hatikvah – or any national hymn – should appreciate the emotions a great anthem stirs. The music, the lyrics, and the collective power of singing in unison, root us in a romantic past, bond us to our present-day polity, and inspire optimistic feelings about the future. Hatikvah is particularly poignant, given the long exile of most (not all) Jews from Israel and our miraculous return.
Being an Israeli Arab is hard enough, juggling clashing cultures and loyalties. We should not deprive Israeli Arabs of that kind of bonding, affirming experience. By adding more inclusive verses without damaging the original, we can all benefit in the kind of win-win the Middle East desperately needs.
At the risk of making more trouble, while I believe in an equal Israeli-Diaspora partnership, the question of Israel’s national anthem is an Israeli issue. Hatikvah still works beautifully as the Jewish people’s anthem, as a Zionist anthem, which should not change and which should be the New York-based Forward’s primary concern. Hatikvah evokes the hope for a return that persisted through millennia of exile.
Rendered in the plural, it reinforces the Jewish people’s unity and collective spirit, our strong sense of history, community, continuity. And it acknowledges the primacy of the dream to be a free people, in our land of Zion, whose capital, then and now, is Jerusalem.
Because Israel remains a Jewish state, a Zionist state, it should preserve the entire historic Hatikvah. The Forward’s language columnist, Philologos, suggested changes in what the Forward called the “problematic words.” “Nefesh yehudi” becomes “nefesh yisra’eli”, turning “the soul of a Jew” into “the soul of an Israeli.” And the eye no longer “looks for Zion,” “le-tsiyon,” but toward our country,” “l’artseynu.” The Jews’ 2000-year hope simply becomes “ancient,” and it apparently is more politically correct to rhapsodize about the place where “David encamped” than Zion and Jerusalem.
Philologos is no philistine, writing sensitively that Hatikvah “spontaneously became the Zionist anthem soon after an 1878 Hebrew poem by Naphtali Herz Imber was set to music in 1886, and it has the patina of historical memory and associations that only time can produce. A Jewish soul indeed stirs to it in a way that no substitute could evoke.” I agree. And while I acknowledge that national anthems are written in pen not etched in stone, I support historical and ideological continuity. Too many people, especially older Holocaust survivors, still get teary-eyed at the playing of this anthem with these words to mess with its magic.
So let us add a stanza celebrating one of the great miracles of the last six and a half decades, the establishment of Israel, in all its complexity, which includes an Arab minority constituting twenty percent of the population. This minority votes freely and has representatives in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court, and in most Israeli institutions. That stanza should have an Israeli sensibility more than a Jewish one. That stanza could toast the Israeli soul and “our country.” That stanza should echo Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, which brilliantly balances a particularly Jewish appeal with a universal civic sensibility embracing all of Israel’s inhabitants as equal citizens.
It is too complicated, writing in English, to start rewriting Hatikvah, which should be in Hebrew. But if the first historic stanza has four lines with four key ideas, so, too, should the second. The current Hatikvah emphasizes yearning, Zion, a two-thousand-year-old hope, and being a free people in the land of Zion. My second stanza would start with the idea of building a new country in the land of the Bible. It would then celebrate this altneuland – old new land – honoring Theodor Herzl’s language – as inviting many different people to become citizens and create a new culture. It would end affirming that we will fulfill our hopes, realize our dreams, by tending a free democracy, a state of Israel in the land of Israel.
Israelis and Zionists cannot boast about how welcoming Israel is to its Arab minority without stretching to accommodate Israeli Arabs. More broadly, the social contract between Israeli Arabs and their fellow Israeli citizens needs renewing. Israeli Arabs should accept national service – starting by devoting a year to working in their own communities – to demonstrate their stake in society. And the Jewish majority, while still retaining the state’s distinct Jewish character, should acknowledge Israeli Arabs as a central part of Israel’s story and national character.
The Canadian national anthem has an official English version, an official French version, and an unofficial mixture of the two. In Canada, I used to watch in fascination as different people mouthed their preferred version, while still feeling a part of a collective as they sang along to the same music. What better metaphor can there be for the delicious tension one lives as a liberal nationalist in a democracy: you put your own particular individual brand on life as a citizen, while knowing just when it is necessary and useful to belt out a common tune.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.