Keep Dreaming: Hope against hope

Demanding loyalty to the Jewish state is one thing. Insisting on identification with the Jewish collective is another matter altogether.

Youth wave Israeli flags outside the WZO 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Youth wave Israeli flags outside the WZO 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran recently refused to sing “Hatikva” at Justice Dorit Beinisch’s retirement ceremony, he unwittingly joined arms with a sundry company including a 13-year-old girl in China, high-profile British rock stars, Japanese public school teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world, a French footballer, a South African diva, and a contingent of high-school students in India.
Not because these folks have anything against Israel’s national anthem, but because, on one occasion or another, they all refused to sing their own. I came across them while researching (okay, Googling) the topic in an effort to gain some perspective on the matter before forming an opinion of my own.
Their reasons for keeping their mouths shut were different in every instance, but essentially fell into two categories: rejection of the values embodied in the lyrics, or remonstration against the chasm between those values and the manner in which their countries were actually being governed.
Justice Joubran clearly belongs to the former grouping – as did ex-minister Ghaleb Majadle when he refused to sing our national anthem exactly five years ago. “I swore allegiance to the laws of the State of Israel, and I intend to honor them,” he stated in an interview at the time, but went on to note, citing the lack of equal opportunity in this country, that “the Arabs are not in a mood to sing right now.”
Personally I think we have to be more realistic than that. With whatever opportunity Arabs might eventually attain in this Jewish state of ours, it is unlikely that they will ever be “in a mood to sing” as long as “Hatikva” articulates our hopes and not theirs.
“When the Israeli Arab is told to rise for his national anthem… and sing of ‘the Jewish soul yearning’ and ‘the hope of 2,000 years,’ can he be expected to feel empathy? When the Israeli Arab looks upon the happy revelers on Israeli Independence Day, celebrating, in effect… the displacement of an Arab majority of Palestine by a Jewish majority of Israel, can he be seriously expected to join us?” These are the words of a former Knesset member, but be careful with that knee-jerk reaction. They are neither the utterance of an avid anti-Zionist Arab, nor the declaration of a bleeding-heart liberal leftist. The MK was Meir Kahane, and while I roundly reject his repugnant conclusion that those who believe in a Jewish state have no alternative but to deport our non-Jewish citizens, I must just as assuredly confront the quandary that his rightful observations reveal.
In an attempt to do that, I found myself transported back more than 70 years to the United States, incontrovertible champion of freedom of speech – and the right to remain silent as well. In a landmark case in 1940, Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that enforced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance countered their right to freedom of religion. The court decided otherwise, with Justice Felix Frankfurter delivering the majority opinion that “inculcating patriotism was of sufficient importance to justify a relatively minor infringement on religious belief.” Presumably, then, he would have rebuked Justice Joubran for not joining the choir. The ruling, however, was short-lived. Just three years later, the court reversed its decision and declared that the state could not compel one to observe any civic rituals, justifying Justice Joubran’s judgment.
Other relevant precedents are far more recent, even if no closer to home. Just last month, Japan’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition brought by 375 educators requesting a ban on the obligatory singing of the country’s national anthem in schools. Those who refuse to accept the ruling now face disciplinary action. Should our justices as well? Our public servants are deeply divided over the matter. MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) condemned Justice Joubran’s silence and suggested he “find a state with a more appropriate anthem and move there.” MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) introduced legislation that would prevent those who have not served in the army (i.e., Arabs) from being appointed to the Supreme Court in the first place. And Moshe Feiglin, head of the Likud’s Jewish Leadership faction, said he understood the judge’s action but then called upon him, Kahane-like, to relinquish his citizenship.
On the other side of the rift, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On countered that questioning one’s loyalty under such circumstances was to “undermine democracy.” And while her response might have been expected, that of Menachem Ne’eman, past vice president of the Haifa District Court and a member of the national religious community, was less so. “One cannot expect people to act against their own beliefs and sing along to things they do not identify with,” he said, sentiments echoed by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who declared that “there is no reason to demand that an Arab citizen sing words that do not resonate for him nor reflect his roots.”
It is these latter public figures who most faithfully reflect the finest of our tradition.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the Bible instructs us in one fashion or another no fewer than 36 times. And in his celebrated commentary on these verses, Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen observes that “the alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, or religious community; but because he was a human being. In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.”
IT IS to that humanity that the Zionist enterprise has aspired from its earliest days. “My friends and I do not differentiate between people,” declares one of the leaders of Herzl’s New Society, which already in 1903 he imagined having an Arab minister. “We do not ask a person to which race or religion he belongs.
That one is a human being is all that matters to us.”
That is not to say that I would not require our Arab officials to swear allegiance to the state and uphold its laws. But I would not make one of those laws the recitation of our national anthem. Our hope is not theirs, and I expect them neither to identify with my narrative nor to pretend that their ethos is the same as my own. Nor do I think we would be any more secure as a result of forcing such words into the mouths of those who find them distasteful.
It is more likely that our strength lies in our ability to tolerate diversity. One cannot presume fidelity on the part of citizens compelled to feign conformity; it just might be thinkable to expect it of those allowed to be themselves. Indeed, the line between loyalty and identification is a fine one, but I would like to keep dreaming that we are mature enough as a people and secure enough as a nation to attempt drawing it. Accepting the “stranger” requires recognizing our differences along with our commonality.
Which might also mean amending “Hatikva.”
Our hope “to be a free people” would only be elevated by the addition of a promise “to extend freedom to all.” In the meantime, we must behave as though the phrase were already there. Don’t take my word for it. Read your Bible. Minorities may be an inconvenient encumbrance of sovereignty, but one that our scriptures long ago anticipated, setting the standard by which we need treat them today.
The writer is deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.